Carto blossoms in a delicious paradox of cause and effect. Its map screen is a scatter of little paper squares that you arrange like sliding block tiles, and rotate to corral together patches of grassland, forest, or desert. They don’t chart the pastel-sketch landscape, they define it – every composition you create is instantly reflected in the world.
But somehow the results of your tinkering also seem to precede it. A shepherd wants you to find a lost sheep that likes to graze in beds of yellow flowers. Your map reveals a sparse spread of individual yellow plants, which you shuffle into a cluster. Now there’s the bed, and there’s your sheep amidst the sunny blooms, just as the shepherd foretold. It was always there. But also not. Schrödinger’s sheep.
Carto gently pushes this anomaly towards the corners of its potential, coaxing you to unlearn the assumptions of map-reading in ways that make a pleasing sense, although they really don’t. There’s gratification in lazily picking up the square you occupy and slotting it next to a previously distant destination. Or mixing up a building plan to turn a basement into an attic. Or crossing a great desert by cycling the same two sand tiles.
These aren’t puzzles exactly, more creative exercises, with the odd sprinkle of deductive reasoning. Textual clues quickly concede to solutions and new map pieces that reveal the next path forward with some playful application. On occasion, you pick up important items which come to find delightfully eccentric uses, but they trigger automatically when the time is right.
It’s just enough to sustain the game as an inventive, tactile smile-raiser. Yet Carto further broadens the grin by propelling its upside-down logic into its world and people. Similar to how Gorogoa textures the surreal to create a sense of the uncanny, Carto wields it in the service of a bottomless whimsy.
Arrive in one of the game’s regions and you’ll meet a tiny tribal community living by local natural rhythms. These NPCs never seem perturbed by your presence, whether they’re static or apparently moving freely behind the scenes. And they’re always so friendly. They instantly welcome young Carto into their midst, offering memories and traditions to help you conjure up new features and layouts, which in turn help them.
Everything in Carto is cheerily mellow, overly so early on, as it spends too long making you feel at home. But it’s a game in which mild gestures have life-changing effects, and like its adventurous hero, it refuses to settle, always leading you to fresh ideas and warming tales that clot and split with the tiles. Carto is a blanket-wrapped snuggle by the fireplace on a winter’s night, drinking hot cocoa while idly building a jigsaw puzzle depicting a litter of puppies.
A perfect example of Carto’s surreal circularity is the story chalet, a little forest house full of books that chronicle world events. You can read about your own journey here, or the ongoing tales of other communities, then use that information to begin the next episode that’s yet to be written.
A light, fluffy adventure with plenty of tricks up its sleeve.
Genre: Puzzle adventure | Format: Switch (tested) / PC / PS4 / XBO | Developer: Sunhead Games | Publisher: Humble Games | Price: £17.99 | Release: Out now
The relentless sweetness of NPCs is digestible thanks to some amusingly silly dialogue.
The one rule of map-making is that adjacent edges must have matching scenery.