Reviewed on Nintendo Switch. Thank you to NIS America for this advanced copy.
Don’t be fooled by Giraffe and Annika’s semi-misleading title. Beneath the surface of this colorful puzzle-platformer set in a world full of animal-human hybrids, there’s an emotional story that offers a surprising amount of fun, entertaining content in a bite-sized package. After initially being turned off by the simplistic approach to storytelling and open world exploration, I quickly found it impossible to put the controller down. After encountering my first rhythm-based boss fight – which completely shakes up the gameplay in a refreshingly welcome manner – I continued to be lured in by the mystery unfolding before my eyes. Ultimately, I was left with a smile on my face thanks to Giraffe and Annika, even amidst the frustrating platforming in the game’s latter half. While it may seem at times like “baby’s first Metroidvania,” it does so in a way that never feels overly tedious and exhausting. Giraffe and Annika continuously held my attention through its 5-hour runtime, and I enjoyed almost every minute of it.
Taking place on the fictional island of Spica, the story follows a girl-turned-feline, or Felycan, called Annika. Waking in a familiar-yet-foreign land, Annika soon meets a boy who calls himself Giraffe and insists our protagonist is the only one who can gather the three star fragments from the island’s three distinct dungeons. Perhaps Giraffe and Annika’s greatest shortcoming is its inability to establish any real conflict. Annika is tasked with gathering these fragments, trekking across the mysterious island, and making friends with the locals… but it’s never really explained why. Sure, her actions have meaning at the moment. For example, one of the biggest puzzles in the game is to gather specific clothes and the ability to dance, which will awaken the goddess of the island’s spirit. But alas, this feels like it has no impact on the game in its entirety. It just moves the plot along.
On the other hand, Giraffe and Annika’s plot contains an abundance of details that enrich the experience. The aforementioned island locals have their own unique personalities, and not one of them feels unlikable or disappointing. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the characters in this game. I felt for them, and I genuinely wanted to help them out. But what makes these characters even more fascinating is the unexpected plot twist near the game’s conclusion, and the effects it has on these lovable folks. The story itself has quite a few jaw-dropping revelations that truly left me feeling emotional. Giraffe and Annika play with your feelings in such a way that you feel deeply invested in the goings-on as they happen. Not only this, but the puzzles feel just as satisfying, leaving you with “a-ha” moments that seem deserved, not just handed to you. This game never feels too easy; on the contrary, its difficulty curve is as gradual as it is naturally frustrating.
Puzzles are at the core of Giraffe and Annika, in that when you’re not jumping from platform to platform on a dangerously precarious 3D plane, you’re probably searching around for collectibles and clues to progress the narrative. Most puzzles come in the form of fetch quests, dealing with completing objectives according to things like time of day and proper item placement. Thankfully, these fetch quests never feel monotonous, and the majority of them won’t have you meandering about looking for where to go next. Unfortunately, the music can be a bit much at times, with a repetitive loop of tunes that once seemed jaunty, but are now burned into your mind, messing with your own sanity. Couple this with a lack of an island map, and it can sometimes feel like without a photographic memory, you’ll never get anywhere in this game. With every completed dungeon, Annika unlocks a new ability, which opens up new areas of the island. Having the ability to jump, breathe longer underwater, and run faster makes the game feel more like an open-world Metroidvania than some basic Super Mario clone. This progression system makes gameplay feel more complex and rewarding, however, you can imagine playing Metroid without a map can be – for lack of a better word – dizzying. It’s hard to backtrack when you’re not sure where you’re going back to.
The minuscule length of Giraffe and Annika can be attributed to its lack of substantial levels, of which there are really only three. The three dungeons make up the meat of the game, supplying enemies and boss fights, as well as the more complicated platforming compared to the fetch quest-filed hub world. After visiting dungeons at a specific time of day and passing through a longer-than-expected loading screen, Annika can then roam free within a new themed world. Each dungeon has its own enemy types, from fire-breathing ghosts in the fire dungeon to water-treading ghosts in the ocean dungeon. The biggest disappointment of Giraffe and Annika’s gameplay is the inability to attack these enemies. Most levels find Annika running across platforms and narrow walkways to escape oncoming projectiles. The plus side of this is the fact that platforming feels responsive, and with the exception of some later levels – looking at you, White World – these frantic segments never hindered my enjoyment of the game.
Fighting in Giraffe and Annika is saved exclusively for boss battles – also called Boss Beats – and they are without a doubt the most compelling aspect of gameplay, albeit one I was not expecting at all. It is in these final acts of each dungeon where Annika is faced with a genuine rhythm-based minigame, not unlike something out of Guitar Hero. Using her magical staff, Annika must face off against giant bosses ranging from crab kings to evil robots. Shifting from left to right along the screen, the player must tap along to the beat, hitting each note as it passes the track, all the while dodging enemy attacks in the form of spiky orbs. It’s here that the game’s soundtrack really shines, with each boss’s song being themed to their specific zone (from Caribbean vibes to machine-made EDM). In later fights, the scene is set to beautiful piano concertos, but all the while the action onscreen keeps things thrilling and tense. The greatest shortcoming here is the lack of rhythm minigames in Giraffe and Annika. With only five boss fights, the chance to prove itself as a brilliant musical platformer is short-lived. While these Rock Band-esque moments – complete with Space Channel Five-esque dancing from the characters in the background – were complete surprises to me, they were one of my favorite parts of the entire gameplay experience, and I may just go back and replay them for the sake of having some more rhythm game fun.
Alas, replayability is one of Giraffe and Annika’s strengths and one that this reviewer is simply not a fan of. I’m not one for replaying levels to seek out collectibles in order to unlock new outfits and such. In this game, they’re called “Meowsterpieces,” paintings of cats in silly situations that can be found and sold to the ghostly proprietor of an art gallery on the island. I was surprised by how many Meowsterpieces I found by just playing the game, barely going off the beaten path to find them. However, near the end of the game, I was forced to go back and find more in order to progress the overarching narrative, and this nearly made me rage quit. Games that require replaying sections to unlock the main game deeply annoy me, but this is the beauty of a Metroidvania, and Giraffe and Annika’s dedication to the genre serves as a testament to its underlying brilliance. For those die-hard completionists, the game also includes its own set of achievements (which I would assume translate to trophies and genuine achievements on other consoles). These can be earned by completing goals, which vary from partaking in every optional photo opportunity on the island to beat every boss battle with an S rank. I’m not one for bleeding games dry, but rest assured, there’s quite a lot to do in Giraffe and Annika to make up for its short length.
Beauty shines through more than just Giraffe and Annika‘s gameplay. The visuals on display here are simply divine; cartoonish in practice, but truly gorgeous when the moment calls for such an image. The game’s story is mainly told through comic book panels, which provide a 2D perspective of the island and its inhabitants. These scenes are as humorous as they are pleasing to the eye, and I could easily see this game portrayed through a children’s book or some other visual medium. Children are going to be easily drawn to this game, and I think they’re most likely its target demographic. That’s not a dig at the game’s quality, however, as it treads the line of complex and simplistic so carefully that it serves as an awesome introduction to the genre. With an aesthetic, that’s akin to children’s books and shows, and a cast of characters that’s eccentric and memorable, it’s easy to get lost in this world and forget how elaborate its gameplay really is.
Giraffe and Annika not only took my emotions for a ride, but it kept me so thoroughly entertained in its short runtime that I never really wanted to disembark. What started as a seemingly childish romp as a catgirl soon became an unforgettable puzzle game with an ending so gratifying I’ve been thinking about it for days. Yes, the game has its flaws, what with a narrative that feels unhinged at times, a vastly underutilized gameplay feature that makes it stand apart from other games of its nature, and a title that features a character with arguably the least amount of screen time compared to any other island-dweller (okay, now I’m nit-picking). But in the big picture, you really can’t go wrong with Giraffe and Annika. This short little morsel packs quite the wallop and serves as a breath of fresh air amongst the litany of platformers this world has to offer.