Pop-up perfection

I am excited about Tengami. Not because it’s a particularly great game, but because it’s a remarkable multimedia experience. At its core, it’s a point-and-click adventure set in ancient Japan. But it’s the rendering of the game world as a gloriously detailed virtual pop-up book, with scene transitions presented as turning pages that reveal a delicate, brilliantly beautiful two-dimensional realm, which makes it both unique and memorable.

Everything in Tengami is rendered in 2D, even your avatar – a characteristic that becomes evident when he moves and reveals that he has no physical depth. There’s no inventory, no attributes or skills, and no equipment or upgrades to make him more powerful; he simply walks and sails from place to place at your direction, and occasionally picks up a single item or interacts with a puzzle. It’s a slow-paced journey through changing seasons, designed to give you time to really take in and appreciate the artistry of the environments. The music is every bit as good, and while the sound effects are relatively sparse, the first time I heard a wolf howling in the twilight my skin positively tingled.

The controls are simple and intuitive, requiring only that you double-tap to walk to a spot on the screen and drag left or right to turn a page or pull a tab. Hotspots and area exits are well-marked, so there’s never any question of where you need to go or what you can interact with.

There are sometimes questions about what exactly you need to do, however. Tengami has relatively few puzzle areas, but when you encounter one it gives no indication of how to proceed. Midway through the game I spent a considerable amount of time struggling with a group of bells on a pagoda, only to discover that I was stuck because I hadn’t gone to another area first and collected a particular item. The puzzle itself was actually quite simple, but it was a frustrating moment because I had no idea why I was unable to make progress. (In fact, it was only with the aid of another reviewer that I figured out where I’d gone wrong.)

Tengami

But in hindsight I realized that the fault was mine, and more importantly it taught me to go slowly and pay attention. Patience and observation are a vital part of the experience, not just because Tengami is so lushly beautiful, but because everything you need to know is on the screen. It’s often hidden or so subtle that you don’t even realize you’re looking at a clue, but that moment when you remember something you’ve seen and it all suddenly comes together is truly rewarding.

Tengami is not a long game – a couple of hours, maybe a bit more if you dawdle – and pagoda bells notwithstanding, it’s not difficult either. There’s a single autosave slot, and when it’s over, it’s well and truly done: The credits rolls, the autosave is erased, and the only options are to quit or do it all again. Looking at it as a conventional game, in other words, it’s not terribly impressive – short, simple and perfectly linear.

Tengami

But as an interactive story, or perhaps more accurately a poem, it is superb. The graphics, the music, and the sound effects come together in a brief but stirring and utterly enjoyable experience, tinged ever so slightly with a vague melancholy when it’s finally over, reflecting not just its end but its ending. Cryptic? Perhaps. But Tengami is best enjoyed with a slight air of mystery – and enjoy it, I most certainly did.