A Chill, Approachable RTS Game

A Chill, Approachable RTS Game

After a decade-long absence, Nintendo’s cult-fave real-time strategy game Pikmin is back with a fourth entry. Hitting the Nintendo Switch on July 21, reviews of Pikmin 4 have started popping up—and they’re mostly glowing, with the game currently holding a score of 87 on aggregators Metacritic and Open Critic thanks in part to the bipedaled doggo companion Oatchi. So, like the famed Captain Olimar himself, we figured we’d pluck some reviews from the critic soil to give you an idea of what to expect should you pick the game up.

One of my favorite series to talk about with colleagues is Pikmin. Each game impacts everyone in different ways, as evidenced by our multiple reviews of the originals and re-releases throughout the years. Pikmin 1 is short and sweet. Pikmin 2 is interesting and long. Pikmin 3—up until the release of Pikmin 4—was my personal favorite given that it was a nice mix of both (with the always-welcome-in-the-Carter-household Bingo Battle mode in tow). Whelp, I may have spoiled the Pikmin 4 review already!

With brilliant results, Pikmin 4 acts both as the perfect entry point into this world and as an extremely well-examined follow-up for long-time fans who’ve waited a decade for Nintendo to nail this next chapter. A good example of this is Oatchi, the game’s new canine co-protagonist, who I started off feeling distinctly ambivalent about. As anyone who’s played Pikmin 4‘s demo will know, the game starts with the gentlest of ramps up to the series’ usual requirements of dividing your time and resources among different Pikmin types and different human (now, also spacedog) leaders. Division of labour is a key component of the series that has evolved over time, and it elevated Pikmin 2 from its solo-protagonist predecessor. But things went too far in Pikmin 3, where control of three protagonists via the Wii U’s GamePad tablet took an awkward swing towards RTS territory.

The star of the show, however, is Oatchi. He doesn’t particularly look like a dog, but he acts like one, excitedly greeting you every morning for your daily adventure, defending you from danger, and helping your Pikmin carry objects they can’t quite handle alone. In a game about managing a large group of helpful creatures, Oatchi is your fantastic assistant manager that does all the heavy lifting. His greatest strength, however, is carrying you and all your Pikmin with the press of a button. As visually interesting as it has always been to corral dozens of Pikmin and throw them at your problems, it always leads to annoying issues of them falling off bridges or getting caught on corners. Gathering all your Pikmin on Oatchi’s back eliminates this issue and makes everything so much more manageable, which lets you focus on the fun.

Image: Nintendo EPD

Oatchi’s got some moves too, initially offering up a jump that allows you to traverse the maps a lot easier, and a dash that headbutts enemies and catapults all Pikmin straight at an enemy for instant damage. He can also swim, and safely carry your water-averse Pikmin types across bodies of water. All of these abilities can be upgraded too, making Oatchi more powerful and unlocking new abilities as you progress. Oatchi’s a valuable new tool, and works well with the new Ice Pikmin. They, as the name probably suggests, are capable of freezing bodies of water, but also enemies too, which gives you a fantastic window to unleash other damage while they can’t hurt you. It’s a marvel for the big chomping sorts that like to make a quick snack out of your Pikmin. It’s a good combo, particularly as the game has evolved alongside your own arsenal.

For the times that you absolutely can’t avoid losing Pikmin, there is now a new Rewind Time feature. Previous Pikmin games have offered a do-over at the end of the day, but Pikmin 4 expands the concept by regularly saving. You can’t manually save during a day, and it’s easy to see how that would be too exploitable, but the auto-saves typically happen every 2-5 minutes, so you never lose too much progress. For those who are very protective of their Pikmin, it’s a huge convenience feature to just rewind a few minutes and try an encounter again if you ran into trouble in the interim.

The story took me around 20 hours to complete, but in classic Pikmin tradition, that is less the real ending than a signal of more to come. While I can’t go into detail, I will say that the post-credits content in Pikmin 4 might just be the best the Pikmin series has ever delivered. In fact, Pikmin 4’s greatest folly is that it saves the best of its new tricks until you have completed the campaign’s first ending and seen the credits, because I would’ve liked to have dived right into all of these creative locations, met their bizarre inhabitants, and unlocked its homage to previous Pikmin games.

More problematic perhaps, and our main sticking point with the game personally, is that it never feels like it properly digs down into providing situations where all the upgrades, gadgets, gizmos, and abilities that you unlock become completely essential to your survival. Indeed, during our review playthrough we barely ever reached for our sprays or bombs and actually didn’t use quite a few of the unlockable distractions and offensive capabilities on offer. If you simply must keep every single Pikmin alive you’ll likely experiment more, and a fairly good balance has been struck between accessibility and challenge for the most part, but we can’t help but feel it could have burrowed further down into giving you situations where your entire inventory needed to be explored in order to navigate the obstacles in your path.

A created Pikmin character rides on the back of the dog companion Oatchi with several Pikmin in tow.

Image: Nintendo EPD

It’s all incredibly engaging, to the point that I’d run straight to my Switch whenever I had a spare bit of time. Since the Pikmin 4‘s exploration timeline is measured in days (which take about 15 real-world minutes), it’s perfect to play in short bursts. The game gives you all the time you need while still making you respect the urgency of your mission. I finished its story in a leisurely two dozen hours, but there’s plenty more content after credits roll.

Yet despite these frustrations, the world of Pikmin 4 is so overflowing with cuteness and style that I couldn’t be unhappy for long. Every bark from Oatchi as he ran up to see me, every time a Pikmin babbled happily as it drank nectar from an egg, never failed to make me smile. In its basic gameplay premise of collection, as well as in the little touches that make that premise even more enticing, Pikmin 4 looks at life on Earth from an optimistic perspective. What if advanced alien explorers found joy and usefulness in what we have here — not in our greatest technologies, but in the bits and bobs we forget about in the course of a regular day? I felt drawn to collect all the treasure in Pikmin 4 not just because I wanted to fill out one of my many checklists, but because I wanted to see the game’s reinterpretations of human objects, a catalog full of jokes but also deep appreciation. And in this way, Pikmin 4 accomplishes maybe the best thing a piece of media can do — it makes the real world seem more wondrous than it did before.

Pikmin 4 is a smart and content-packed refinement of one of Nintendo’s most underrated series, but long-time fans may be put off by how long its generous campaign takes to get going.

There seem to be some issues with the game, particularly around the way some mechanics don’t become necessary until either late-game or after you’ve beaten it. It’s one of those it-really-opens-up-once-the-credits-roll type of games. However, if you can overlook the lull in the first dozen or so hours, reveling in new features like the companion Oatchi and the somewhat exhilarating boss encounters, Pikmin 4 presents what many have called a relaxed, approachable entry to the long-running real-time strategy franchise.


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