Version tested: PC (Steam) | Xbox One / PS4 release date: Q2 2014
Let us listen again to the not-so-rare cry of that Rare-loving beast, the '90s gamer: "They don't make platformers like they used to".
The Last Tinker is so charming and whimsical that it just might silence those unappeased souls. It's a German-developed indie title on Steam (and coming to Xbox One and PS4 later this year) that provides N64-era platforming in a similar vibe to Rare's pre-Microsoft masterpieces, resplendent with a modern visual design.
Players take on the role of Kuro, a little monkey chap who lives in the slums of a place that's appropriately named Colortown. Yet despite its cheerful fašade, Colortown is the middle of civil unrest, with different districts separating themselves from others. But more on that later.
The opening section of the game has a carnival feel to it, with the player tasked with wandering around, talking to other villagers and learning the gameplay mechanics as they prepare for a big event - in this case, an annual race in the outskirts of Colortown.
This elaborate tutorial provides a useful way of getting to grips with the game's parkour controls. Somewhat oddly for a platformer, The Last Tinker has no jump button. Instead, holding RT as you step off a ledge allows Kuro to automatically leap to any nearby platform. By keeping it held down, players can turn any journey into a satisfyingly short string of stepping stones.
After the usual "do this, go here" rigmarole - which, at a little over an hour, slightly outstays its welcome - the game finally reveals its true purpose when the Purple Spirit, one of Colortown's powerful entities, seemingly turns evil and unleashes the Bleakness on the world.
The Bleakness is a grey organism that can come in liquid form or appear as creatures. It has the ability to suck up all the colour (and therefore the life) from Colortown's residents and the surrounding environment. It soon emerges that Kuro is the only person able to save the day because he's a Tinker, a person with the unique ability to absorb the powers of Colortown's different Spirits and use them to defeat evil. And, as the game's title suggests, he's the last one of his kind.
What The Last Tinker offers should be immediately obvious. It offers a bright and cheerful environments with a charming art style that presses all the right buttons. Each stage is a delight to wander through, and the worlds you traverse looks as though it was stitched together by fabric by each town's residents.
It's also got an outstanding score, with generous helpings of folk guitar music lending the game real character. We aren't merely talking "this is nice" territory, we're talking "I want to namecheck the composer" (take a bow, Filippo Beck Peccoz).
Once you get past the lacklustre opening section and gain access to the various regions of Colortown, the game properly opens up and becomes far more enjoyable. A standard 'market region' acts as the game's main hub, from which you can access the Red, Green and Blue districts.
As Kuro befriends the other Spirits he gains their powers and with them extra abilities are opened up. The Red Spirit adds paint power to his punches, letting him do damage to the Bleakness enemies, and also lets him throw paint at a distance. The Green Spirit, meanwhile, gives Kuro the ability to scare away his enemies, forcing them to run off in the opposite direction (and, with any luck, straight into a thornbush).
"The soundtrack is outstanding, with generous helpings of folk guitar music lending the game real character"
A growing mix of mechanics keep the gameplay varied throughout. Kuro, for example, is occasionally accompanied by odd creatures called Biggs and Bomber, who can follow him when the player is holding LB. Crucially, they can then be placed in certain areas to solve basic puzzles. As his name suggests, Bomber has the ability to explode when provoked, meaning you can set him in position, stand back and lob paint at him to blow away weak points in structures.
Meanwhile, Biggs is a taller, heavier creature who throws a tantrum when he's attacked, stomping the ground beneath him. This makes him perfect for triggering heavy switches, leading to numerous puzzles later in the game where you have to hit him from a distance with paint to unlock certain areas.
As you gain new abilities you can also use these to interact with Bomber and Biggs in new ways. Gain the green 'fear' ability and use it on Biggs to cling to his back, causing him to freak out and run away, ploughing through barriers and enemies. Do the same with Bomber and you can pick him up: when you put him down he sprints away from you in terror, exploding when he eventually reaches a wall.
The Last Tinker does a great job of thinking up numerous different puzzles that make use of both Bomber and Biggs' abilities, and while they're never too taxing they can be occasionally be intricate enough to make you stop and think for a while.
Gameplay aside, it quicky becomes clear that The Last Tinker wants to be more than an admittedly pretty platformer in which you run around smacking baddies and solving puzzles. There's also a very obvious underlying anti-racism message that perpetuates throughout the game's eight or so hours.
Whereas Colortown was once a happy place where everyone got along, it has since been divided into certain colour-coded regions, and now characters of one colour refuse to talk to those of another. The situation isn't presented in a strictly black-and-white manner either, with each group citing different reasons for their intolerance, as you can see in the slideshow below.
It makes for a genuinely interesting storyline, one in which the goal isn't simply to save the day and make sure all the NPCs are happy, but to teach those very NPCs the error of their ways and strengthening bonds between them.
The game's central themes - of peace and tolerance - is a breath of fresh air. As you complete stages and see residents of different colours moving to the central hub and befriending each other, it's oddly satisfying when you feel responsible for building those social bridges.
Sadly there are some flaws. The parkour mechanics can occasionally be a little hit-or-miss, and sometimes it isn't clear when they kick in and when they don't, meaning sometimes you'll run off a ledge and fall to your doom when you thought you were going to jump to a nearby platform.
It also repeats some of its mechanics a little too much - by the time you've parkoured your way across an octopus's tentacles for the eighth time it loses its appeal - and much as we love the design of the NPCs and colour Spirits, we wish we could say the same about the charmless Kuro himself.
Still, these are relatively minor quibbles given the overall technical accomplishment achieved here. By the time you've played through the game you'll have fought a massive octopus-like using a cannon, made your way through some inventive dream stages and - undoubtedly the game's highlight - and clambered all the way to the top of a massive windmill and enjoyed the view at the summit.
In the grand scheme of things, The Last Tinker does nothing particularly new in terms of gameplay mechanics or general structure. But it's the quality of execution that impresses here, as well as the undeniable charm that shines through and harks back to more innocent times. The Last Tinker defies its indie background and could pass as a game released by a higher-profile publisher, and though its journey is brief, it's undoubtedly a memorable one nevertheless.
The Last Tinker has all the hallmarks of a game made by a team five times its size. A remarkable achievement.
- Beautiful environments and fantastic musical score
- Fine puzzling moments
- Parkour system is a joy
- The first hour is its worst
- The lead character lacks charm
- Some repetitive mechanics