Carto PC Review
Carto is a short yet charming game about a young girl’s journey to change the world, literally, for the sake of being reunited with her grandmother after she accidently concocts a terrible storm by playing with pieces of a magical map, separating them and scattering the other pieces to the wind. Fortunately, Carto, our titular protagonist (obviously named after ‘cartography’ – the science of mapping), washes up on the shore of an unknown island along with several chunks of the map. A map that is able to manipulate the very land it depicts. By rearranging bits of it, one is able to change the landscape; making previously unnavigable areas part of the mainland by moving, spinning, and joining them as needed. Of course there are some restrictions. Mainly that different types of land like water, plains, or forest (or lava or frozen wasteland), must be connected to the same type, which can get tricky when multiple land types overlap in the same fragment.
Lining up the necessary blocks is a big part of the game, although there’s usually other things going on, too, such as roads to connect or particular patterns to build in order to trigger events. For example, connecting the twists and turns of a winding river in such a way that they all link up, or building a path through a complex slippery ice maze to slide through. The different ways the map is used to present new challenges is ever changing and incredibly imaginative, keeping the game mostly fresh throughout its four-to-five hour playtime. And therein lies the core of the gameplay – find more of the map and then use that map to progress, whether it’s simply somewhere new to travel, a piece of a larger puzzle, or contains NPCs to help. It’s a basic, relaxing loop that keeps mixing it up with new area types and puzzles but can, on occasion, present quite the brain teaser.
Some of them are really clever, like preparing a meal on the volcano, but I did find myself taking a shot in the dark for some others, and one time in the desert it was total blind luck that I discovered how to proceed. The game doesn’t always provide much direction on what exactly needs to be done via the design or dialog – is a broken branch pointing towards a certain direction, or is it showing how to organise map pieces in the build menu, for example. I can see many people getting stuck on one of these more confusing sections, where the difficulty spikes from zero to one hundred out of nowhere, and being completely turned off due to the lack of a hint mechanic and having no way to just brute force it, as navigational puzzles often just reset on failure. Carto is much more in its zone when the puzzles are lighter and more focused on using the map in interesting ways, which is the case for most of the experience.
Plus, then it’s also more in line with the twee theme, wonderful, stylised art, and quaint soundtrack that follows you through the story, which is spurred on by the occasional letter from grandma. All the while, though, even when in a rush, Carto continues to help the innocuous, heartwarming people of the different lands she visits and learns about the strange world they all inhabit. By moving through a central hub to reach new places or revisit old ones, it becomes evident that some hidden force is leading her on a sort of spiritual journey, teaching her how to use her powers for others as her grandmother, and presumably other family members, once did. These small breaks in the Story Chalet, the aforementioned in-between location, reveal cryptic scraps of information to the player about this history without ever dumping exposition, and really pull the disjointed spaces of Carto’s world together into something quite lovely.
The short nature of this title may actually be its best aspect. It’s the perfect length for this type of comforting game – best played in a single sitting, with a quick break to grab a soothing hot drink and perhaps wrapped in a blanket. Carto exudes this nice, warm feeling through its simple, enjoyable nature and dainty design. It’s certainly not for everyone and the gameplay isn’t considerably fantastic in a vacuum but it’s something a little different and I’m happy I got to experience it. The idea of a perfectly represented map also reminds me of one of my favourite pieces of writing, On Exactitude in Science, a tiny short story by Jorge Luis Borges (1946).
…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
—Suarez Miranda,Viajes devarones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658