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Cocoon

Cocoon

Geometric Interactive's debut game is quite simply the biggest triumph for a Danish developer since Inside.

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Given the success of Limbo and especially Inside, it's not surprising that the time is ripe for new projects from Playdead alumni to see the light of day. Last autumn it was Dino Patti's Somerville, and now Jeppe Carlsen's studio Geometric Interactive is ready with their debut game, Cocoon. But whereas Somerville stayed relatively close to the Playdead formula, Cocoon is much more its own distinctive creature. Whilst the legacy of Playdead is present, and the influences of Portal and classic 2D Zelda titles in particular can be felt, it would be unfair to dwell too much on the sources of inspiration. Because with its consistent visual expression, deeply evocative sound design and, not least, exuberantly original gameplay, Cocoon is a very rare experience.

As mentioned, several leading people from Geometric Interactive have a past at Playdead. Director Jeppe Carlsen, for example, was the lead gameplay designer on both Limbo and Inside, and almost from the first screen you realise that the gameplay is more central to the experience than in those two games. Actually, the premise of the game is simple, but once you dive into the possibilities it brings, it's still breathtaking. In Cocoon, you control your little insect-like explorer through an overworld and a series of dungeons very similar to classic Zelda titles like A Link to the Past. So far so good. The twist is that all dungeons exist in a perfectly formed sphere that you can carry on your back and even bring into other dungeons. And why would I do that, you might be thinking? Well, each orb has an ability that activates when you put it on your back. For example, your first orb can form bridges in certain places, another gives you the ability to change the shape of a certain material so that it is either solid or liquid, while a third gives you the ability to fire shots that can activate otherwise inaccessible switches and the like.

So it's all about choosing the right bullet/ability for the right situation, which is fairly straightforward when you only have one, but becomes downright mind-bending towards the end - especially as some of the more complicated puzzles require you to start an almost domino-like sequence through multiple worlds. It could be a shot that needs to travel from one world to another to activate the ability that changes the shape of a material, allowing you to fall through it and reach the point where you need to form a bridge with the ability from the sphere on your back.

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It may sound overwhelming, but in practice I never felt overwhelmed, which is mainly due to three things. Firstly, the introduction to the concept of worlds within worlds is done at a leisurely pace, and each time you get a new ability, Geometric Interactive makes sure to give you time to get comfortable with it. In addition, the rules of what you can and can't do in the world of Cocoon are clearly defined, and finally, the game delineates your playing space by closing doors behind you, so you're never left in doubt as to whether the key to the solution is in the remaining rooms.

This creates the perfect basis for going all out as the game progresses. Towards the end of the game, there were several times when I nearly dropped my jaw at the mind-expanding yet deeply logical puzzles. I almost always knew what to do, just not how to do it. And when the eureka moments came, they almost always turned out to be right. An absolutely essential quality for a good puzzle game.

Cocoon
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But Cocoon is more than just its puzzles. Audiovisually, it is also in a class of its own. The graphical style is sharply drawn with its distinct worlds, each built around a clearly defined colour palette. It's a long way from the orange rocky landscape that opens the game to the cold, metallic overworld, but Geometric Interactive's Erwin Kho still manages to tie it all together in a satisfying way. At the same time, the easily recognisable worlds serve the game's gameplay, as they make it much easier to navigate quickly from world to world and remember which ability belongs to which world.

The real connective tissue, however, is the soundtrack, which with its ominous and triumphant synths and alienating sound effects creates a hugely atmospheric soundscape. The music is not recorded, but is generated in real time by programmed synthesisers, which means there is no repetition. Just an endless stream of atmospheric tones, which is a huge advantage when you're trying to solve the next mind-bending puzzle. The sound effects, for their part, are created with synthesis, which means that every sound - whether it's the hum of the marshland or the rushing wind of the mountain peaks - has a sense of something alien, something not of this planet.

And the feeling of something completely alien is a quality that Cocoon possesses in abundance. The enigmatic story takes your character on a cosmic journey. What exactly happens is not easy to decipher, yet I felt drawn to unravel the mystery. The places you visit and the creatures you encounter are similarly hard to figure out. Caught as they are in the intersection between the organic and the mechanical.

Cocoon

Nowhere is this more evident than the bosses that occasionally take the game in a more action-packed direction. Clearly inspired by Zelda, the diverse and enormous insect-like creatures are an exercise in combining cleverness and precision. First, locate the Achilles heel and then it's up to fine motor skills to ensure victory. It's a classic approach to boss fights, but in Cocoon, many of the battles are actually challenging, even if you've figured out the boss's weakness. This is not least due to the fact that at the slightest touch, you are thrown out of the world by the boss itself. This may sound frustrating, but because the challenge is fair, the controls are sharp and the option to jump straight back to the boss is available, it never really is. Instead, the bosses are natural crescendos that briefly raise your heart rate and make you sweat. Several of them are exuberantly introducing new mechanics that are unique to that particular battle. This is impressive in itself, and even better, they work flawlessly and feel satisfying. In one late boss fight in particular, the introduction, battle arena and central premise come together to create one of the most memorable duels I've had the pleasure of emerging victorious from in recent years.

The bosses are also one of the reasons why the game's pacing works as well as it does. They usually come right after some of the game's more challenging puzzles and are replaced by more passive and completely linear sequences where the imagery is in focus and you have the opportunity to take a breath of fresh air before your brain needs to be activated in earnest again. This creates a good rhythm, and overall, Cocoon is just a really nice game to have in your hands. As mentioned above, the controls are razor-sharp and the technical condition is so rock-solid that it almost feels like you're holding a physical object in your hands.

Cocoon

Yes, I'm very excited about Geometric Interactive's debut game. My only complaint is that there is sometimes a bit too much travel time when - especially in the last few hours of the game - you try out solutions that fail and therefore have to travel across worlds to rearrange the different spheres. It's a problem many puzzle games suffer from to a greater or lesser degree, but here it's mitigated by the fact that the solution often triggers a eureka moment, and then of course the completely seamless transport between worlds that lets you travel back and forth with no delay other than a delightful animation accompanied by a whizzing sound.

Few games have fascinated me the way Cocoon does with its metre-thick atmosphere and reality-distorting challenges. It's an alien among its earthly peers, and even when it draws on a classic series like The Legend of Zelda, it twists the concepts we know so well, such as requiring you to diligently travel between worlds in a split-second. Some games mesmerise you with their breadth and almost hubristic level of ambition. Cocoon does this by perfectly executing its tight focus - just as its role model Portal did twice more than a decade ago.

10 Gamereactor UK
10 / 10
+
Simple but mind-bending concept realised with excellent puzzles. Superb sound design. Compelling visuals. The bosses are both well thought out and executed. Excellent pacing. Near perfect execution overall.
-
Sometimes a little too much travelling time when testing solutions.
overall score
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REVIEW. Written by Ketil Skotte

Geometric Interactive's debut game is quite simply the biggest triumph for a Danish developer since Inside.



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