I think that Chicory is the first time that a game’s narrative has touched me on an emotional level since The Last of Us Part II. I expected it from the latter – but I never would’ve imagined that the former would’ve touched me as it did. Chicory is 2021’s unexpected catharsis, one that resonates mechanically and narratively in equal parts. There are few games from this year that I’ve loved more than Chicory, and even fewer that I think are better.
a whole lot of heart
What makes Chicory so special is how downright unassuming it is. When I bought the game, I bought it on the back of its core gameplay concept: you have a magic brush that you can use to color in the black-and-white geography. I was compelled by that conceit immediately, and I was further drawn to this world by its inhabitants. As I strolled around scribbling layers of color over Chicory’s blank landscapes, I met so many peculiar, anthropomorphic animals with food-themed names. They’re all lovely. The ethos of the game is so wonderfully eclectic, and I figured that its charm would be the beginning and end of Chicory’s success. Given how warm and inviting the denizens of towns like Luncheon and Elevenses are, I would’ve been happy with just that.
But, as Chicory unfolds, that warmth becomes more raw, shifting into this sort of vulnerable encapsulation of what it feels like to live life under clouds of doubt. I’m not sure that a game has ever so tacitly looked at me and said, “I understand you,” to the degree that Chicory has. Its meditations on mental health, artistry, and relationships felt so breathlessly personal to me and so resolutely empathetic. If you can relate to the thematic threads that Chicory pulls on, then it will evoke something beautiful. I’d prefer to leave the story specifics out of this review, as the act of experiencing the narrative, for me, sat at the crux of the game’s success.
Nonetheless, Chicory’s gameplay is quite effective too, complementing the richness of the storyline. The real star here is the brush mechanic, which again is what sold me on the title in the first place. If the storyline is the place for emotional release on an intellectual level, the brush is the place for emotional release on a tactile one. Sure, you could carefully paint every level element with deliberate care. Or, as I did, you can wildly scribble colors across the landscapes, releasing just a bit of pent-up tension with each new stroke.
engaging with an unforgettable world
Both approaches work equally well as there actually isn’t too much depth to this painting mechanic. The general concept of color is put to great use as you gain new paint-related traversal options with each completed chapter. This services the game’s puzzle-heavy exploration structure well. But while the (pun incoming) broad strokes of the gameplay system offer quite a bit of nuance, the moment-to-moment act of laying down paint is largely uncomplicated and unrefined – you can pretty much splatter it however you want to and get the job done. Frankly, that’s perhaps for the better. I played the game on Switch OLED entirely in handheld mode, painting on the touch screen with my finger, which worked excellently. But, I never found the right stick brush controls to be comfortable whenever I did try them, and I’m not so sure how well this experience will translate to a non-touch input method.
Yet, since I did play on Switch undocked, I found the painting to be intuitive albeit simple. That suits the larger design philosophy nicely. The gameplay loop is an amalgamation of light elements, meant to push back just a little, but never interfere with the larger experience. Puzzles, boss encounters, and exploration are all clever, but not particularly demanding. Chicory isn’t trying to be complex. You can even use the phone booths scattered about to call home and get hints and solutions from your parents. These conversations never failed to get a smile out of me. Chicory’s gameplay operates in service of its irreverent world, working to connect the player to vignettes which motivate the emotion that lies at the core of the adventure.
To that point, if I had to criticize Chicory anywhere, it would be along the lines of some puzzle ideas that distract from the otherwise immaculate vibes. Particularly in later chapters of the game, certain new mechanics didn’t feel as natural as those that came before. Instances of flawed design like this are few and far between, but in a game that is roundly well constructed, these moments stick out. Still, when my criticism gets as granular as individual puzzle mechanics, then you know the title is pretty damn good. Frankly, I don’t have that much to say about the game other than that you need to play it. I could praise its soundtrack, or further explain why I’m enamored by its character design. But ultimately, that’s all unnecessary. Any more time that I spend talking to you about Chicory is time that you’re not using to play it for yourself.
Besides, discussing the traditional metrics for success doesn’t get to the heart of why this game is so lovely. The title is a reminder that your struggle is okay, and it invites you to let your walls down a little. Its characters aren’t going to judge. They, like the entire experience, is going to offer you a chance to reflect and to feel empowered. I found a resonance here that I’ve found in only the smallest handful of games prior. Chicory is a masterpiece.