Indie Wonderland: Shu

You know me, readers: I often like to tell stories at the beginning of a review. I think it helps characterize and colour the review if you can see the thought and connections I had going into a game. Is it something I’ve been wanting to play? Was I looking forward, was I dreading? Did I back it, did I wishlist it, did I buy it on someone else’s say-so? Important context elements all.

But I’ve got nothing like that this time, I’m afraid. Coatsink‘s Shu was pretty much the definition of an impulse buy: I’d had a rough week, and I figured that an artsy platformer about bird people outrunning an evil storm sounded like perfect relaxation material.

Wanna see if I was right?

(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low. Mechanical, medium.)

(Game source: Patreon funds. And can I just say how grateful I am that you guys make it possible for me to do this? Just take a chance on an unknown game review? It’s really incredibly generous, and I love it.)

Opening

Shu opens up, after some splash screens and a language selector, on a fancy CG-drawn intro. It’s a little strange how the cinematic doesn’t go full-screen, but actually stretches a little further than that, spilling into my second monitor for a centimeter or two. But I choose to ignore that for the moment and enjoy the story being told: a ocean cliff-side village of bird people, an encroaching evil monster storm, an old bird’s doomed attempt to stave off devastation through song, a baton being passed to a robe-clad protagonist.

It’s real pretty stuff. Too bad I find out after the fact I couldn’t screenshot any of it.

I’ve got over thirty screenshots in this timeframe and they all look like this.

So what’s going on here? It takes me a few resets — wherein I learn that the game launches into the intro every single time — before I figure it out: this intro cinematic isn’t actually played in-game. Right at the start, the Shu core program goes entirely black, and then launches an external media player — VLC, in my case — to play the cinematic. But screen focus is still on the game proper, meaning that a) I can press Escape to skip it the second time around, and b) any targeted screen capture programs, like FRAPS, are gonna have a bad time. But, oh well. If Shu doesn’t want me sharing its strong opening grandeur, who am I to make a fuss?

Have this title screen instead. It’s way less interesting!

I reach a gorgeous main menu shortly after, that thankfully I am allowed to screenshot — or this would’ve been a painfully wordy review. The main menu has a lot of the usual suspects: an options menu, split into graphics/advanced graphics, sound, and controller options. A dedicated language select, which I always appreciate. And a leaderboard, which immediately tells me something about the kind of game I should expect.

I make a mental note to switch to my 360 controller quickly, and then actually do so.

Oddly, what Shu‘s main menu is lacking is an option called ‘Start Game’. The top option — traditionally the ‘get things going’ slot in the menu hierarchy — is labeled ‘World Map’. But that can’t be the way to get going, can it?

Can it?

Huh. I guess maybe it can.

Okay, yeah, this looks like the right way to go alright. Let’s get this first apparent level underway!

Initial impressions

First observation: this game looks very pretty.

Second observation: this game looks very simple-engine pseudo-3D… except my main character, who’s got more of a hand-drawn sprite-sheet vibe to them.

You can pick them out from the background immediately — see what I mean?

Ancient platformer instincts kick in, and I’m off almost immediately. To the right, as you always do in these games! Run, and jump, and clear obstacles, and collect…

…glowing butterflies, in this case!

I’m choosing not to question it!

The first few minutes of Shu‘s gameplay are almost textbook low-key platformer tutorial. I walk to the right because I walk to the right, and in doing so, learn that my main bird character — I’m going to call them Shu, for convenience’s sake — can’t jump very high, makes most drops down a one-way trip. I follow the glowing butterflies because that’s what you do in these games, and learn this way that while some background elements are solid, others can be jumped through from the bottom — and then stood on from the top.

Nothing groundbreaking, but I do like the use of the butterfly trail.

In moments where the passive tutorializing doesn’t work, Shu‘s active tutorials turn out… not quite as good. When I reach a low-incline line of butterflies suspended over a drop, the only hint I get is Shu thinking up a nondescript icon. Spread wings, arrow, speed lines. That doesn’t help as much as you’d think! It’s only after pressing and holding every button combination in every situation for a minute that I learn that holding the right bumper activates a slow-fall effect. And suddenly, the butterfly drop makes sense.

This icon is seriously the only help I got.

Similarly, I have to trial-and-error my way around discovering that slow-falling into a wind current lets me ride along it.

‘What’s that white speed line over there? I can’t wait for the game to never ever explicitly tell me!’

‘Quickly’, but more actually slowly, I move through a level with varying degrees of interactivity. Sometimes there are butterfly paths, and I follow them. Sometimes there are physics-lite balance puzzle, so I ‘solve’ them. Sometimes there are hidden collectibles, like six colour-coded penguin babies, so I collect them. Sometimes there are giant mollusks on the foreground, which clatter as I walk past, so I get scared by them.

And sometimes there are bell-carrying totems that ring as I walk past them. I don’t understand these at first — either, since it’s not like I understand the babies or the mollusks — but their function becomes clear when I first mis-time a jump and land face first into the water. I figured the Shu-head in the top left corner was a lives counter, and in one way I’m right: when I die, I respawn at the nearest bells totem. And one of the bells falls off. Interesting. I fail another time, and now there’s three bells remaining. Then I pass the puzzle I’m trying to clear, and hit the next bells totem, and my lives (and bells) counter is reset to five. Okay, I see how this works.

Better keep moving, No-Arms McBirdKid. There’s only so much failure allowed in these parts.

And, just like that…

…I reach the end of the level. Shu runs past a giant winged statue, and the camera pans out to start showing me my score. I’m rated on number of butterflies collected — bronze, silver, or gold categories, and also total out of a 100% — baby penguins found, and… ‘ankh’. Like so many elements in this game, I have no idea what the ankh represents, and I don’t think Shu is in a hurry to tell me what it means.

‘Haha! Screw you.’ — Shu, to me.

So far, Shu feels… functional, but a little bland. All I’ve done so far is run, jump, and glide my way through a mostly linear-feeling level. It was large, that’s for sure: my joke comment aside, I spent like fifteen minutes clearing this level. And since I didn’t get every collectible, there might be more to this than initially meets the eye. But all the same, I’m not exactly mechanically enthralled here. It feels like a straightforward collect-a-thon. Can level 2 change my mind on this?

It turns out, yes! A little. Early in the level I run into a big bird person called Joro, and their two bird children in a cart. I have Shu run into them, and from that moment onward, they all hold hands and travel as a family.

Insofar as Shu *has* hands.

Which does… what, exactly? Again, due to Shu‘s poor signage, it takes me longer than necessary to figure this out. But apparently, now that I have Joro in tow, I can do a ground-pound-style move by pressing Down+Jump while in the air. This is handy for breaking fragile wooden platforms, handily indicated immediately nearby by a trail of butterflies tracking through them.

Ain’t no *planks* gonna check my advance.

And that’s not all! Not long after, I run into bird friend, a lanky blue-dressed scarf wearer whose name I forgot to screenshot. Their power, I learn after some trial and error, involves giant blue flowers sticking out of the level in places: by pressing a button, New Friend can sing to the flowers, causing them to open — into impassable platforms — or close.

You see the potential for platforming shenanigans, yeah?

New friends in tow, I easily blow through the rest of the level. I get everything! All butterflies, all babies, some kind of collectible plaque. Even the ankh! I still don’t know how I got that thing.

Evidence suggests it might be a ‘get everything else’ meta-reward?

And I think I’m starting to see the shape of Shu, here. I’ve seen some screenshots of titular Shu running around with various bird friends in tow. So these friends give you new platforming powers, right? So I’m thinking, I’m looking at either a straight increase in power, a personal selection dealie, or some sort of level-progression-based loadout. I’ve got the ground pound and the flowers now, but who knows what-

I hit an otherwise unremarkable checkpoint in level three and suddenly the game changes. RUN, the game flashes in ominous letters.

Shit, what do I do?

And then the storm picks up.

OH GOD WHY

The next several minutes are spent running. It’s still the same Shu as before, with clear straight paths and optional side paths with bonus objectives, and varying obstacles I need varying powers to overcome. It’s just that, right at my back, a terrible monster storm is tearing up the level. Literally so: elements I pass, bell totems and rocks and flowers and entire houses, are sucked into the vortex mercilessly. Whenever I dawdle, the storm actually gets close, and literally starts snapping at my heels.

And just as suddenly, it’s over. The party reaches three giant hollow totems, the storm catches up, and… the best way I can describe it is that they sing the danger away.

Good thing, too, because this does *not* look like a good time.

Then, before I get a chance to parse what happened, a hot air balloon descends from the sky. A sad-looking owl man ushers my new friends on-board, and then takes off again, leaving me as alone and powerless as when I started the game.

Gee, thanks, buddy. I didn’t *also* want to escape the death storm in your balloon of perfect safety or anything like that.

Okay. Linear level-based power progression it is, then? Let’s see if I’m right in the later levels. And let’s see if it works out to be fun.

Onto page 2. >>

4 comments

      1. Update: yup, looks like you’re right! It took me a while to verify, since I’m not actually good enough to easily clear levels without dying — particularly not the storm ones. But it’s totally that.

        The ankh-shaped achievement for ‘clear a level without dying’ was a giveaway too, in retrospect.

        1. Such dedication to testing the theory! Reminds me of that short-lived time when I decided that achievements were key to my appreciation of a game :)

          It’s been a long time since you’ve been this little convinced by a game, doesn’t it? I have a feeling that your latest picks have been mostly better than this

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