A serviceable, speed-based platformer in need of a good shave
"Take out the trash, take out the trash, so much trash, it never stops."
If you’re unfamiliar with Shio, that sounds like an unfair quote to begin with. I’ll admit, it’s not the ideal tone-setter for a review, but it does sum up precisely what Shio needs to do in order to really succeed as the speed-based platformer it aspires to be.
There’s a little too much fluff. Reams of vague ponderings upon life’s futility, or flyaway comments about oily hair and mysterious strangers with no apparent consequence. Every now and then, I get visions of an empty lake, in which I walk like two paces as a little girl before waking up, and the only way I can hope to decode its meaning is by playing a kind of lantern bouncy castle. And in a game marketed as a choice follow-up to Super Meat Boy, I’d sooner just take the lanterns.
Shio presents itself as a side-scrolling platformer in the vein of Super Meat Boy, where the aim is to traverse wide, obstacle-laden ravines to reach a save point. You play as a nameless, gowned protagonist who encounters a mysterious journal and mask, before journeying across a series of dreamlike environments for reasons that... well...
I’m sure there are reasons, but whatever drive there is behind the protagonist’s adventure is secondary to level design. Like Team Meat’s addictive fury-fest, the player gradually explores environments spanning multiple screens using trial-and-error, before gliding, bouncing and hovering their way to the end of each level. One of the most striking differences is its world, and it is beautifully rendered. The protagonist’s mysterious dreamland looks like the accompanying illustration to an ancient Japanese fairytale, pitching the land’s distinctive architecture against hazy mountain backdrops to match the game’s semi-spiritual tone.
The included four chapters are also themed around the four seasons, with weather conditions minorly altering the playstyle required for each environment. Some stages, for example, take place at sunset, requiring continual movement to avoid being fried by harsh rays of light. Rest assured, though, it’s sensitively-designed in terms of difficulty curve; familiarizing the player with obstacles and their required strategy through light tutorial levels, before growing steadily more complex as each stage progresses. There’s the slightest bit of puzzle-solving to be seen, but all are straightforward. A general rule is to hit all visible lanterns to successfully reach the next save point, and once you locate them all, it’s pretty self-explanatory where to go.
The control scheme is instinctive, and simplistic enough to work into your muscle memory within a few seconds of the game’s opening. Similar to Meat Boy, levels are peppered with death-pits, flames, and wheels of spiked, molten iron, all with the ability to fry the protagonist in a single hit. Interspersed throughout each level are lanterns, which you can use to give your leaps some extra distance; rather than ricocheting off of walls and corridors with your squishy, meaty body.
Save points are generously frequent on the standard mode, opening it up for more casual play, and especially satisfying to chip away at on car journeys and coffee breaks, while still making progress. Though, if you are craving some tough-as-nails punishment, there is a hard mode available, which includes narrower passageways and fewer save points to heighten the challenge level.
However, there are certain inconsistencies running (often glaringly) across Shio. While Super Meat Boy emphasised swiftness and repetition and stuck to its guns, Shio can’t decide if it prioritises calculation or speed. Consequently, it often attempts to value both, through requiring Shio to move quickly, while including so many moving hazards that evading all obstacles and still making it through unscathed is largely due to luck. Consequently, the best method for traversing Shio’s clean, minimalist world is trial-and-error.
There is a minor tendency for the protagonist to halt suddenly while holding the directional buttons, but that only happened while walking between save points, and it never interrupted the platforming.
Technically speaking, Shio makes a serviceable - and very often satisfying - addition to the camp of addicting, speedrunners celebrated on the indie market. What prevents it potentially being celebrated is that it fails to assert itself clearly within that genre. From start to finish, Shio can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be an atmospheric adventure game, or a pulsy platforming affair. What you get as a result is a confused mix of the steady, stoic pace of Journey, and Super Meat Boy, with its emphasis on swift progression and trial and error.
Shio prides itself so heavily on being a challenging, rapid-fire platformer, but works considerably against it in pursuit of something more complex. Characters speak only in vague hints, rambling about unknown strangers and oily hair, with little elaboration. There are times in which the impulsive, rapid-fire level progression is put on hold for ‘storytime’, which most often amount to prolonged ‘walking’ sequences and laboured, existential ponderings. One early sequence stands out in particular, where you’re stuck with guiding a small child from right to left through a despondent, grey landscape. You wake up, hold right for a bit and wait for the scene to end, before recovering your senses as the protagonist to resume the preferable lantern bouncing.
I’d have no problem believing many of these plodding sequences were included to allow the player to take in Shio’s gorgeously simple world. Sure enough, the minimalist design and tonal palette are pretty enough, but neither justify removing the player from the satisfying flow derived from the swift platforming, and there’s no additional reason given for how these scenes relate to the protagonist’s journey. This is certainly a story intended to be read into (and it’s made clear that Shio’s story must be pieced together by searching hidden rooms), but in a platformer that tries so hard elsewhere to replicate the speed-running appeal of Meat Boy, narrative analysis feels decidedly out of place.
Shio takes itself too seriously for what is essentially a speed-based platformer. There’s too much fluff padding out an attractive, rapid-run platformer, and I have a feeling if they’d dropped the wibbly-wobbly narrative and tweaked the level design, Shio may - ironically - have proven far more engaging.