It's a small world, after all
Gamers often experience déjà vu when entering a virtual world. Whether it’s from wielding similar weapons in a modern-day shooter, launching another fireball in a fantasy RPG, or completing white-room test chambers in a puzzler, most games have familiar themes or mechanics. Cocoon is a unique puzzler that defies expectations. Players explore small alien worlds from a top-down perspective, and can pick up and carry entire worlds on their back. To solve puzzles, they must stack worlds inside each other like Russian dolls. This world-within-world setup is intriguing and occasionally baffling, but Cocoon remains focused and offers a few moments of brilliance in between somewhat foggy progression.
Cocoon's story is told without text or dialogue, leaving the player to piece together what is happening through environmental cues and gameplay. The player first emerges from a mechanical egg as a tiny moth-person in a desert world filled with alien plants and strange machines. Here the game introduces the basics via the isometric viewpoint. With no weapons, skills, or functioning wings, the player can only walk on the ground and interact with switches, bounce pads, and other devices.
Eventually, players stumble across a big switch that looks like a flower. Upon activating this flower, players are propelled out of the desert world and find themselves in a strange industrial zone, staring at a glowing orange sphere. The orange sphere contains the entire desert world, and it can be picked up and carried off. This is important because the sphere acts as a power source, used to open doors or rotate bridges within a different world.
Further into the industrial world is a circular pedestal on which the orange desert sphere can be placed, creating a portal. This portal allows players to return to that desert world from where they left off, and bring back something useful, like a robot drone that can open a pathway. After exploring more, you will find a glowing green sphere that represents a world of water, ready to be carried off and explored in the same way. Cocoon has four worlds that can be relocated and the basic goal is to enter them, navigate through obstacles, and move them about when necessary.
Each world sphere is not just a power node to lug around. Holding them provides a unique ability. The orange desert sphere, for example, will expose hidden bridges to walk across. The green water sphere can transform columns of liquid into pillars to use as elevators. And the white industrial sphere allows players to launch projectiles to activate remote devices. The trick is that sometimes multiple worlds need to be brought to a single destination. The only way to do this is to place a world inside another, so they can be moved as one.
Cocoon had the potential to become complex by stacking worlds in this way, but it does a great job of keeping itself grounded. With each new world added, the navigation options increase exponentially because there are more routes and combinations. To prevent it from getting overwhelming, the game typically focuses on two worlds. When three or more are involved, it sensibly restricts movement—routes are sometimes disabled—so players do not get lost trying to work out where to go, what to do, and which worlds need to be placed where. With these smart limitations, solving puzzles is quite manageable. In many cases it can be done by interacting with whatever switch or object is next and not really thinking.
Because the game keeps its options contained, there are not many satisfying puzzle solutions. It has a few basic symbol-matching challenges, but these only require the player to observe the nearby environment. Stacking worlds is often like rescheduling activities on a holiday itinerary, but being constantly worried about tomorrow instead of enjoying the day. Solving the hardest challenges, involving multiple parts of several worlds, is akin to walking through fog and bumping into the answer. That said, there are definitely cool solutions that require careful attention; sending laser projectiles through three stacked worlds, to hit a remote switch, was incredibly satisfying after lining them all up. Cocoon could be made harder by adding a few more worlds and navigation options, but it would likely become incomprehensible, so the challenge offered here is probably the best possible outcome.
In addition to carrying worlds and moving about, players must also complete a boss battle within each world. Having boss battles in a game where the main character has no offensive abilities is certainly a bold choice. All the tools to eliminate bosses conveniently materialize alongside the bosses in their own arenas. These usually take the form of temporary projectiles or bombs, activated via switches after the boss does a few sweeping attacks. Boss attack patterns are simple but get harder and can be abrupt, leading to some trial and error. Getting hit once by a boss flings players out of the world and they must re-enter it and start the fight over again. Since the first few stages of boss fights are typically boring and slow, repeating them is a nuisance.
Like some boss battles, the final stages of the game drag out. Although its only five hours long, it nearly overstays its welcome. After defeating the boss of the forth world, players are thrust into an undefined zone and face a huge foe they must eliminate over several repetitive encounters. These encounters only crop up after going back into those four main worlds and doing more of the same. It does not help that the third (purple) world is not utilized well and becomes a third wheel. While the ending has the best puzzles, some trimming would have improved the pacing.
It is fortunate that the overall visual design is in tune with the game’s original concept. While the art style is not that remarkable, utilizing bright solid colors, vibrant landscapes, and simple geometry, somewhat like Omno, it has a lot of weirdness to differentiate itself. Strange alien creatures, weird plants, odd mechanical devices, and bosses that are hard to describe, helps the clean colorful visuals match its unique gameplay. The music is not particularly memorable but it does have nice flourishes when the game identifies that you have performed the required steps.
Cocoon is worth playing because it is a unique puzzler with refreshing mechanics. Carrying around worlds, diving into them, and stacking them inside one another is neat. Utilizing specific world traits and jostling world-stack order can lead to clever puzzle moments, when actions are not so predictable. Even the visual design reinforces the weirdness with its landscapes, bosses, and devices. While Cocoon does not quite have the pull to make players leap out of any game they’re currently exploring, few will complain when they eventually plunge into it.