Saturday, October 31, 2020

REVIEW: Penko Park

There are two things everyone should know about me. First, I think Pokemon is an objectively bad franchise and every piece of its media is bad. Second, Pokemon Snap is my favorite game on the N64 and I am still mad that it’s virtually the only game of it’s kind. That is until Berlin-based developer Ghostbutter’s recent release: Penko Park

Disclaimer: I received a copy of Penko Park courtesy of Ghostbutter. Opinions are my own.

Penko Park is a game about exploring an abandoned wildlife park. Meet its mysterious inhabitants by taking photos and interacting with the world!

Gameplay-wise, Penko Park is virtually identical to Pokemon Snap. Players are dropped in a wildlife park and tasked with photographing the local inhabitants. However, the inhabitants of the park aren’t cute and cuddly pocket monsters - they’re weird, spooky, and creepy.

I’m not typically a fan of this kind of thing, but luckily for me this isn’t a horror game and none of the creatures are downright scary. A lot of their designs are actually kinda cute and wholesome. If anything, the way characters are rendered as 2D sprites in a 3D environment is more off putting than any of their designs.

Instead of Prof. Oak’s arbitrary and sometimes inconsistent standards, visitors to Penko Park are given a scrapbook to fill in with pictures of each of the creatures. Each possible picture has a maximum 3-star rating based on how clear and up close the subject is.

But snapping a shot of each animal in the park isn’t enough - several creatures have additional ‘assignments’ to fulfill. Some need to be drawn out of hiding, others can be compelled to sing and dance, some get angry and throw a fit when you piss them off. And of course, each of these have a maximum 3-star rating as well. This makes hunting for specific photos both easy to comprehend while still being fun and exciting.

The park only features three areas that you explore on a track, but they’re relatively large and have branching paths so you’ll definitely need to return to them a few times to see everything. There’s also the added backstory that the park is actually long abandoned and now overtaken by nature. This makes uncovering every inch of the park fascinating even if you’re not taking a single picture.

In addition to your trusty camera, visitors to Penko Park unlock a series of upgrades and extra tools as they collect photos and level up. There’s a grappling hook to hit switches and grab items. You can throw balls of what I think are flower petals at creatures to get various reactions out of them. You can even enter a ghost realm and photograph spirits of lost creatures!

And I rarely talk about controls in a game review, especially with keymapping so prevalent these days, but I gotta applaud what this game did. I tried emulating Pokemon Snap a few years ago and found mapping the N64’s weird controller scheme to a keyboard made the game a bit more confusing than it should’ve been. Penko Park put the camera on the mouse and used very few additional keys, allowing for virtually the same experience, but seamlessly improved in every way.

The main story took me about 2 hours - which is about as long as it takes a nostalgic adult to finish Snap. But I’m nowhere near completing the scrapbook. I have plenty of animals short of the 3-star goal, lots of unfound artifacts, and quite a few creatures completely undiscovered. The park is filled with so much to explore and discover, you’ll want to keep coming back for hours and hours.

Penko Park is a lot of fun and definitely scratches my 21-year-old camera game itch. However, it’s not perfect. Or rather, it leaves much to be desired. While I usually try my best to not compare one game to another, this game is asking for it. And while I love what it does better than it’s predecessor, there are still some things that Pokemon Snap did better.

Because this isn’t based on an established property there’s almost no excitement when discovering a new animal. There’s not much to the inhabitants of Penko Park. I might have even been more excited if I was photographing mythical creatures, yokai, or even normal animals like dogs and cows.

There’s also not a whole lot going on in the park itself. The game is, in a sense, three amusement park dark rides which are attractions that take visitors through an environment while also telling them a story. I feel like Penko Park was lacking in the story department. Most creatures stay in one spot, none of them appear in more than one level, and none of them interact with each other.

One of my favorite things about Pokemon Snap was how much the island felt like a real ecosystem. Penko Park on the other hand feels constructed. The idea that it’s abandoned is interesting, but not much is done with the concept. There isn’t much of a player backstory either. There’s a big final set piece, but since there’s nothing building up to it it kinda comes out of nowhere.

Penko Park is a fantastic game that reimagines one of my childhood favorites in its own weird way. While it’s story and worldbuilding elements could be better, the gameplay improvements make for a smooth and realistic experience. Controlling the camera is slick and filling in the scrapbook is a lot of fun. The visual style makes the park a really vibrant, colorful place.

Penko Park is out now on Steam