The unparalleled success of the Nintendo Switch has allowed Nintendo to pursue some projects it may not have without the playerbase – and cash – that this console has garnered. Now it is time for the Pikmin faithful to be rewarded as Pikmin 4 comes out after a decade since the last mainline instalment.
I, however, am not one of those faithful fans having missed all the previous games for one reason or another. Despite this I am still quite familiar with the overall setting, series protagonist Captain Olimar and the plant workforce of the Pikmin themselves. This is surface-level familiarity, however, so when Pikmin 4 arrived on my desk I was presented with the opportunity to look at it through the eyes of a complete newcomer.
I feel like I will not be alone in this as the aforementioned popularity of the Switch means more people who may not have owned a Nintendo console, or even have been alive, for previous entries now get their chance to be turned into fans.
So was I turned into a fan after a few weeks with Pikmin 4? I would say yes, but not one of the super dedicated fans who has been tortured all these years waiting for this release, but more of a casual fan who will keep playing their save after this article is done.
But for fellow newcomers, what is Pikmin 4? As you will see in the trailers on this page, the setting is a “mysterious planet” that is kind of like Earth, but kind of not. While the environments and items inside of the world are very familiar (you even collect Nintendo products as treasures), the plants and creatures inhabiting the world are completely alien.
Helping convey this is some fantastic visual fidelity on the game’s part. I’ll leave it to Digital Foundry to report on the hardcore performance numbers, but I can at least say that this game is a real looker. It does have a massive cartoon look to everything, but other parts of the game are more realistic. You’d think that these two elements would clash but they don’t, and I’d say they even contribute to the feeling that you’re a foreigner in an alien world.
The music and sound effects combine with the impressive visuals to make a super charming environment that’s a pleasure to be in. Despite elements that may be stressful to some, such as time limits and your poor Pikmin dying when you mess up, this is a very serene game to play and a great way to unwind
The gameplay itself is a real-time strategy game which you control in third person. You take direct control of your custom character and your main way of interacting with the environment is by giving directions to your Pikmin and your “Rescue Pup” Oatchi, a two-legged dog creature which you can rid as a kind of bus for you and your Pikmin, or you can walk alongside it to give commands to too.
Those already turned off by the idea of an RTS on a controller should know that the entire gameplay loop is rather simplified and most of your commands simply amount to throwing your Pikmin where they need to go. Fighting enemy creatures, gathering resources, building structures and other activities are all done automatically – your Pikmin are smart enough to do the right thing depending on where you throw them.
The trick is that, well, you need to know where and how you throw them. Chucking all your Pikmin at a new and dangerous creature will just see all of them die, and you’ll get the same result for certain dangerous environments. As you learn more about the game and its unique design language, you gain insight into the best way to use your Pikmin and other resources so that everyone survives the day.
The day itself is another gameplay element. You have a timer ticking down to night where you need to extract as the creatures become more hostile after sundown. While I’m personally a huge hater when it comes to time limits, it works really well in Pikmin 4 as a neat and tidy way to package and condense play sessions.
Mixing this up are underground sections and Night Expeditions. Underground sections are basically dungeons where time moves slower than the surface, so you can tackle even the biggest dungeon in a single day while still having time to do other activities when you’re done. Night Expeditions, on the other hand, have you venturing out after dark to exchange danger for valuable resources.
The pursuit of resources is the entire aim of the game, with your character tasked with using said resources to complete this rescue mission and get everyone home safe. The endless pursuit of “number go up” is still as addictive as ever and I found myself more than once up way too late to play just one more day and increase my numbers just a tiny bit more.
It also helps that absolutely everything is tracked and catalogued so there’s always some incentive to keep going. Those who have a compulsive need to 100 percent games may find this all distressing but don’t panic and keep going as all your metrics will slowly rise.
The gameplay loop in Pikmin 4 is impeccable. Not just in how it enticed you to keep playing, but also in the pace at which it rewards you, even when you feel like you’re not making the best progress.
The story and characters of Pikmin 4 are, by far, the worst part of the game. The writing is incredibly weak and every time a new dialogue box popped up I wanted to mash the skip button as fast as possible.
The characters have an intense desire to interrupt your gameplay as often as possible with inane conversation. Some of what they have to say is important to what you’re doing and can act as a soft tutorial, but several hours into the game I wish these guys would simply shut the hell up.
Pikmin 4 encourages you to form bonds with these characters, especially at your home base that will grow and upgrade itself as you accomplish tasks out in the field. For me that was a complete failure as I wanted to leave the base ASAP and get back to the actual game, instead of sitting at the ship and making chitchat with my cartoon co-workers. Every time the loading screen advice popped up, reminding me that I could spend as much time at base as I wanted without impacting my limited time in the field, I had to laugh.
While this may sound like a nitpick, especially after I outlined ways to skip a lot of it, it’s a shame that this part of the game is so weak. All the work you do is in service of saving these characters and escaping the planet, but they’re so insufferable that this entire premise becomes an afterthought, and I was left progressing for the sake of progression, and because it’s so fun.
The biggest compliment I can give any game is continuing to play it even after the coverage period has ended, and I will do that for Pikmin 4. I am not sure how hardcore, existing fans will feel about this new entry, but I can at least comment from one newcomer that I understand why so many love Pikmin, and that this is a great game on its own.