Carto is a puzzle game developed by Taiwanese indie studio Sunhead Games and published by Humble Games. It was released on PC, PS4, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch in October 2020. MSRB is $20. I played the Nintendo Switch version.
Back during the NES era, exploration-based games like The Legend of Zelda and Metroid had limited space on the cartridge and couldn’t include basic features that we take for granted today, like a tutorial or a map. As compensation, these old games came with manuals that told the story and offered direction on where to go. They often included maps, or encouraged players to make their own maps. And by that I mean, they wanted you to take out a pencil and paper and literally graph out a map. You’d think that this way of playing would be tedious or frustrating, but I actually tried it out a few years ago with the original Metroid, and I had a lot of fun. I felt like an explorer taking meticulous notes and using them as a reference point. It was an entirely different experience from what I’m used to.
In Carto, you explore the world by literally making the map of that world. And the best part is, you don’t need to take out a pencil and paper.
The game begins with the titular character Carto living on her grandmother’s flying ship. Her grandmother has a magical map with tiles that change the shapes of the world’s landmasses. One day, during a storm, Carto falls out of her grandmother’s flying ship, along with the scattered pieces of the world map. Carto must then collect the pieces, put the world back in order, and find a way back to her grandmother’s ship. Along the way Carto makes many wholesome friendships — an adorable story that perfectly matches the adorable art style.
The main gameplay hook is navigating square panels of the world much like the old Zelda games on the Game Boy, only when you pull up the world map in the menu, you have to grab and arrange the tiles yourself. You can rotate and shuffle them in any order you wish, provided that the borders match. If you’ve played board games like Alhambra, Queendomino, or Cartographers, then you’ll know exactly what to do. And even if you haven’t, the game starts out simple enough to ease you into the concept.
I love these types of board games, and I found it a genius new way to explore a video game world. Soon you’ll have to solve puzzles by arranging the tiles in a certain way, like making a lake appear by arranging the shores in a circle, or finding your way through foggy woods by placing the tiles in the right directions. There are plenty of new ideas so that you’re never stuck on one concept for too long. Just as you feel like you’ve mastered one mechanic, you’re moving on to the next one. The developers planted the seed of this novel idea, then cultivated it diligently, and finally harvested a ripe fruit of polished gameplay.
Sunhead have also managed to make a puzzle game that has just the right difficulty curve, at least for me. I felt guided by an invisible hand of design. I never lingered on any puzzle for longer than 10 minutes before I figured out the solution and could move forward. If you’re ever feeling stuck, talk to the NPCs again and you’ll find a hint system that’s just vague enough to still let you solve things on your own.
The world follows the typical layout of grasslands, farmlands, deserts, and volcanoes, but the truly unique location that stood out to me was the library. The puzzles here were especially unique and tricky because you had to arrange the building in a way that allowed you to still get around in it. Some doors only faced a certain direction, for example, so I had to carefully experiment and think ahead to find those solutions. Carto was quite good at making me feel confused, then contemplative, then like a galaxy-brain puzzle master all within minutes of presenting its challenges.
Overall, Carto is an easy recommendation for anyone. Even if puzzle games aren’t usually your thing, the visual nature of this game and generous hints make it easy to pick up. Sunhead Games is on my radar now and I hope they will offer new adorable experiences like this in the future.