If you emerge from Tchia, a new open-world adventure, with a sharp thirst for the beach, then it will have done its job.
Well, part of its job. Ideally, you should come away with an urge to head for New Caledonia – an island in the Pacific where the developer, a small independent studio called Awaceb, is based. Here you will find coasts the colour of milk, and the kind of perfect surf that foams against lolling lovers in a perfume advert. You will also find yourself able to possess the souls of animals and take them out, like rented pedalos, for a spin. Hence the message that appears before you begin, reminding us that, while the game is “deeply inspired by local landscapes,” we should bear in mind that “the world and story of Tchia are purely fictional.”
This melding of geographical veracity and outright magic doesn’t feel like the hedging of bets; rather, it comes across as a frontline report on the hard-felt spell of a place. Just as we talk of lifting one’s spirits, Tchia makes the lifting literal, installs your spirit into a passing gull, and pulls you toward a sense of salty-aired freedom. It may well be rooted in the sands of a real location, but reality is happy to crumble and slip away on waves of fantasy. This particular fantasy centres on (and perhaps blooms from) Tchia, a girl of no older than 12, who plans on rescuing her captive father from a tyrant. There is a nice hint of Pan’s Labyrinth here, in the image of a girl trammelled by a soul-wringing regime and beating a quiet retreat into the woods of her own imagination. Then again, perhaps what we’re seeing truly is happening. In any event, the most important thing to take away from Tchia is that, when all is not right with the world and the pressures of life mount, you might consider a sideways move into being a crab for a few minutes.
Rockstar is wise to these pleasures. In Grand Theft Auto V, you could munch a peyote plant, slough off your human baggage, and go pecking around as a chicken, or patrolling the waters as a killer whale. Modders imported these powers into Red Dead Redemption II, allowing you to play as any animal – including, yes, a crab! If open worlds, these days, are old news, perhaps the animal kingdom is the next step in recapturing the old rush of liberation. A vast map is no longer enough; we are still trapped by the linearity of being human, the start-to-finish story of our own dull selves.
Tchia’s quest to find her father is of the meandering variety. I have been playing a press build of the game, and have no idea how long I can go on playing, but the point is that it doesn’t seem to matter. The tension that you might expect – between a girl trying to prise free her imprisoned dad and a game that asks you to take time out for cooking and light conversation – melts away in the air. The emotional texture is unchafed, and the sense of pace remains unpunctured. It’s as if Awaceb were giving us a slice of this girl’s life, and of the other lives that purl and flurry around her, and suggesting that one slice is as good as another: that hardships pile up even in paradise, and that we all go about our daily nothing-much in the shadows of impending catastrophe. Besides, why shouldn’t we when the cooking is fun?
Tchia stoops over a broth and folds nuggets of colour into a wrap; this is done with a twiddle and tuck of the analogue sticks, and similar movements are required to play her ukulele. You have to admire a game that lets you pluck out a good mood whenever the feeling takes you. If your mind should drift back to a certain ocarina – that breezy clump of purplish clay, from all those years ago – it will be for good reason. Awaceb certainly channels the spirit of Nintendo adventures gone by; and the flat structure of Tchia, plus her ability to scale any surface, so long as the bolt of her stamina meter allows, recalls Link’s last big outing on Switch. More than that, though, Awaceb seems to have tuned its new game to the same chord as the recent cluster of titles that define themselves by their atmosphere of ease.
Frollicks like Alba: A Wildlife Adventure, A Short Hike, and, more recently, Lil Gator Game pride themselves on offering bright playgrounds, largely free of friction and menace, and underscoring the larks with rheumy-eyed sentiment – usually about getting older and losing your wildness. Tchia belongs to this group, though it is a decidedly longer hike. This is an open-world game, stuffed with diversions: there are rafts to sail, animals to hijack and joyride, missions and side missions, and even a shooting range that echoes with the thwip-and-clink of your slingshot. Traversal is vested in physics, and the release you feel, as you launch our heroine from a swaying tree and open her paraglider, is underscored by the wincing crunch of her plummeting onto a bed of boulders. Such is the arc that obsesses this bittersweet genre: time conspires to strip away our soft landings, and we all end up on the rocks, beached by life, so why not relish the earlier moments, when all was up in the air?
Tchia is coming to PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, and PC on March 21, 2023.