Chicory: A Colorful Tale

Although it has plenty of qualities, Chicory’s highlight is certainly the nigh miraculous synergy it creates between theme and gameplay, since the discussion on mental health that carries its story and involves its two main characters is beautifully materialized in many of its mechanics

It is simply quite rare to find a game with as much synergy between theme and gameplay as Chicory: A Colorful Tale. Set in the world of Picnic, where anthropomorphic animals named after different sorts of food live in peaceful coexistence, the title steps up to weave a tale that touches upon topics such as depression, the weight of expectations, self-image, impostor syndrome, as well as the value of giving oneself time to breathe and relax; matters that, thankfully, in the contemporary world, are becoming less of a taboo, but that – in the gaming industry – have yet to find a solid space of their own. Thanks to a great deal of sensitivity and creativity, Chicory proves that not only is there plenty of room for those subjects to be addressed in virtual entertainment, but also that it is possible to build gameplay that works in perfect consonance with these apparently abstract topics.

The ball starts rolling with a dog – named either Pizza or whatever it is players choose to input as their favorite food – sweeping the floor of a grand building named The Wielder Tower. Standing roughly in the center of Picnic, the place is – as its name implies – the home of the current wielder: a brilliant artist chosen by the previous holder of the position to carry a magical brush that, essentially, allows them to color the buildings and landscapes of the world, hence bringing life and joy, with their own artistic touch, to places that would otherwise be covered in black-and-white dullness.

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In the grand scheme of things, Pizza is not a major figure in Picnic; she is simply the janitor of The Wielder Tower, and although there is a wish within her to eventually be the one to hold the brush, it is one she does not take too seriously given she does not think she has much artistic prowess. Her fate radically changes, though, when A Colorful Tale beings and the world is – after a loud bang – emptied of all its color. Pizza runs to the room where Chicory, the current wielder, is and knocks on the door to ask if anything is wrong; unable to get a response, she is shocked to see the brush lying on the floor outside the room. Desperate to do something about the ominous situation, she picks it up to see if she can be of any help.

Given Picnic has reverted to a binary color scheme and players are taking control of a character that has a large brush, it goes without saying that painting the environment is one of the main facets of Chicory. And in that sense, since it is safe to say most gamers who go into the quest will not be visual artists, it is easy to relate to the main character and her image of herself as someone who is not up to the task of carrying the brush. After all, this is a world that needs coloring and in it there will be a lot of characters who expect the wielder to be some sort of artistic genius; yet, chances are, the one holding the joystick will not be able to cut it as the anthropomorphic reincarnation of Van Gogh. In through the door, therefore, comes the usually haunting weight of expectations.

It might sound like a pretty daunting proposition, but Chicory is as much about the pressure of being looked up to as it is about finding a way to relax, and the game cleverly finds a middle ground between those extremes to call its own. Sure, not everyone will be able to make Picnic look like the latest work from one of gaming’s most talented artistic directors, but the whole coloring process comes with plenty of details that make it a delight. And the strategy works so well that in spite of how painting everything is far from being necessary, even those who are not too artistically gifted will feel compelled to get rid of all the black and white plaguing the land.

Basically, the task is simply a matter of choosing one among four predetermined colors that vary according to the region of the world the character is in and then moving the brush around the scene whilst pressing a button; here, it is important to note that although controlling the brush with the right stick works just fine, the ideal way to play Chicory on the Switch is by undocking it and using the touch screen to paint, which makes the process simpler and more precise. Regardless of the chosen setup, though, the implementation is straightforward enough for kids to have a blast in a world that is essentially a gigantic coloring book and for most unskilled adults to give it a try. Yet, the whole painting mechanics are slightly deeper than that.

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For starters, scattered around the world are dozens of collectible brush patterns that can be equipped onto the tool to make it produce either textures (like a series of dots) or shapes (like stars or hearts) in a flash; there is even a pattern that works like a traditional paint bucket, coloring a whole delimited shape in one go. Additionally, the game features advanced artistic options like allowing players to tweak the size of the brush’s tip as well as a couple of characters that allow Pizza to create her own colors and patterns. With this impressive set of alternatives, what Chicory ultimately does is lure in everyone independently of where they fall in the spectrum between unskilled and art professional, as those leaning more to the former end will be delighted by what patterns let them do with the touch of a button whereas those falling closer to the latter category will be able to turn Picnic into stunning artistic expression.

Painting is certainly a large part of the equation in Chicory. And so is adding beauty to Picnic in general, because most of the game’s meaty side-missions involve rewards that provide visual enhancements to the world: locating missing children unlocks decorative furniture sets that can be laid down anywhere; picking up trash lets Pizza exchange it for plants in a local recycling center; finding gift boxes leads not just to brush patterns, but also to new pieces of clothing for the hero; and there are even canvases displayed in specific places out in the overworld that can be painted in classes to be taken at Picnic’s art academy. Yet, if that were all Chicory had, then truth is the adventure would not amount to much of a game, qualifying only as a glorified coloring book or a different take on the Animal Crossing formula. Thankfully, though, while leaving it up to players to cover the world of Picnic in color, designer Greg Lobanov and his crew of developers were able to cover it in solid gameplay; one that makes its main source of inspiration pretty blatant while fortunately still being creative enough to completely avoid predictability.

Due to how it is a top-down adventure taking place in a large and relatively open world that is made up of different screens, most experienced players going through Chicory will probably see it as a distant cousin to the 2-D entries of The Legend of Zelda series; and indeed, the comparison makes sense not only for those reasons, but also for a few of other similarities. There is the need to talk to characters in order to figure out where to go; there is the fact Pizza will be directed towards areas of the map that are afflicted by some sort of curse only to have to solve a bunch of puzzles to get to her goal; there is how with every challenge that is cleared her brush will power-up to unlock a new ability that will let her get to a new place on the map; and there is even some non-linearity in the order in which the tasks from the last part of the quest can be handled. However, Chicory manages to throw its own spin in that framework.

A good example of that uniqueness comes in the fact the game has no enemies whatsoever roaming out in the world. It might seem like an odd move for a title of the adventure genre, but it actually works in multiple ways. Firstly, aligned with how it succeeds in urging players to color Picnic, the move adds an incredible layer of relaxation to the package; and that trait communicates not just the game’s theme of giving oneself time to breathe, but it also makes Chicory a distant and cleverly unique relative of contemporary cozy efforts like A Short Hike, Journey, and Animal Crossing. Furthermore, even if regular enemies do not show up, clearing the spreading corruption will entail frantic, somewhat dark, inventive, and visually stunning battles against abstract bosses; here, once again, Chicory shows great synergy between gameplay and theme, as those creatures – the only threat in the quest in spite of how they cannot really kill the character – highlight the title’s message of psychological hurdles, inner turmoil, and mental health.

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Even when it is not taking extreme measures such as not featuring enemies, Chicory is still able to display a good level of personality. Case in point, its puzzles, which uniformly center around using the brush, are pretty nice, working to make the areas in which Pizza must deal with the curse into engaging – and usually outdoors – mini-dungeons. There is painting and removing colors from plants to make them change states, spreading paint on the floor to use ink-eating bugs as platforms, using color to bring light to dark spaces or uncover hidden messages, paying attention to the environment in order to input the correct code into locked doors, and more. Aligned with the general light spirit of Chicory, none of it is very hard, but intricate design is certainly involved, since it is not rare for one to have to stop and analyze multiple screens or even the map itself to try to figure out how to travel between two points.

Unsurprisingly, though, given basically all elements of the game either stem from it or work in consonance with it, the heart of Chicory lies in its script, which is touching beyond words. The quality seeps into everything, from its minor characters – which are a joy to interact with – to an important supporting cast, like Pizza’s family, with her sister often being available for emotional heart-to-hearts and her parents being contacted via phone booths to give her words of support as well as tips – with selectable levels of detail – on where to go next. However, the stars of the show are by all means Pizza and Chicory.

Their friendship, which blooms beautifully but is filled with ups and downs, is the core of the experience and the heartbeat that keeps it going. It is through their flaws, insecurities, and support of one another that the game conveys its valuable message on mental health, on the fact that it is perfectly fine to be vulnerable, and on the importance of having someone say something positive when dark times arrive, as that may be the difference between living in a dull black-and-white world and being able to see the colors that are there.

For such a cute game whose coloring mechanics will naturally appeal to children, it might sound like those waters are too dark for kids to navigate; however, like an excellently written animated movie, Chicory succeeds in getting its point across in two distinct frequencies: one that will most likely only be heard by adults, who may even get teary-eyed due to the depth they will see; and another – a slightly lighter one – that can be reached by the little ones, who will stumble upon a charming tale of two friends who are there for each other.

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The conclusion is that Chicory is for everyone. Part adventure with The Legend of Zelda inspiration and part relaxed tool for beautifying a black-and-white world, it should provide eight hours of gameplay to those who only want to get to the end of its story but it can get to a far more considerable threshold if all of its sidequests are counted and, especially, if players choose to meticulously color the many screens that make up the land of Picnic. The only big problem with the game happens to be that painting with the controller is not ideal, as it is neither intuitive nor precise; however, the Switch version nicely remedies such issue with the possibility of using the console as a handheld in order to take advantage of the touch screen to move the brush and color the world, which is pretty much the perfect setup for the experience.

Chicory: A Colorful Tale has got it all. Simple yet memorable visuals that allow gamers to play the role of artistic directors and add colors as well as other visual details to the mixture; a nice soundtrack that captures the quest’s relaxed nature while rising to the occasion during its dramatic moments; creative puzzles that make great use of the brush; a co-op mode that lets an extra player join in to do some painting; and a powerful message. Its most important asset, however, is certainly the nigh miraculous synergy it creates between theme and gameplay, since the discussion on mental health that carries its story and involves its two main characters is beautifully materialized in many of its mechanics, which balance challenge and relaxation to show that with the right sort of support and kind words of encouragement troubles can be overcome.

FINAL SCORE: 8 – EXCELLENT

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