Who doesn’t enjoy a little bit of fantasy every now and then? A chance to imagine a world that is free from the pesky shackles of reality; to ponder “What if?” and relish the nonsense that is born from it. As it turns out, children tend to lean further into imagination than those fuddy-duddy grown-ups; but, that doesn’t mean that adults can’t return to the world of fantasy every now and then.
Giraffe and Annika is an odd duck. Though mostly a light RPG experience, each of the game’s five dungeons are capped of with a rhythm game: which is unexpected. And though not a bad idea per se, these segments are markedly separate from the other mechanics of the game. Still, I should probably explain the bulk of the game before I get to the events that end each dungeon. For the most part, Giraffe and Annika sees you—through the character of Annika—running around Spica Island. After a brief comic-panel introduction, Annika awakens with no memory and…you just go. Rather than any kind of tutorial, the game sets you in an area with finite interactables, trusting that you’ll find the path to proceed. Though not too tall of an order, the lack of direction starts the game on a sort of hollow note. The world is devoid of people and the tone doesn’t really play into this. For somebody with no memories who is—as far as they know—all alone, Annika is surprisingly chipper. Finding her way inside the only house in view, she simply notes how the resident—who is nowhere to be seen—must be the type to not finish what they start, as the diary sitting on a desk is left on an incomplete entry. Though I believe the game was going for an angle of child-like curiosity, it just feels…weird. This vibe continues as Annika meets Giraffe, a person who claims to know who Annika is before immediately sending her on a quest into a perilous dungeon that he himself cannot enter. Annika, of course, agrees to go.
As her journey begins, Annika is able to walk…and that’s about it. Though a dungeon never requires more than her current skill set (except for hunting the game’s collectable), movement becomes increasingly easier as the story progresses. As a reward for besting a dungeon, Annika is granted a Star Fragment: otherworldly blessings that grant unto their wielder untold powers…like jumping. Still, these mundane abilities open up new overworld areas and also make return trips to a dungeon (again, for hunting collectables) a cinch. That being said, the control of these abilities could’ve used a little more polish. For a game that requires the player to traverse platforming elements, the controls are a touch too floaty. Annika never feels as if she is truly rooted to the ground and slides upon landing; essentially making everything feel like a pseudo ice level. It’s not disastrously negative, but it will make you utter that oh-so-troublesome gamer phrase, “I totally should’ve made that.” There are even a few jumps that I would not have even attempted had the game not insisted it was possible. And, even after succeeding, I cannot tell you what I did differently from all of my failed attempts. Sometimes Annika just…makes it. This lack of adhesion also applies to moments where Annika is tasked with pushing a box—handily painted blue—in order to proceed. There is no altered state for this action, with Annika simply walking into a box to propel it. This led to more than one instance of Annika simply sliding right past the box, resulting in a lot of reorientation…and frustration.
Speaking of frustration, Giraffe and Annika has this bad habit of not explaining new mechanics. Though they are generally simple, there are a few times where a lack of direction confused me…like when there was a lack of direction. One quest sees Annika enlisted to photograph three statues of a goddess, all of which happen to be on Spica Island…somewhere. Though exploration is a tenet of RPG games, it is nice if they provide you with some inkling of where to go. Conversing with the quest giver in this example simply results in him asking if you’ve gotten the photographs yet. So, it is required to blindly wander around the island and hope that you find your way. Again, it sounds simple enough, but this game also includes a number of areas that are large enough to seem important but are actually just…nothing. Where one might expect a secret to be hidden might simply be a pointless area the developers thought you wouldn’t venture. Still, the most egregious example of confusion came during the fourth dungeon—in which you are allied with a cat. As an unbreakable barrier stands before you, the process of elimination forces you to bump into said cat and send them running, shattering the barrier in the process. Cool. Mechanic figured out. So, what’s this message about “one of the cats” falling to their demise? Oh, apparently the cats can fall off the edge of the world. Apparently, the cat clearing the path is not the only mechanic, and you sometimes have to stay ahead of the cat in order to build a safe path. That would’ve been nice to know; it would’ve save me waiting through a loading screen—that is just a little too long—multiple times. Oh, and the fifth dungeon wants to add Annika-pushing winds, rain-slick platforms, and timed footholds to the already floaty controls? Neat.
Okay, rant over. I should talk about those rhythm sections I mentioned earlier, shouldn’t I? Well, each of the game’s five dungeons culminates in a battle against a boss and a mysterious woman named Lily. Naturally, this removes every established traversal mechanic in favour of a two-choice musical battle. A circle appears on either side of Annika as bosses hurl orbs of light forth to the left and right, on beat with the music. Thus, you move left and right, hitting the action button when the orb is centred in the circle. Easy (or not, depending on the difficulty you choose). The bosses also have a habit of throwing out hazards to diminish Annika’s health—resulting in failure, obviously—but they more often than not force you to the side you need to be at for the next note (at least in the easier difficulties). Though not a particularly daunting endeavour, the music in these segments doesn’t really have the impact needed for a rhythm game; you don’t feel a strong sense of, well, rhythm. I will say that the fourth dungeon’s track stood out to me, but I wish the other songs had reached even that level. It’s just that there’s a sense of implied drama, as the game never reaches a point where you feel that tension naturally. Which is a shame.
Overall, Giraffe and Annika is a fun game. I know I wasn’t particularly kind to it, but I did enjoy my time with it. I would simply make it know that this is a lighter gaming experience, which makes its presence on the Switch a good thing. The overworld is not a daunting locale, the dungeons are simple to navigate, and you can complete the story at a pretty brisk pace—there’s even an achievement/trophy for beating it in under four and a half hours. So, if you go into it with the mentality of a casual experience, you’ll have fun. I will say that the game’s final moments tug at the heartstrings, but I feel as if the emotions come from a simple understanding of the subject matter; not a genuine connection with any of the characters. Still, I feel as if the ending will add a twinge of warmth to your recollection of Giraffe and Annika, even if the game itself didn’t necessarily earn it. Also, everything involving Mary and Thomas is adorable.