After winning the "Best Project" award at Game Connection Europe in 2011, The Last Tinker: City of Colors is finally available for PC, Mac, and Linux. The Last Tinker is definitely targeted toward a younger audience; playing it as an adult is like walking up to the Spider Stomp game that arcades keep in the corner and ravaging it for easy tickets. But even as I was breezing through the puzzles and enemies, The Last Tinker had a lot that made me stop and appreciate it for the craftsmanship that went into making it.
The Last Tinker: City of Colors is about a world where everything - and I mean everything- is made out of paper, glue, and paint. The world is fueled by a creator's imagination and skill, so anything is possible. The City of Color is where all the paint is manufactured, but production has been severely cut back due to tensions within the three main boroughs. Most of the conflict in the story comes from undertones of racism, since the people of the Red, Green, and Blue districts have decided that they don't trust people of different colors. On top of that, a destructive force called The Bleakness is sucking the color and life out of everything in the city, and it's up to a young Tinker named Koru to band everyone together and save the day.
The mark of good children's entertainment is whether or not it practices what it preaches. Disney princesses have been getting well-deserved flak for a long time because they set up messages of independence and self-worth for young girls, only to have them completely undermined when they throw it all out the window for some prince. That is, until Frozen thankfully broke the mold. While the overt themes of tolerance and togetherness in The Last Tinker seem a bit on-the-nose, the messages that lie just under the surface are expertly presented. I love that a small team of indie developers used Unity to make a world where anyone can use simple tools to take a small idea and turn it into something big, beautiful, and important. As one of those liberal nutjobs that thinks education needs to focus more on the humanities, I think it's important that kids get behind a protagonist that shows that if you want to make the world a better place, you just need to use your imagination and commit to your ideas and ideals.
As you progress through the game, Koru becomes more powerful when he befriends the three primary color spirits- Red, Blue, and Green; which represent strength, wisdom, and courage respectively. Sound familiar? Like any kid's media worth its salt, The Last Tinker is laced with little references for adults to pick up on as they watch their kids play- like Rob Boss the painter and Doc Brown the scientist. Each color spirit that Koru befriends grants more abilities and attacks: The Red Spirit gives you powerful attacks that enrage your enemies into attacking you, as well as giving you a potent rage ability; the Green Spirit frightens your enemies so they run away from you, and eventually gives you a time freeze ability that makes for some nifty platforming sections; and the Blue Spirit stuns your enemies with grief, and can create a shield that lets you walk through toxic Bleak sludge without taking damage.
Koru gets a healthy array of abilities, and there are plenty of scenarios to use them in, but this is where my biggest complaint with the gameplay comes in. I understand that the game is designed for a younger audience, but it feels like the designers pulled a lot of punches by oversimplifying the game mechanics and puzzles. The parkour-style platforming requires next to no skill, since all you have to do is hold the sprint button to leap from ledge to ledge. Unless you're on a sinking platform, there's no danger of falling off. What really grated me though, was the unwieldy targeting system. The camera automatically highlights whatever enemy it happens to point at, and since the targeting is sticky, it's hard to switch off of the wrong target, but its easy overshoot the enemy you want to target. I would have appreciated at least having the option for switch-targeting. Tinkerworld hold a wide array of puzzles that keep gameplay fresth, but a lot of them were ruined because NPCs explained how to complete them before I even had a chance to get my hands on the puzzle. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for, if you give them a square block next to a square hole, they'll figure it out without having the game explain the virtues of shape-matching.
Also, if you're getting this for your kid, make sure they have a 360 controller to play with. It's possible to play it on a keyboard, but the controls are a little too spread out and nuanced for young gamers. Not that they'd have a problem moving with WASD and looking/attacking with a mouse, but in order to use your ranged attack, you need to hold Ctrl while moving and aiming. I think that the Ctrl + WASD stretch is a little far for someone with less-than-adult hands. Not that I would know from experience or anything... Also, of the three forms of attack, two of them are based on the mouse wheel. Attacking with left click is fine, but I think its unintuitive to havie two different attacks for scrolling up and scrolling down. Especially since the mouse wheel isn't usually associated with attacking. What's worse is you can't change the key bindings. Mimimi was smart enough to include a colorblind mode, but they didn't think of giving us the ability to change the controls? Long story short- make things easy for your kid by giving them a gamepad.
However, it was easy to overlook these annoyances because of how unconventionally beautiful The Last Tinker is. The graphics are simple, but they look great doing it by not delving into minimalism. The level design is intuitive and intricate, alternating between sprawling cities and dungeons that layer on top of themselves to hide collectables in corners that aren't readily apparent. For being made out of paper mache and paint, there are some complex and striking landscapes in Tinkerworld. Half the fun of progressing through the game was stopping to look back and let the music wash over me as I took it all in. I also loved the small details of living in a paper world, like the bushes and cogs that were just chunks of corrugated cardboard that were covered in paint. It reminded me of playing platformers like Mario 64 and running through ground-breaking 3D environments, only to be ripped out of the experience because the 3D environment was littered with flat trees, bushes, and flowers. I'm going to assume this was intentional, because I love it when game designers subtly jab at each other.
Finally, the soundtrack by Filippo Beck Peccoz is absolutely amazing. Not only are the songs good, but each track perfectly suits the level it belongs to. I haven't heard a soundtrack this perfect since the first Spyro the Dragon. And that was composed by Stewart Copeland of The Police, who was so proud of his work on Spyro that he included one of the tracks on his best-of anthology album. Mimimi Productions is currently offering the soundtrack with pre-orders for The Last Tinker, and hopefully they'll release a deluxe version in the future that includes it as well.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
I've spent an embarrassing percentage of my life planted in front of a screen. I'm pretty sure I know the layout of Planet Zebes better than my own home town, and most of my social life in high school revolved around Halo 2 and Super Smash Brothers. When I wasn't on a console I was playing every ROM I could get my mitts on.
These days I spend most of my time with games made by small studios, because they tend to make what I'm interested in playing. I love developers that experiment with new mechanics, write challenging and immersive narratives, and realize that a game's aesthetics are more than it's graphics. So long story short-you'll see a lot of posts from me about Kickstarter campaigns and Early Access debuts.