Pikmin 3

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Platform(s): Wii U Exclusive
Release: 27/07/2013
Nintendo is finally starting to roll out the games that any Wii U owner will tell you should have been available at launch, and things just would not be right if those titles didn’t include some of the tried and true Nintendo franchises of old. Pikmin 3 revisits, and finally gives a name to, PNF-404, home of the titular creatures that helped Olimar and Lou from the previous titles. However, this time around we have an entirely different race (though vaguely similar in appearance), called the Koppai, who have landed on the planet to abuse the Pikmin’s abilities!

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The part that made Pikmin 3 so entertaining for me was the subtext of everything you see and do, though whether it was intentional or not remains to be seen. With most media that is designed for a younger audience you might have some subtle references, or read-between-the-lines dialogue, which hints at adult themes that will entertain the parents of that demographic that’ll inevitably be forced to sit through it. Usually the hidden undertones of these games or shows is sexual or lewd in nature, and the adult humor goes right over children’s heads, but the nature of the subtext behind Pikmin 3 is less about being humorous and more about being life-negatingly bleak. So, with that in mind, let’s take a closer look at what made this game so enjoyable while still being morally bankrupt.

Narrative

The citizens of the planet Koppai have eaten themselves into starvation, with all available food sources dwindling at an alarming rate, meaning that the entire race is pretty close to looking at each-other with an unsettling hungry look. What’s most disconcerting about this is that they say during the game that their species hates vegetables, but eats meat; with this knowledge in mind, consider for a moment and realise that, after they’ve run out of food on their planet to sustain their population growth, they have eaten all other fruit and animal life into extinction because they didn’t want to eat their peas and beans. Their response to this is to launch an intergalactic scavenger hunt for food sources from other planets, because stripping their own of anything edible wasn’t enough, and one such ship carries the crew that you control before promptly crash-landing at it’s destination.

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The ship drops food supplies, the Cosmic Drive Key (an object that allows the ship to travel interstellar), and the crew mates, Alph, Brittany, and Charlie, so your all-encompassing mission becomes finding these things before bailing back to your home planet. Along the way, however, the story changes the direction and your goal once again, and it leaves the impression that the writers had a lot of ideas all interconnected with “and then this happens, because reasons!”. However, since your final score at the end is partially determined by how many days it took you to reach that point, players that are keen on the treasure hunting aspect, but don’t care about punctuality, have the ability to take as much time as they want to go back to previous areas and find every other object. This does create an interesting situation during some of the missions though, when the story tries to make things seem urgent but allows the player to stretch the events out over a number of days, like the objective feels as though it’s awkwardly intruding on your schedule and just nervously waits until you’re ready to acknowledge it.

Overall, the only true fault with the story is that it ends quite abruptly, and while there might be one or two minor loose ends that are left unresolved the level of satisfaction you derive from the completeness of the story will be determined entirely from how deep you want to look into it. While there won’t be any spoilers here, on the face of things everything appears to be wrapped up by the end. However, if you want to read a bit more into it, and follow the questions raised by the back-story to their logical conclusion points, then Pikmin 3, and by extension the rest of the franchise, is by far and away the most depressing and disquieting title that Nintendo has ever put out. If you enjoy games for their story regardless if it’s because you just like to play something that concludes convincingly, or because you like to pick things apart for hidden meaning, then this game certainly delivers.

Design

The HUD has been designed to convey a lot of information without cluttering the screen, making excellent use of the game-pad so that navigating menus, or using the maps, works in conjunction with what’s happening on screen without having to interrupt what you’re doing. Accessing the extra features feels like just another part of the game and in that sense it becomes second nature to refer to this well designed and easy to use add-on, rather than having a sudden stop in the action because a unsightly and confusing map has blocked out everything on the screen so you can fiddle with minor details. There have been few games for the Wii U that have actually managed to use the game-pad not just efficiently, but as an intrinsic and integral part of the gameplay which has had many in the gaming community questioning whether it was even necessary at all; Pikmin 3 is one of the first to step up and silence the nay-sayers with the way it handles the hardware for the new console (though that may have been achieved by swarming them with blood-thirsty plant beasts).
 

It’s difficult to pin down Pikmin 3 to a specific genre as it blends elements from platformer-puzzlers, god-sims, and RTS’, and it manages to pull them all together in a coherent, if not natural, manner. The god-sim and RTS aspects work together, casting the player as an apparently all-powerful demigod figure that has fallen from the skies and instantly enslaved the most versatile, and powerful, species on the planet. Using a directional whistle command you can organise your Pikmin and fellow crew-mates into squads to go forth and accomplish varying tasks, whether that be collecting the fruit you need to complete the mission you were sent to do, or exterminating every other living thing on the face of the planet which seems to become an unofficial objective somewhere along the way. The platform based puzzles involved in finding the fruit and collectible items often require you to use all three crew members in sequential order, and usually a specific combination of Pikmin, which can be a little challenging at times; though it’ll never stump you, it’s still nice to see a game attempt to make the player think.

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Combat in the game is relatively straight forward, acting as more of an obstacle in the way of the main goal, with the only real challenge presented being how many Pikmin you’re willing to sacrifice to figure out the weak spot of each enemy type. It is somewhat hindered by the fact that it’s bound to the same control scheme as the platforming, something which becomes quite distinct during any fight that draws your focus towards multiple targets. When your floral fighters are being flung to the ground by whatever it is you’ve tossed them at, it causes them to ostensibly lose whatever hive-mind connection they have with you, and simply stand around waiting patiently to be killed by whatever immediate hazards are in the area like the world’s laziest lemmings. This wouldn’t be such a problem if it weren’t for the difficulty in wielding the slow whistle command in situations which require quick reflexes, and regularly results in the surrounding air being flooded with crying Pikmin souls. Regardless of it’s short-comings, and perhaps even because of them, the combat can’t be faulted for being anything less than engaging.

The boss battles that are peppered throughout the game follow suit to the regular combat, since the strategies that are employed to defeat them are the same as what you would use for killing off the run-of-the-mill enemies that amble about each level, but the difficulty level for each of them can be so high compared to what you might have faced previously that it forms less of a curve and more of a sheer cliff. The diversity between each, however, is stark enough that no two battles are exactly alike and will require you to take a considered approach before trying to take them out, making each boss battle feel like a satisfying conclusion to each of the regions in a way that is absent from a lot of high-profile titles of late. Overall, Pikmin 3 takes a lot of standard game conventions and creates a non-standard method of navigating them, and while this might be the root of some frustrating moments, it’s a risk that pays off for it to make a game whose various components work together smoothly.

Gameplay

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Despite the lack of forced tutorials in the game, there are still data files all over the planet which give you all of the tutorial information anyway as well as journal entries from another marooned spacefarer. Each of these data files make up a section of the collectible objects which can be found throughout the game-world for a 100% completion rating; reaching such a goal is something usually reserved for the completionists out there, but Pikmin 3 finds a way to make it less of a chore by linking it to your ongoing quest for survival. Each time you collect a new piece of fruit, or find something which gets added to your ever-growing pile of collectibles, there’s something much more visceral to experience than simply watching numbers go up and it’s because your accomplishments actually guarantee your success. Whether it’s eating for another day, or finding a tip on how to better control or utilise your Pikmin, there isn’t anything in this game which could be thought of as “superfluous”.

The game, for the most part, has you learn how to deal with your surroundings by intuition developed by simply playing, which is great because it makes for rewarding and uninterrupted gameplay, which Pikmin 3 manages to do whenever Brittany doesn’t decide to squeal about how hungry she is. The game finds a way to keep the core mechanics of the Pikmin and the crew members the same throughout, while still finding interesting and new scenarios for the player to test those abilities; there was never a point during the game that I felt that a particular enemy was being over-used, that the combat was getting stale, or even that I was solving the same puzzle over and over again. Certain obstacles are going to be re-used of course, with the different types of walls in the game being very common, but they’re spread out enough in each region, in so many areas that only become accessible later in the game that their placement even becomes a memory-puzzle of sorts as the game progresses.
 

However, no matter how intuitive the controls are there is nothing that can prepare you for how unpredictable, and at times disastrous, the command whistle aiming can be. The command whistle location is shown on screen as a small glowing cursor which you control with the analogue sticks and is often difficult to determine exactly where it might be pointing in the distance. God help you if you aren’t 100% sure of what surface it’s on before flinging Pikmin to, or calling them over from, that location; More Pikmin died in my game from terribly aimed throws than from being killed by the predators running around each region. This can be particularly troubling when you’re using it in conjunction with the lock-on function. Highlighting an object or enemy, and holding the lock-on button, is not a guarantee that you’ve locked on to them and not just the space they inhabit, an important distinction that the game seems to have a hard time of making. The point of locking onto an object or enemy is that you can order all of your Pikmin at once to go deal with it, but if you press this button when you’re just locked onto the small air pocket inside of it instead that everything on this planet seemingly possesses, then all the Pikmin following you will just disband and wait to be killed (which is invariably the instant after this happens).

Pikmin 3 really does it’s best to make sure you don’t stay emotionally attached to the Pikmin for too long, and it achieves this by putting you in as many situations as possible that lead to unavoidable Pikmin deaths. When the day is about to finish the game will cheerfully remind you if there are any stray Pikmin around the map that aren’t near their onion and to go round them up to safety before the sun sets, or they’ll be eaten. Knowing the fate of those Pikmin left behind is one thing, but failing to rescue them means that after you watch your character, and the Pikmin following, board their respective ships and take off, you’re treated to a short scene of the abandoned Pikmin helplessly running around and screaming while they get eaten by the Bulborbs. This is assuming that you have any left to be eaten at the end of the day of course, because it’s just as easy for them to be burnt to death, drowned, eaten, electrified, or stomped into the ground, and all of it is due to your own careless actions.

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Losing Pikmin in this way and during missions becomes a common occurrence if you’re rushing to get as much as possible before the day ends, and eventually you do something kind of disturbing: you adjust. You go from spending as much time as you need, to get every Pikmin back to safety at the end of the day, to calculating acceptable casualties just so your character can stuff their face for the night. The result is the kind of cold regard that’s usually only possessed by the stoniest of violent dictators, and by the end of the game I was laughing cruelly at the funnier deaths of some of my Pikmin, bemoaning their passing only as an inconvenience because I then had to make more. When you consider the “God-sim” aspect of this game, it makes you think that if there truly were a God then every tragic mishap that kills thousands of humans is probably it’s Sunday morning guffaw.

Presentation

As with all Nintendo games, it’s hard to say whether or not the appearance and graphics are up to the particular standard by which games are judged by these days, especially coming into the next generation of consoles. The general appearance of the game is still very detailed and certainly fits it’s personality quite well, with a very “cutesy” style which speaks to the way the characters act and the atmosphere of the game, while being a good contrast to the somewhat dark nature of what you’re doing. It doesn’t fit the photo-realistic conventions of the Wii U’s competing consoles, except for the fruit specifically which has had an absurd amount of effort expended to make it appear so real that small children might have an actual reason for trying to lick the screen, and it works. By trying to create a distinct look that better matches the feeling of the game, instead of making it as realistic as possible, it helps the player to immerse themselves in the game much more than they might have otherwise. I also couldn’t, and wouldn’t want to, imagine what the Pikmin might actually look in real life.

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While the game does have a very fitting appearance for it’s atmosphere, it really just feels like a polished version of the previous games. The environments and visuals are very similar, though not exactly the same, which is to be expected, but I would’ve hoped for some real change with Pikmin 3’s setting. The Pikmin themselves seem native only to PNF-404, so changing the planet that the series is set on would be somewhat complicated. However, objects and obstacles that you encounter suggest that this planet was once inhabited, which opens up so many other unexplored possibilities. There could have been decaying urban sprawls to explore, abandoned and collapsing city-scapes to precariously navigate, or even taking a different approach to the environments that were used like having the crew move around a tree-top canopy. This is not to say that what the game presents is bad, but rather that it could have been innovative instead of just an improvement on what was already there.

Summary & Conclusion
     Stimulating puzzles
     Engaging combat
     Detailed environments
     Enjoyable storytelling
     Great character development
     Controls can be unresponsive
     Abrupt ending to the story
     Level design lacks innovation

Pikmin 3 has a lot more going for it than against, and in true, first-party Nintendo title fashion it is likely the first game that really shines as a reason to own a Wii U. It takes the concept from the previous games and refines the hell out of it, while still maintaining the spirit of the franchise and continuing the story, to produce a title which is clearly a better version of it’s predecessors, which is exactly what a sequel should be. Combining treasure hunting with whole-sale slaughter of your enemies, and turning both into a thinking experience, works well for the game, and the use of the gamepad was brilliant design that shows the true potential of what the hardware can do.

There were still some downsides to the experience, and a lot of that has to do with the unresponsive controls; using a platforming control scheme for combat situations, especially when that same control scheme already has some problems during the platforming sections, can feel clunky at the best of times and controller-smashingly frustrating at the worst. When paired with the command whistle, which also requires precise control for a function which is anything but, you start to get the impression that the play testing team may have been comprised entirely of people with fetal alcohol syndrome. Even with these few faults the game is thoroughly enjoyable, if occasionally corrosive to the soul, and so long as you don’t mind the guilt associated with planet-wide domination and genocide, it’s definitely a must-have for Wii U owners.

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Narrative 7
Design 8
Gameplay 7
Presentation 8
7.5
good