Review for Chicory: A Colorful Tale
Maybe it's just the effect of months of lockdown blues, but life has been feeling increasingly stern and earnest lately, leaving my inner child feeling pretty glum. I doubt I'm alone in that, and that's why Chicory: A Colorful Tale came bounding into my life at the perfect time. Greg Lobanov’s tale of a puppy with a magical paintbrush who’s tasked with bringing vibrant colour back into a black-and-white world would be easy to instinctively write it off as fun for kids but without much to entice adults. However, that superficial assessment couldn't be further from the truth: it's full of warmth, whimsy, and playful creativity, yes, but it’s all wrapped around a more serious and reflective core with much to say. You’ll love splashing paint all around its colouring book world, and it's stuffed with things to do and nooks and crannies to explore, yet it is sure to leave you thoughtful and feeling a little more positive on a deeper level as well.
Chicory asserts its unique personality right from the get-go, as it starts by asking about your favourite food. What does that have to do with anything? Well, you live in the land of Picnic, where all the places are named after meals and all the citizens after their favourite foods, in the first of many twists of fantastical logic. Starting off in the village of Luncheon, you'll venture as far afield as the seaside town of Brekkie, the capital city Dinners, and even the underground insect kingdom called Feast. The characters you meet are likewise a little different. For one thing, they're all anthropomorphic animals, ranging from cool sheep Oats to anxious gecko Lemon. The protagonist (Pizza, in my case, if you're wondering) is a cute and eager-to-please puppy, and providing a name is just the first step in giving the canine its own unique identity, but we'll get back to that later.
In Picnic, colour is bestowed on the world by a magic paintbrush with the power to turn lush grasslands purple, the sky yellow, and even your neighbours green (and not just with envy). Or, you know, you could have green grass and a blue sky, but where's the fun in that? Until this morning, the current brush wielder was the titular Chicory, giving her the right to live in the Wielder's Tower as she goes about the important business of keeping Picnic looking vivid in her own unique style. You work in the tower too, keeping everything neat and tidy and just glad to do your bit. Today, though, as you're sweeping Chicory's studio a small earthquake booms through the room, shaking the tower. And then another. And then a third, much bigger this time and knocking you out in the process. When you come to and look around, all the colour's gone, leaving blank white floors, grey walls and outlined objects. Even more worryingly, Chicory's door is locked and her all-powerful brush is lying in the hall – lying there invitingly, just begging you to pick it up, so of course you do.
Thus begins your first day as the new Wielder, chosen not by Chicory but (seemingly) by fate. There's an entire blank-canvas world out there to fill in, and a mystery to solve: what happened, what can you do about it, and is Chicory alright? Also, what's that eerie darkness creeping into the edges of the world? Time to venture beyond Luncheon, beyond even your home village of Potluck, and find a way to put things right.
The art style is simple, like a highly polished version of a child's drawings, and abundantly adorable. The world starts out looking like an empty colouring book, just black-and-white line drawings with some shaded in grey-and-white patterns. That'll soon change, thanks to you, but this monochrome world is already full of life, with trees rustling in the breeze, butterflies flitting by, and characters swaying as they breathe in and out. Even the speech balloons are lively, with the words popping in slowly or quickly to fit the mood and the letters forming wobbly lines that literally shake with all-caps emotion at times.
Chicory’s setting is expansive, ranging from the neat houses and picket fences of Luncheon to the urban metropolis of Dinners, and from the sweltering Banquet Rainforest to freezing Dessert Mountain. Your four-colour palette changes to match your surroundings too, such as giving you cool blues and greys for ice and snow, or burnt orange and brown in the desert. The hues go so well together that, even with no discernable artistic talent and no matter how enthusiastically I threw paint around, the result was almost always charming, rather than just messy.
The instrumental soundtrack is mostly mellow and soothing, full of simple, easygoing melodies that add to the chill atmosphere while staying in the background. It changes appropriately during tenser or creepier moments, becoming positively frantic on the few occasions you're under pressure, and is complemented nicely by the sound of wind in the trees, rushing water, and your ever-active paintbrush.
As you've probably gathered by now, creative playfulness is very much the order of the day here, and being dropped into a faraway land with free rein to paint everything is just as entertaining as you'd hope, at least if you like to relax and smell the flowers every once in a while. You direct Pizza with the keyboard and control the brush with the mouse, which makes painting a delightfully tactile process. (Gamepads are supported as well, but painting just doesn't feel as natural.) Swiping the brush across open areas with the left mouse button held down leaves a satisfying swath of paint behind, while clicking to dab it on objects (such as trees or windows) fills them with colour in one go. This makes them bounce as if made of rubber, accompanied by a plop of audio feedback. The colour is controlled by the scroll wheel, while clicking it cycles through different brush widths. As you progress, you also unlock patterned brushes and a "bucket fill" brush that produces a surge of paint, filling the immediate area (until it’s stopped by a change of colour or black line) with a glopping, slopping noise. Find the right craftsman and you can even design your own brush patterns!
Naturally, all this isn't just about artistic expression (though you're definitely encouraged to go wild and fill the world with pops of colour). For one thing, some flora spring up when they're painted, while others wither away. Paint a toadstool, for example, and it'll become springy enough to bounce you on your way, spattering paint all around in the process. Painting also makes geysers erupt, clouds fill with rain (enabling you to jump into them, then out again onto otherwise inaccessible platforms), and plant shoots will fire you into hard-to-reach places. In later chapters, your bond with the brush also grows, unlocking new abilities, such as glow-in-the-dark paint to light your way in caves or swimming in painted water. All this is used to create a nice variety of environmental puzzles that are, for the most part, challenging enough to be interesting without tipping over into frustration.
That said, events take a sharp turn at the ends of most of the game's ten chapters, with the peaceful exploration and puzzle solving suddenly replaced by a series of fast-paced multi-stage boss battles more reminiscent of an action RPG. They're still pretty to look at, the enemies being metaphysical in nature (think battling your inner demons, rather than actual demons), and your weapon is your paintbrush, but that doesn't make them any the less tough. One battle has you blinding giant flying, laser-shooting eyes with paint, while another sees you running from deadly black holes conjured up by another, insecure version of yourself that has to be painted back to their senses. They’re all fast-paced, and (by default) you can only take a couple of hits before you die and are thrown back into the current phase of the encounter. They do have plot-related points to make, and there are options to either reduce the difficulty or simply skip them altogether, but for me they were still a bit of a shock to the system.
One of Chicory’s themes is the need to take time for self-care, so it's perhaps suitable that the game is absolutely full to the brim with side quests and optional stuff to find and collect. There’s so much going on, in fact, that it’s easy to almost lose sight of your main goal, which is to understand the reason for the sudden loss of colour and the creeping darkness eating away at the land, learning about the past Wielders and gaining the skills you need to take on the role yourself along the way. Through empathy and personal growth, you need to find a way to reconnect with Chicory and (with the whole of Picnic behind you) save the day. It’s a touching tale, simply told, but it’s not particularly long or complex. If for some reason you just want to run through the main plotline and get to the end credits as quickly as possible, you could probably get there in around three hours. On the other hand, if (like me) you get distracted by every side trail you see, you could easily spend 15-20 hours ferreting out every last secret.
First, there are dozens of new outfits hidden in tricky places, for that uniquely attired look. (Remember, you can paint yourself and your clothes, not just the world, and you can even design your own t-shirt!) Then there's litter to collect and trade in for furniture, plants, and other adornments, which you can use for everything from decorating your house to helping host a rooftop party. Also, Beans the cat starts out asking you to find her lost children, then winds up taking in dozens more that you find hiding up trees. And that's just the collectables! There’s plenty more to uncover, such as the remote hotel where you can deputise for the Frog Detective to solve a mystery. Or the secret colour research facility, where you can mix your own custom colours. In Quinoa's many art classes, you can create paintings that are then hung all over Picnic. And the pizza joint will ask you to design them a new sign. And then there are all the distinctive stories of Picnic's many residents to uncover. Even when you've finished the main game, you can still go on exploring and do a few more good deeds, and in a lovely touch the end credits take time to showcase the art you made as you wandered the world.
Given the almost overpowering levels of cuteness on display, it might come as something of a surprise that the story can get fairly dark and serious at times. Without giving too much away, the earthquakes and creeping darkness are largely metaphorical (or perhaps metaphysical), and the narrative explores the struggles many of us feel to live up to the expectations of others, find our way in life, and juggle our own needs with our responsibilities to family, friends, and community. Several of the people you meet are struggling with their mental health, too, and they also touch on issues ranging from sexual orientation to the foundations of democracy.
As thought-provoking as all of this is, it never gets preachy or ponderous, and it's balanced by joy and hope in abundance, as well as more than a little silliness. Strangers will come up to you to tell you what a great job you're doing, for example, and one kid's even making fan art by the end, hopping from foot to foot with excitement when showing it to you. One character asks you to plant a memorial garden for a lost friend, and if you come back later you'll find it's drawn a crowd who're enjoying the pretty flowers in the sunshine. Even the philosophical messages you find in a temple about the "nature of the brush" and "alter[ing] our perspective" are somewhat undermined by a previous Wielder's passion for butt-related graffiti.
Ultimately, Chicory: A Colorful Tale manages a tricky balancing act, blending some important topics and an honest, non-judgemental view of the world and its people into a jam-packed and effervescent playground, then leaving you to do with it what you will. You can focus on the story and the puzzles, leaving the world mostly white, or hang out for hours getting to know everyone and painting lots of happy little trees. The endearing cartoon graphics and gently upbeat score make for a relaxing experience either way. Neither light and empty nor bogged down by seriousness, the game left me a little more aware of myself and those around me, and also a touch more optimistic about life, even as I gleefully painted the river purple. If you've ever wanted to slow down, recharge, and have your little grey cells gently tickled, it's time to grab your paintbrush and go on a delightfully charming adventure.