Poi is an assortment of contradictions. It is both anachronistic and modern. It is eye-catching yet also easy to ignore. It is even shallow and deep at the same time. It is Poi – an indie platformer that strays away from the boatload of 2D Super Meat Boy pixel art clones and instead brings us a 3D refresh on 64-bit classics of yesteryear.
Reviewing it is difficult because it is so very easy to get carried away by the charm and massive hit of nostalgia that Poi has. It is a massive love letter to the Nintendo 64 era platformers – so much so that it is almost a carbon copy of Super Mario 64. Everything is here – collecting a series of items in uniquely themed stages by traversing the landscape via 3D acrobatics.
Poi also has other clear Nintendo influences, with the collect-a-thon aspect inspired by Banjo-Kazooie and an art style and general world aesthetic reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker and Super Mario Sunshine. Indeed, Poi does pretty much nothing new mechanically – it knows what it wants to be and has set about being exactly that – but it is new in how it has the bravery to be faithful to a genre that the developers obviously love, even in a modern gaming climate that doesn’t always reward passion projects with sales.
In a world where truly awful games like Mighty No. 9 can be crowdfunded easily, it is a shame that Poi was originally a failed Kickstarter, gaining little traction or attention. The reason is obvious – Mighty No. 9 was obviously Mega Man, the upcoming Yooka-Laylee is Banjo-Kazooie in all but name, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is Castlevania in every way – all based on effectively abandoned IPs, all easy sells on the surface and all having big retro devs attached to their cause to add to the feel of legitimacy.
Poi has none of that. Mario is still around, and no Mario devs to my knowledge have joined the team to make this – instead, it’s a passion project that is a hard sell because it isn’t based on something that has necessarily gone, so there’s no real nostalgia for it.
Yet there should be, because Poi captures magnificently the core mechanics of the games of yesteryear, even more than the modern Mario titles do.
You play as one of a pair of orphans who go off on an adventure and bump into a Master Explorer, who is seeking medallions that he lost, along with his wife, during a storm that hit his airship. The story is generic and not really the focus of the title, acting more of a set-up for the gameplay more than anything. The characters too seem to be just… there more than anything, because you had to have something to control.
The game opens with a really well done tutorial in a lush green valley that teaches you everything the game is about – yet despite looking like a linear stage, even the introduction stage hides secrets for those to explore.
And Poi is all about exploration and reward. Each stage has multiple medallions to collect and opens up considerably after each one you find. Along with the platforming mechanics, this is the greatest strength of the game, as it makes you frequently say “ah-ha!” out loud as you open up the latest secret the stage has to offer.
But what makes this easy to recommend for a certain gamer is the actual platforming. This is Super Mario 64 re-incarnated, with the exact same strengths and weaknesses that game had. You can triple jump, backflip, soar in the air, jump on enemies to kill them, pull off unlikely jumps to reach platforms and so on. If you love that open, free, athletic type of 3D platformer, this is your game.
Yet for the same reasons that Mario 64 has been derided by those who consider it overrated over the years, Poi has issues. The camera is not the best – often clipping through walls at irritating moments and causing it to swing fast to the nearest available angle, disorientating you. It can also be occasionally frustrating to make jumps on platforms or enemy heads, especially early on, but while this is somewhat to do with the title having minor hit-box issues, they are alleviated the longer you play and master the controls.
The game flatters to deceive in terms of how expansive it actually is. Early on, the world looks like it’s going to be huge as you look out from your central hub at distant horizons, all begging to be explored. Yet it is actually fairly small, preferring a tighter open world. Again, I see this as a strength of the game as PolyKid have clearly made sure that every inch of the game is well-designed and full of content, rather than adding extra fluff to pad things out.
Graphically, Poi is a prime example of how art design can overcome pure graphical power – it is objectively basic in graphical fidelity, yet everything is colourful and vivid and not an inch looks out of place. It feels like a world, something that some AAA titles with all the graphical bells and whistles all fail to achieve.
It sounds like I’m gushing about Poi, doesn’t it? Like I rate it extremely highly? That’s what I mean about reviewing a game like this being difficult – because it’s a title that does very little wrong, meaning little criticism can be directed at it. Yet conversely, it doesn’t do much extremely well – it doesn’t redefine the genre in any given area. It’s just good all around, an extremely competent game and that’s perfectly fine – not every title has to be a masterpiece; some can just be a fun little experience, and that’s what Poi is.
However, there is a certain subset of gaming that Poi lends itself to perfectly – speed-running. I would love to see this game picked up by that community and broken to bits, because it would be tremendous viewing. I suck at it, but I see the potential in pulling off difficult jumps and combos to beat the game in the best possible time. With added extras included in the game, such as time challenge mini-games, 100% completion of Poi by a normal player will take approximately 7 to 10 hours.
So that’s Poi – a game that is fantastic at what it does, yet not a fantastic game for everyone. A fundamental contradiction but one worth exploring for just over a tenner on Steam.
Platform: PC – Steam (Version reviewed)
Release Date: 1 February 2017