Cocoon Review: A Masterpiece of Puzzle Game Design

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A beetle protagonist enters a lovely but lonely environment. There’s no preface, no text overlays, and no indication of what you’re supposed to do next. So you go for a walk. You descend after making your way to a short staircase, and the stairs disappear into the ground – a silent cue that you’re on the correct track. A few steps farther, you come across a purple pad, and your iridescent wings begin to tremble as you stand on it. You push a button on your controller without thinking about it, the pad becomes green, and a nearby rock morphs into a new stairway. Progress!

After a few simple puzzles, you’ll come across an orb, which serves as the game’s heart (and body). You carry them on your beetle’s back, at first utilizing them as keys to open doors and solve puzzles, until realizing that each orb has a new universe of mysteries and obstacles to face.

Geometric Interactive, formed in 2016 by Jeppe Carlsen and Jakob Schmid, has released their debut game, Cocoon. Both are former employees of Playdead, the Danish firm responsible for Limbo and Inside, where Carlsen served as lead gameplay designer. Cocoon’s quietly impressive intro may seem familiar if you’ve played either of those games. Both were side-scrolling puzzle-platformers that used their settings and difficulties to tell a tale and assist their players at the same time. The plot is similar, but Cocoon’s structure of layered, interconnected worlds demonstrates a higher level of maturity and craftsmanship.

The game begins inside the orange orb, in a beautiful desert area, then develops from there. Each world has a guardian that must be defeated in order to fully unleash the orb’s power outside of that realm. For example, unlocking the orange orb allows you to stroll on hidden roads while holding it. Each orb gives its own set of abilities, and all are necessary for growth. Additionally, you can also read about- 10 Best Board Games for Adults 2023 [You Must Play]

The guardians represent the game’s “boss fights.” Though there is no traditional fighting, each guardian is combative, and defeating them requires a certain level of skill and time. One of the latter encounters did manage to trip me up a few times, which is a good moment to point out that Cocoon has no fail state. Being tagged by a guardian does not harm you; they only throw you outside of their sphere; hop back in and you’ll be back in the battle in a few seconds. Similarly, you cannot muck up a problem to the point where you must reload it.

The guardians are perhaps the game’s weakest link in isolation, but they do give a good reprieve from puzzle-solving as well as some visual spectacle. This is a lovely game to look at and listen to, full of bright pastel hues and beds of synth pads, but it’s also quite nasty in times. What begins as a peaceful stroll through something resembling the American Southwest gradually devolves into goopy bio-horror, and I’m up for it. While it’s a fun game to play on a portable, the art and sound design really benefit from a big screen and some decent speakers or headphones. I started playing the game on a little Ayaneo handheld PC, but about a quarter-way through switched over to the Xbox because while it’s a pleasant thing to play on a portable, the art and sound design really benefit from a big screen and some excellent speakers or headphones.

I believe the larger screen helped me complete puzzles faster – however this is more a reflection of my eyesight than the game. You’ll become completely lost at the end of the game as you jump in and out of universes and portals, turning the game’s logic on its head in order to proceed. I believe I would have missed some of the contextual clues if I had been playing on a 6-inch screen (again, my ancient eyes).

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I was only truly stuck once, when I wandered around for an hour trying to figure out what I needed to do to complete a riddle. (As expected, the solution was blindingly apparent.) Cocoon doesn’t hold your hand, but it’s like a helicopter parent — in a good way! — hovering over you and gently nudging you in the correct path. There are environmental signals throughout, and you’ll notice that gates close behind you at important occasions. This kept me from trying to go back and see whether I’d missed something, which takes up half of my time in similar games. Locking you in an environment is the game’s way of saying, “You have everything needed to progress, so stop being so dense and figure it out.”

Cocoon is a game that I can (and will) recommend to everybody who enjoys video games, as well as those who do not. My only issue might be that I want more. According to my count, the game only presents six main mechanics, each of which is mixed, blended, and remixed in extremely inventive ways. I respect a game lasting as long as its creator desires, but the bones here are so fantastic, so gratifying, that I can’t help but think it could handle additional orbs and puzzles.

Having said that, the seven hours or so I spent with Cocoon are among the most memorable of this decade, and I’ll surely be back to it in a couple of years, once my brain has cleared out all of the answers to its puzzles.

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