Right from the off, Shio lays down strong foundations for a sharp, challenging platformer. It essentially has one central gameplay mechanic: the player can jump once, and can only perform a traditional ‘double jump’ if they cross paths with a floating lantern.
From simple beginnings, Shio ramps up the complexity and challenge considerably, and although the quality of its level design peaks and plummets about as wildly as its difficulty curve, the game maintains a constant thread of percussive platforming throughout.
Shio’s Steam Store page promises a ‘deep and moving story’, but the game itself gets away with one of indie gaming’s tried and tested tropes – it says very little, and does so in the vaguest way possible. The protagonist, a slim and agile ‘masked man’, leaps from platform to platform, season to season, and is seemingly confronted by characters from his present and ghosts of his past. These characters speak in wispy, obtuse sentences, a lot of which have been badly mistranslated from the developer’s native language.
One must commend Coconut Island Studios for localising the game for several different countries, but there are some glaring issues with Shio’s dialogue boxes, which serve only to hamper an already a paper-thin narrative.
Problems only surface during sections where checkpoints are spread thinly and far apart. For the first hour or so of Shio, the player is rewarded rather generously with frequent checkpoints. This is when Shio is at its strongest, because it gives off a constant sense of progression and feedback without being too lenient. It’s like playing a platformer you’ve already beaten once already – it can be challenging, but you essentially already hold all the knowledge you need to pass most sections in three or four tries.
As the game progresses, it throws in some rather cruel curve-balls. Aside from the customary saws, air jets, fireballs and other traditional platforming nuisances, Shio also layers on unavoidable streams of heat that seem to strike at random, and thick veils of fog that obscure nearby hazards. These can offer up interesting paths to completion, or make the player think tactically about their next steps, but more often than not they ground the pace to an infuriating halt, and turn Shio into an exercise in trial and error.
But plot is not what drives Shio forth, rather it is the desire to overcome greater obstacles and more intense barriers to progression. Shio leans heavily on its Super Meat Boy influences – when the player fails, they are instantly transported back to their last checkpoint, without having to watch a slow death animation or sit through a loading screen. Again, this is a very strong setup for a platformer, since it generally minimises frustration while keeping the pace at a constant.
This tends to be an issue with a lot of the more frenetic, reflex-based platformer – it’s not that you haven’t figured out the answer, it’s just that you don’t necessarily have the mental agility to match the solution with the action on screen. But for the most part, these aggravating sequences tend to come at the very end of levels, almost in place of a traditional boss. Your average slice of gameplay tends to be a much more leisurely, almost percussive bit of platforming, at which point Shio more closely resembles the finer parts of Rayman Legends.
Your movements might not be synced up to ‘Black Betty’ a la Legends, but there’s a really satisfying bounce and flow to Shio that few platformers manage to achieve. This is made all the more pleasant thanks to some bold, contrasting 2-D art and animation. Shio’s block colours make launching from lantern to lantern easy, and although I experienced occasional hiccups with collision detection, audio-visual feedback is otherwise flawless.
Playing Shio is like watching a painting being brought to life in real time. Its Chinese influences are refreshing, both in terms of its artistic design and soundtrack, and there are some fantastic ideas on display here. The game only wobbles when it tries to marry a ‘deep and wistful’ story to its occasionally frantic platforming sections. At times, Shio wrestles you away from the lanterns and flaming saws, and forces you to walk at a snail’s pace while the game tries to labour its ever elusive point. You should want to play through Shio’s platforming sections to experience the next morsel of story, but the game’s narrative segments actually wind up being the real grind here.
But the odd spell of tedium or red mist doesn’t negate the inherent quality of Shio’s foundations. Coconut Island have been very smart in not over-complicating their game, and choosing instead to build a solid through-line mechanic. You jump, you hit a lantern, and you keep on climbing. When you do finally overcome a particularly pesky level (or a needlessly cruel bit of hazard placement), the adrenaline rush that follows is exactly the feeling high-intensity platformers like this are meant to elicit.
It struggles to reach the upper echelons of the genre, but Shio is a simple, and undeniably challenging platformer, one that beats satisfaction into you through repetition and an inherent sense of musicality you’ll struggle to find elsewhere. It’s not an ‘experiential art game’, nor is it a rhythm-action platformer, but it manages to blend elements of the two to create something genuinely striking.