Review: TCHIA - This open-world game was not what I expected. (Available on PS4/PS5, PC 2023)
Updated: Apr 15
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I finally got my hands on Tchia. It’s been on my wishlist for a while now. Thank you to Kepler Interactive for the review key. Pack your swim trunks, and get ready for a soulful adventure through a stunning tropical paradise with Tchia, the second game outta the indie game dev team Awaceb (pronounced Ah-Wah-Seb). Tchia beautifully renders a setting inspired by New Caledonia, the birthplace of Awaceb’s co-founders. And fills it with some memorable characters. As someone who grew up in the South Pacific, I was immediately drawn to Tchia's beautiful world and resonant characters. The game's seamless exploration and ukulele-playing mechanics make for an immersive experience that not only transported me into the World of Tchia but also took me back down memory lane as a wee island boy. It’s an open-world game that I feel gives you the tools and motivation to explore. And not feel too bogged down on overly complex iconography and UI distractions. But what truly sets Tchia apart is the way it showcases an underrepresented culture and community - something that I find extremely important.
There are no ifs or buts about it, Tchia is a superb entry into the genre, and I’m going to spend the next 13 minutes gushing about it. And while it’s nowhere near perfect, it’s a kickass adventure that showcases the best of what indie gaming has to offer. And I enjoyed the heck out of it. Let’s jump in.
It didn't take long for me to get hooked because of its playful and inventive gameplay mechanics. While Tchia's jumping may feel a bit floaty at first, it's intentional and designed to create a frictionless traversal experience that's different from what you might expect say from a traditional 3D platformer. The more I played, the more I came to appreciate Tchia's approach to moving through the world. In addition to the ability to jump and climb onto just about anything, through her special ability of Soul-Jumping, I found myself constantly experimenting with different animals and objects to discover new ways of moving around the archipelago. More on that in a little bit.
Navigating this Tropical open world, and I can’t stress that word enough, tropical is quite a joy. As Tchia you’ll have access to a little boat given to you by one character which propels you into the rest of the game. Awaceb has done a great job keeping seafaring engaging. It takes some getting used to but I don’t feel it punishes the player for not being exact. On the raft, you’ll be able to pick up speed or slow down with the sail, steer with the rudder, or come to a complete stop with the anchor. With an ever-growing selection of games that feature vast seascapes, Tchia’s boat system is a joy because it just works. There’s also this exhilarating soundtrack that fuels your journey and further reinforces this epic oceanic odyssey as you explore the archipelago. Want to cruise next to dolphins, check. Want to drop anchor and swim for sunken treasure, check. Does the sound of crashing waves and ocean spray excite you? Check! Run your raft aground? Don’t worry, Tchia’s got the muscle!
I’d like to praise the developers for designing a tiered system of wayfinding. I feel they’ve struck an acceptable balance in the usage of maps and mini-maps. You didn’t think that was a thing? It’s a thing! Check out RAZBUTEN’s video essay diving into that topic. Awaceb allows you to orient with the map system in three ways. The first one brings up your map and fills the entirety of your screen complete with points of interest, camp locations, discovered areas, and all things you would expect from this genre. The second option slides a portion of the map onto the screen, almost like a brochure, allowing you to maintain a course if you were, say, sailing and needed a quick reference of your location. And the third way places your compass on the screen which ultimately was how I preferred to play. It gave me just enough information to keep me on task but also the freedom to wander off the path if something caught my attention. Oh shiny!
It’s also worth noting that using the locate-self feature approximates your whereabouts rather than the precise point on the map. All of this is to ensure that you’re always motivated to continue exploring. That being said, it’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. There were still moments when I wished zooming in and out of the bit snappier while simultaneously wanting the edge scrolling to be more responsive.
While Tchia is a game that stands on its own, I couldn't help but delight when I noticed mechanics that seem inspired by other beloved titles. There’s a brilliant on-screen stamina indicator displayed as a thunderbolt that dynamically shifts color to the environment you’re in, Oh and, Link’s paraglider, appropriately translated into Tchia as a woven parachute of sorts. Customizable of course. Both things were inspired by Zelda’s Breath of the Wild and purposefully fit for Tchia. For those familiar with Super Mario Odyssey’s “Cap Throw” you’ll be treated to Tchia’s soul-jumping ability but this time with a much broader selection of objects and animals to inhabit. Complete with their unique abilities! Seriously, it’s super useful!
And finally, what open world is complete without the ability to survey the land from a vantage point that’s so ubiquitous in this genre: Map synchronization! These titles are great places to draw inspiration from, and Tchia does so in a way that feels fresh and unique and contributes to the soul of its gameplay.
Tchia is mostly a game of exploration but on many occasions, you’ll encounter camps of baddies that are more or less possessed fabric eager to choke you out. Combat scenarios never felt like they overstayed and once I got the hang of the Soul-jumping mechanic, doling out island justice played out like a Max Payne bullet-time romp. Except with coconuts, instead of bullets. And gas canisters in place of grenades. These camps do eventually graduate to fortresses that bump up the difficulty level, though systems are in place that make it quite forgiving; Dying just sends you back to your last camp spawn, and fall damage isn’t punishing. A Souls game this is not. I’ll talk about some of the accessibility options soon.
Despite acquiring a slingshot early in the game, I didn’t find myself, particularly in need of it outside of the shooting range mini-game. I’m not sure if that’s because I prefer to use a keyboard and mouse when playing games that require accuracy or if there just weren’t as many situations that called for it. You’ll get plenty of opportunities to practice your aim if you dip into the shooting range minigame which is introduced to you early in your adventure. I quite liked the selection of mini-games they included. Some more than others. I kept returning to the claw game which amused me when I realized that to play it, you’ll have to pay in trophies which you get from the other games. Regardless of which trophy your deposit, you’ll get three turns at the claw. These claw machines are another chance to improve your library of cosmetics. These skins and character changes do show up in the cutscenes in addition to the time of day you encounter them. Important to note if small things like this make or break your sense of immersion. I’m absolutely for being able to see the changes you’ve made to your character show in up cutscenes because that just feels rewarding, and is an excellent incentive. But I also wish that for the scenes when Tchia consumes food that ...well, yeah, it can break immersion.
Another minor gripe I’ve come to feel is that sometimes I’d prefer to experience the cutscenes at a different time of day as it would afford more lighting on the characters. Speaking of time, changing the time of day isn’t just restricted to sleeping in a bed or camp like in other games, Tchia has abilities tied to her ukulele that lets you do a great number of things—one of which is to change the time of day. Dusk, noon, dawn, and midnight, to be exact. And while I could do that before a cutscene, it isn’t always the most convenient.
The story in Tchia, much like the waters and mountains that make up the landscape, has its highs and lows. My overall impression of it was, well imagine you’re playing in a sandbox and you’re making space but before you could fill that space you’re whisked away. Yeah, something like that. It’s not that it missed its mark, it’s just that it fell short in some places. Some story elements felt rushed, or incomplete with little payoff before moving you to the next plot point. Aside from the Pixar-esque intro cutscene, which serves as a type of bookend or format, the story hits the ground running and you’re set off exploring your surroundings. Soon you’re introduced to a rather one-dimension villain, set off on the grand adventure set forth before you, and a collection system that doesn’t always have strong connections to the character.
On the other hand, I love that they included local New Caledonian talent to fill the roster of characters. All of the cutscenes are fully voiced and include a mix of Drehu and French. It’s worth noting that these aren’t the only two languages spoken in New Caledonia, just the two present in the fictionalized version. Because like many of the island nations that populate the South Pacific, they’ve been subjected to colonialism and everything that goes with it, as far back as the 1800s. If nothing else, I’m happy for this game to exist because the sheer will to tell these stories is a feat. And if even one person walks away after playing this, eager to learn about this culture or many of the others that inhabit the South Pacific, I’d call that successful storytelling.
I’d like to take a moment to offer a hat tip to the team at Awaceb for putting in the effort to enrich the game’s other character, New Caledonia, or rather the fictionalized version of it. After spending some time sliding, gliding, and being a rightful menace, I can say that New Caledonia is its character. To make this a reality, the team even flew out there for research (and likely some yummy homecooked meals). There’s a wonderful three-part series on their YouTube channel documenting that experience. And you don’t have to go very far into their company website to see they’re a bunch of creative people who want to make a difference in the ways they’re able to.
I mentioned earlier that you meet a wide host of characters as you island hop, and while not every person you meet is someone you can directly interact with, the inclusion of chat bubbles over NPCs gave a sense of aliveness. A sense of community. The archipelago is also home to many dogs and cats. And you’ll be pleased to know that you can pet every single one of them. Even if you have to pick them up first to make that option available. Working as intended, amirite?
Despite the sometimes uninspired writing, the number of times it made me smile from ear to ear cannot be understated. Beneath the cartoonish exterior, there’s a lot of dark humor present. Some moments rang true to me as someone raised on an island that I’m just happy the rest of the gaming world gets to experience. There are so many visual references that link back to personal memories, like the coconut crabs and mangroves, and all the designs that found their way into the cosmetics. There are hundreds of unlockable outfits, useful items, and abilities that make Tchia feel so immersive and rewarding despite a narrative that doesn’t always fulfill its potential.
Customizing Tchia and her boat aren’t the only things you’re able to tweak. Awaceb went the extra mile to ensure that Tchia is a game that can be enjoyed by as many people as possible. It includes accessibility features like family mode which adjusts the aforementioned visually mature side of the game. You’re also given a FOV slider and ways to change button inputs if you prefer to experience the game in a way that suits you. And finally, they’ve also allowed you to skip portions of the gameplay so you can experience it as a story without the interruption of having to manage the game’s other activities. Power to the gamer!
Tchia may not hit all the check marks if innovation is your sole metric, but it’s abundantly clear to me that Awaceb poured their hearts and talents into this project and what emerged is a game that sings with soul and stands on its own. I have no doubts it will ignite the imagination of many future storytellers who might be keen on sharing their own stories.
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