Shiny surface with rough insides
TITLE: Giraffe and Annika
GENRE: Action, Adventure, Rhythm
DEVELOPER: atelier mimina
RELEASE DATE: 18 Feb, 2020
Mark Twain once said, “there is no such thing as a new idea.” That anything original by today’s standard is more of the right combination of pre-existing ideas. Many video games these days are not much different in that regard. We see a mixture of many genres with quite a bit of success like Borderlands, a looter shooter that has adopted some aspects of RPGs into its primarily FPS gameplay, or Dead Cells which has beautifully woven together Metroidvania and rogue-like style of games. This is the direction that I had presumed that Giraffe and Annika are going for. I was wrong, dead wrong. Either that or something went off the rail so much that it strayed from the original intent. Giraffe and Annika, despite its effort to give a cute and soothing experience, comes off as frustrating due to the unsuccessful mash-up of genres or lack-thereof further weighted down by many rough edges of unpolishedness.
Story + Gameplay
Annika, a catgirl, woke up from a dream involving a lady from her past. She is soon visited by a seemingly young looking boy named Giraffe. The boy seems to know her rather well but the same cannot be said for Annika. She seems to have lost her memory. Giraffe suddenly asked her to collect star fragments located in “dungeons” for him to which Annika agrees despite the foregoing circumstance. The story is charmingly presented in a comic book panel style but the story itself is serviceable as long as you don’t think about it too deeply.
The gameplay of Giraffe and Annika can be divided into 2 parts: The action-adventure part and the rhythm game part. The majority of the game will be the former. By default, Annika can run around and interact a bit with various characters and some objects. The extent of her default innate ability is limited to only running, swimming, and push some designated boxes. Other basic traversal abilities that would have been available from the get-go in other titles such as running or jumping have to be unlocked. Things are not that different even in “dungeons” except for having some ghost enemies loitering around with a boss waiting for her at the end. In case you are wondering why the word dungeon is in quotes, it’s because they are underwhelming. All Annika has to do is walk around a bit with some really minor platforming jumps. Not that much different from what she has already been doing outside these so-called “dungeons.” It can be confusing on where to go at times but there are often clues ranging from literal signposts to dialogues that lighten the issue to some degree.
The rhythm game section, the best and most enjoyable part of Giraffe and Annika, is exclusive to the boss fights. Unlike the action-adventure part, Annika can only move between left and right while having to press a button in-sync with the projectiles that are being thrown at her or, in some cases, dodge them. It’s basically a one-button rhythm game with some minor horizontal movement. Once the boss is defeated, Annika is back outside the dungeon with perhaps some key items that will allow her to reach some previously inaccessible areas to find new “dungeon” and repeat the gameplay loop.
The “best” part
The best part of Giraffe and Annika is the rhythm section. While I do stand by this sentiment, I have to emphasize that this is only the case in a relative sense: that the other part is just poorly designed. So much so that by simply going a tiny bit over the bare minimum line is enough to be better. I would say that this non-arguably best part of Giraffe and Annika is still only average at best if it were to be compared to other rhythm games. It has some fun music that is thematically fitting but low in number and drowned by the action-adventure part.
Animation-wise, the whole rhythm section can be somewhat lacking. Annika and her adversary are locked in a rhythm-game format battle but only the latter dances. Annika is just tapping her toe and doesn’t do anything more impressive than repetitively swinging her staff in synchronization with the incoming attacks. I say that but it is quite hard to discern if the bosses attack at all. Visually, it looks as if they are just dancing or wailing around minding their own business while these magical balls materialize from their general direction and fly toward Annika. What I am trying to say is that the bosses have almost no attack animations to accommodate these supposed “attacks.” Not to be outdone, Annika also has a ball of light attack of her own which she will perform as a finishing blow where said ball will slowly fly toward the boss and incapacitate them in a fairly anti-climactic manner. Another curious animation is how certain objects in the background during this mode will pulsate and rapidly scale up and down. I believe they are supposed to act as visualizers of a sort. It’s quite a bizarre sight.
While we are on this subject, I would like to add that having a rhythm-based boss battle makes no sense both in the context of the story and gameplay. Why are Annika and the bosses engaged in a music-based magical(?) combat only here while the rest of the game is an action-adventure game? Why is she not using this helpful magic power in any other situation? Is this whole rhythm part tacked on because the devs just feel like it? Whatever the reason, it is undeniable that there is a huge disconnection on both story and gameplay fronts between the two types of gameplay. Yes, they fight because the bosses stand in Annika’s way but why a rhythm game? Actually, allow me to roll back my claim a bit. There might be the most profound explanation that makes nothing less than perfect sense in-story. It is a shame that I will never find that out as the action-adventure part has made me abandoned the game.
I cannot think of a single good reason as to why would basic traversal abilities like jumping or dashing would be locked behind progression. Yes, I know the map is designed in such a way that areas cannot be reached by other means but come on now. This is cheap and unimaginative. Having areas locked under the premise that Annika cannot perform these simple actions without supernatural interference is laughable. My suspension of disbelief can only stretch so far. It’d be one thing if these locked “powers” have extra benefits to them as suggested by one of the cutscenes showing Annika accidentally crushing a boulder with her dash but that goes nowhere. Currently, there are even colored doors that make story progression areas inaccessible until you get keys of the same colors from NPCs. Why not replace those early jumping/dashing locked areas with these gates and make those keys obtainable from bosses? The later areas are already designed with some platforming in mind anyway so might as well get the players accustomed to it from the very beginning. These separately locked areas are redundant and locking away basic movement abilities slow down the game and make certain encounters frustrating.
Speaking of frustrating, another design decision that irritates me to no end is how HP bar doubles as a “swimming bar” while in the water. I call it a “swimming bar” and not a stamina or oxygen bar because it rapidly drains even if Annika is staying still and her head is above the water surface. The HP bar doesn’t regenerate so once it is completely out, Annika dies. She does get an upgrade later on that slows down the drain speed but it doesn’t help much unless you know exactly where to go. You see, the only way for Annika to regain HP is to either sleep or stand near a healing stone. I was in a situation where I was tasked to explore for an entrance or an object of some sort and I kept running out of HP because I had to explore the general area underwater. This resulted in having to constantly run back and forth between the area and the healing stone for perhaps twenty times if not several more which infuriates me to no end.
You may have noticed a common theme running between these frustrations that I have been venting. That’s right, it’s that these things waste your time. What better way to top the theme off by having one more major gameplay element that also disrespects your time? Enter the day and night cycle. It works exactly like how it does in games like Shenmue or Yakuza. Certain NPCs will appear or walk to certain places depending on the time of day. However, unlike Shenmue and Yakuza, the world of Giraffe and Annika is not exactly filled to the brim with things to explore. There are some collectables here and there but that is the extent of it. So you have to go do whatever to waste time so you can progress the story along. That’s right, they are mandatory. Thankfully, you can fast-forward between night and day by sleeping on a bed. Unfortunately, you are out of luck if you don’t know the exact locations of those beds. You can try to go back to the places that you can recall but chances are you would already waste one in-game day just by backtracking which defeats the point of fast-forwarding time in the first place. The joke of it all is that despite this time cycle mechanic, there are still NPCs, usually story related ones, that will stand at the exact location once you have reached certain points until the end of time. They will not move until certain conditions to progress the story is satisfied.
Some of these issues might not sound so bad on their own but trust me, they add up. So much so that I have reached the point that I am no longer willing to spare any more of my time on it. Outside these problems, there are still many, many quality of life issues, unpolishedness, and frustrating bugs that would take many more paragraphs if I were to list them all. Wonky physics such as water or fire bouncing off solid objects, model clippings, lazy animation like objects/ghosts shrinking to nothingness, and getting stuck between objects in such a way that forces you to quit the game, to name a few. Even if these are all ironed out, the other problems would still persist that nothing less than a complete mechanic overhaul could fix it.
I am unable to recommend Giraffe and Annika upfront. On the surface, the Ghibli cartoonish visual style with its whimsical world and characters might draw you in but what awaits you is mostly frustration. The rhythm game part, while decent, is available so far and few in between that it cannot hope to offset all the annoyances generated from the subpar action-adventure section riddled with several questionable design decisions. It also certainly doesn’t do the game any favor that there is a huge disconnection in terms of lore and gameplay between the differing gameplays, giving an impression that either part is tacked on without much thought. There are some enjoyment to be had in Giraffe and Annika if you have a soft spot for its visual style and can persevere through frustrations for the rhythm sections but I would encourage the vast majority to look elsewhere or wait for a sale.