Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Pikmin 4 Review

Developer: Nintendo EPD
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Switch
Price: $59.99

The Pikmin series always felt a little un-Nintendo-like to me. I mean, you play as a little astronaut who can't jump, even though he's named after Mario, you don't have direct control of the Pikmin, and it has realistic graphics reminiscent of a science book. It's the polar opposite of Mario and everything else Nintendo makes. Pikmin 4 is still that game it was on GameCube at its core, but it's been modernized and refined into something more people can get into.

If I were to describe Pikmin to a newcomer, I'd say it's something between a real-time strategy game and playing a pet class, like a Necromancer, in Diablo. Your character can't do much, but they can command an army of Pikmin to attack enemies, collect resources, build bridges, and break walls much like units in an RTS. You start off with a few Pikmin and grow more as they take resources back to their nest, the Onion. Yes, grow. They're plant creatures.
The more Pikmin you have with you, the easier it is to kill enemies, and the more stuff they'll be able to carry back to the ship. Each different color Pikmin has different skills and resistances, so there's strategy involved in deciding which Pikmin to take with you because you can only take 3 different types out of the 8. The original 3 are Red, Blue, and Yellow. Red Pikmin are fire resistant and do more damage, Yellow Pikmin are shock resistant and can be thrown higher up in the air, and Blue Pikmin are water resistant and can swim. Flying, Purple (heavy), and White (poison) Pikmin also return. You and your Pikmin are about as small as insects, and the game takes place in parks, gardens, and forests, so a frog can be a giant monster, a sandbag can be an unclimbable mountain, and a puddle can be a lake or river. It's like “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” meets the Discovery Channel.
There's a new Pikmin, too, the Ice Pikmin. These little ice cube Pikmin are resistant to cold, so they can fight ice enemies and destroy ice walls without freezing. They can freeze enemies after getting a few hits in too, so they are great for boss battles. Ice Pikmin can also freeze water, so you can throw a bunch of them in a pool to freeze it and then walk on top of it. They’re very useful and fun to use.
But the coolest new character is definitely your dog mount, Oatchi. It sounds like Yoshi! Get it? You can, of course, ride on Oatchi and go faster, but he can do much more than that. Oatchi can attack, break obstacles, gather Pikmin, and carry things back to the ship. He also has a powerful charge attack that can stun enemies, so he's great in boss battles, too. You can upgrade Oatchi to the point where he’s as strong as 100 Pikmin, so he's kind of like a super Pikmin. Oatchi has health and can get KOed, but he is unkillable, so even if you get all your Pikmin killed, you can still use Oatchi to grow more. He's definitely a good boy.
Like in previous Pikmin games, Pikmin 4's campaign is broken up into 15 minute days. Each in-game day is a mission to recover as much treasure and save as many missing astronauts as possible before sunset. If any Pikmin is not in your party or at base when the sun goes down, they get eaten by monsters. I told you this was un-Nintendo-like. Pikmin 1 had a hard time limit of 30 days, so you had to play efficiently enough so that you could actually beat the game. Pikmin 2 got rid of that day limit, but Pikmin 3 added a system which required you to collect fruit to make juice to fuel your ship, so there was still a limit to how long you had to beat the game because there was only so much fruit in the game. Pikmin 4 gets rid of both the day limit and the fruit juice system, so you can spend as many days exploring each area as you want. You can also rewind time by a few minutes, so even if all your Pikmin die, you don't have to live with your mistakes, and you're never going to end up with an unbeatable game.
Pikmin 4 has 6 levels which are very similar to levels in past Pikmin games. They're standalone environments full of enemies, obstacles, and things to collect. You can hop around and go back to previous levels without losing any progress, so the level design takes advantage of this by adding some Zelda-like elements. For example, you might need a specific type of Pikmin or item to do something, like carry treasure across water or break a wall, so you can go back to the hub and get the item or come back later when you have the right Pikmin for the job. The game is constantly throwing new Pikmin, items, and upgrades at you, even late in the game, so there's many ways you can go about playing through everything in the campaign.
Items and upgrades can be purchased from NPCs in the hub area with the currency you get from having your Pikmin take gems back to your ship. You can buy things that make you resistant to hazards, like poison and fire, health upgrades, and gadgets, like a drone that lets you scout ahead and a signal that calls idle Pikmin to your location. You can buy single use items, like bombs and lightning attacks, too. There’s also an NPC who will teach your dog new tricks, like the ability to run around and gather stray Pikmin, faster swimming, and harder hitting attacks.
Each area also has a bunch of underground "caves" containing different types of challenges. Some have you going through and fighting a boss at the end, some are time trials that require you to kill all the enemies or collect all the treasure, and some are basically multiplayer battles against computer controlled opponents. These caves have no time limit and they freeze the day timer outside as well, so you don’t have to worry about that while you’re inside. You have to rescue the castaways from these caves to progress through the campaign, so they're a big part of the story. Unlike in the overworld areas, enemies in caves will respawn after you've completed them, so you can replay them later if you want.
Once you bring the rescued astronauts back to the hub area, you can play the Night Expeditions, which are literally a tower defense mode. You go into small rearranged sections of the levels from the campaign and defend little mud towers from the enemies, who will be much more aggressive and rush the towers. These Night Expeditions only take about 5 minutes, but they get pretty intense, especially when you have to defend 2 towers at once. You use special ghost Pikmin in them, which are exclusive to this mode, so you don’t have to worry about losing the Pikmin you need for the campaign here. I thought these were pretty good. I don't want a whole Pikmin tower defense game or anything, but they're a fun change of pace from the campaign, and I like that they don't affect my Pikmin reserves.
There is something for those who want something more like the old Pikmin games too, Olimar's Shipwreck Tale. This is a mode you unlock after beating the 4th area in the campaign. It has a 15 day time limit and has you playing through rearranged versions of some of the campaign's overworld areas with only the the original Red, Blue, and Yellow Pikmin, while looking for ship parts, like in Pikmin 1. You get a choice of items and upgrades after each day, and you find a dog in one area, so it's not exactly like an old Pikmin game, but it's close. This mode also lets you rewind and even go back and restart your adventure from any previous day, so you can't end up with an unbeatable game here either. I thought this mode was a fun challenge, and it's different enough from the campaign to be worth playing.
If I have one issue with this game, it's the controls. I thought the Wiimote and Nunchuck were pretty much the perfect controller for Pikmin 3. You could just point and throw Pikmin around. You even had a lock-on mechanic. Pikmin 4's Joycon configuration, which can use motion controls, kind of tries to replicate the Wiimote and Nunchuck controls, but they just aren't as fast and responsive. They make you hold the A or B buttons before you can move the cursor around and whistle or throw Pikmin, adding an extra step. The cursor also always feels like you're dragging it around the screen, which is a lot slower than just pointing. The cursor is also very sticky and just kind of locks onto anything it passes over, which can get very annoying when there’s lots of enemies and treasure on screen.
Pikmin 4 is the best looking game Nintendo has released on Switch. Sure, it's not a big open world game, like Zelda TotK, but technically, it just looks better than all their other games. The textures look realistic, it actually uses depth of field effects well, there's lots of plants everywhere, the water looks great, and the lighting looks fantastic as it changes throughout the day. There's a lot going on. Pikmin has always been all about that realistic National Geographic look, and this game definitely nails it. The game runs at 30 FPS, but it's pretty smooth, with very few hiccups.
There's definitely some good songs in Pikmin 4's soundtrack, but most of the time, you're just listening to very forgettable quiet and sort of ambient music. Music does play while you're out in the world, but none of it stuck with me at all. The music that plays when you finish a day or go back to the base is pretty good, though. The ambient sound effects are also very well done.

I was honestly very surprised by Pikmin 4. I've played all the others and liked them, but I wasn't expecting to love this one so much. It's by far the best Pikmin game. It just has so much content, great challenges, beautiful graphics, and great new additions, like Oatchi, the new modes, ice Pikmin, and the hub area. I didn't even talk about multiplayer. It's local only, so I didn't get to play against anyone, but you can play against the computer, at least. Regardless, Pikmin 4 is one of the best games I've played this year. I can't recommend it enough.