Few things in video games excite me more than a brand new concept that catches my attention. The gaming medium can sometimes feel like playing the same thing over and over again, so to have something jump out and surprise me is a welcome change. Carto, a charming puzzler following a young girl’s journey to return to her grandmother, absolutely scratches that itch in a delightful and sometimes super challenging way. .
Carto follows...well, Carto, a small girl from a tribe of cartographers that live in airships above the clouds. A freak storm sends her tumbling from her grandmother’s ship to the world below, and she must use her map-manipulating skills to chart her path back to her granny in one piece. Along the way she meets all manner of world-faring folk while exploring everything from active volcanoes to frigid icebergs, wrapped in a charming and cute story that serves as delightfully light fare amongst the heaviness of the rest of the world at the moment.
Controlling Carto is straightforward: moving around the islands, switching between map configuration and exploration, and rotating map pieces are all mapped comfortably to the Xbox One controller. I did find myself pressing incorrect buttons at times, especially during map configuration mode where I’d accidentally go back to exploring and have to re-configure the map all over again, but those mistakes are easily remedied. After a while the scheme became second nature, comfy and easy to navigate in my hands.
The main mechanic involves finding pieces of map strewn across the terrain, then fitting them together in order to traverse the entire area. Let me be as clear as possible here: this idea works amazingly well. The game is filled with “a ha!” moments, where everything fits together and I just sit back in awe of solving the devious puzzle thrown at me. These aren’t mindless challenges to progress from story beat A to story beat B, these are smart and well-planned headscratchers that bring a true sense of accomplishment when solved.
That said some of the challenges are a bit too difficult, hovering around being unfair. The final area in particular, with Tetrimino-shaped map pieces needing to be positioned a certain way, took a lot more trial-and-error than the rest of the game, which leads to a frustration that some might not want to overcome. Obviously more difficult puzzles should show up at the end of a game, the whole point of a “final boss” after all is to test all of the skills a game teaches up to that point, but I didn’t feel like that’s what was happening at the end of Carto.
These few extreme challenges felt more like an overcomplication of the mechanics than a final test of what I learned before, and I could understand if some players walked away without finishing. Too many different margins of error at once can break the experience for some players, and I fear the end of Carto might fall into that category. I would recommend seeing them through however, because A) the feeling of elation from doing so is pretty dang great, and B) the end of the story is as warm as a cup of coffee in front of a roaring fireplace. Well worth the journey, if you ask me.
Speaking of the journey, the best parts of Carto’s puzzles are the ones that go beyond just fitting pieces together. In one area I had to put four pieces in a plus sign formation with the middle of the plus sign blank, and when I shifted the map pieces a certain way a fifth piece appeared in the middle. In another section I’m using map pieces for the surface to turn the map of an underground area. Puzzles like that are where Carto excels, demanding out-of-the-box thinking when processing the clues given to you in order to solve the puzzle.
Not all of these puzzles fare so well though. There’s one in particular where I had to arrange the shape of the island to match a drawing of a fish, then do that three more times with three other drawings of differently-shaped fish. While a fun little exercise in theory, the drawings were not entirely precise, a few of them looked like they could match a few different configurations, meaning I was back to the trial-and-error method instead of having a clear solution. Trial-and-error isn’t inherently a bad thing, of course, but in a game where the majority of the puzzles don’t rely on that method suddenly being forced into it is dissonant from the rest of the experience.
If light and breezy fun is what you’re after, Carto will be right up your alley. Its world-bending puzzles will delight those looking for a challenge, while the sweet story of reunion makes for easy consumption. It’s not a fully smooth ride, with a few difficulty spikes and trial-and-error moments that pop up once in a while, but the majority of the game feels, looks, and sounds great. Despite the inconsistencies, Carto maps a clear chart to a puzzling good time.