Don’t let the watercolor aesthetics fool you, Shio is a difficult platformer – one of the toughest I’ve ever played. I died more times than I could count in the first level alone, but my will was never swayed. That’s because, right from its beautiful menu screen, Shio exudes a quiet confidence that gave me the impression I was in capable hands. It will no doubt frustrate and infuriate players, but beneath its brutal difficulty lies a captivating story that elevates the experience into something memorable.
Shio is deceptively simple. As the masked man, your only abilities are to run and jump. Floating lanterns form the basis for the platforming – whacking them in mid-air allows you to extend your jump and reach new heights. It’s a weird concept but fits in line with Shio’s Chinese setting. At first, you’ll use these lanterns to cross chasms. As more obstacles come into play, it becomes clear just how complicated these mechanics can be when woven together. Soon you’ll have to dodge fireballs and a plethora of other death traps from all directions, all the while juggling yourself in the air as you desperately look for the next lantern. Get hit or land on the wrong surface and you’ll have to restart the section. Thankfully, checkpoints are generous so a death will never wipe out your progress.
The action is frantic, to say the least, but it never feels unfair. Thanks to some expert level design, each obstacle is introduced in a way to teach you how to overcome them. Once I felt comfortable with handling a particular obstacle, Shio then reapplies them in a new fashion. For example, there are vines that grab you and inhibit movement. You’re taught to avoid them initially, but later on, you need to actually jump into them to bypass other obstacles. This constant mixing and remixing of established systems kept me on my toes and goes a long way in making each section feel fresh and challenging.
However, even on the easiest difficulty, there comes a point when Shio becomes prohibitively hard. By the time I reached the halfway mark, I had already unlocked the trophy for dying a thousand times. Each death was a valuable lesson in dealing with the increasingly demanding challenges, but nothing prepared me for the final nightmare sequence, which requires you to string together in one go an insanely lengthy series of acrobatic maneuvers. I was stuck on this level for so long that Shio gave me the option to skip it entirely. To my dismay, the next level demanded even more precision and coordination. I’m no stranger to platformers, but I was ultimately unable to finish the game.
The demanding gameplay does serve a purpose besides posing a daunting challenge, and that is to draw a parallel to its narrative – a story about one’s struggle with the past and present. Shio offers little backstory in its opening. The masked man never speaks; he is merely a drunkard who spends his nights sleeping on a bench. You get the sense that he has experienced something tragic and that he may be willingly putting himself through this journey as penance. Bits of his journal unlock as you progress, and it is through both his entries and cryptic conversations with NPCs that the story slowly comes together. It’s a beautifully minimalist style of storytelling, one that can be skipped completely if you want to play Shio only for the platforming. My only gripe is that the text in the journal entries is poorly formatted, with words being cut off and shoved into the next line, making them hard to read.
It’s impossible to play through without pausing at least once to take in Shio’s unique art style. The setting is ancient China, yet this world has mysterious ties to the modern day, with televisions and stereos being seen lying around. The levels, including the various nightmare sequences, all sport their own respective themes. Each backdrop packs a ton of details and looks like a watercolor painting come to life. The soundtrack, tranquil and elegant, further accentuates the beauty of the art.
Shio provides you with the tools for success but refrains from any hand-holding. It demands perfection and doesn’t allow for even minor mistakes. Needless to say, no matter how excellent the story and the atmosphere are, the degree of difficulty present ensures this is not a game for everyone. For fans of the genre though, Shio is an adventure that simply begs to be experienced.
*** A PS4 code was provided by the publisher ***
- Smart level design
- Lots of checkpoints
- Story works with the gameplay
- Gorgeous atmosphere
- A bit too unforgiving
- Journal entries are hard to read