Updated: Sep 9, 2021
Carto is a unique puzzle game in which you are a cartographer moving the physical world around to complete the puzzles and unlock new areas. This makes for some interesting solutions and some very difficult puzzles, as I will explain later in the review. Carto features a cute story that has lessons that a child could understand. Most of it revolves around family, tradition, and helping others. A cast of colorful characters populate the world and you all work together to accomplish goals.
Let’s start with the obvious stuff. As soon as I fired up Carto, I really liked the graphics. They are bright and cheery which is inviting for any aged player. It pulled me in and I definitely got the sense I might be in for something special. It’s hard to make a game that is pleasing to both young and old but I think they captured it here. The music started off soothing and non-intrusive but by the time I was hours in I was sick of it and turned it almost all the way down. It’s nothing particularly bad but it just wears thin after a long time, especially when you get stuck in an area for a long period of time.
The controls were a somewhat sore spot for me. In the main menu, you can only use the enter key and the arrows. I thought the game was locked up and closed it twice before realizing that you could only use the keyboard. I know that might seem nitpicky, but it was annoying and those controls are what you are stuck with throughout the game. This again sounds like not a real problem or issue but it makes moving the puzzles around take a lot longer than it could if I were able to use my mouse.
Surprisingly, I found the puzzles to be the worst part. Now early on the puzzles are easy and straight forward but they gradually get more difficult and complex. However, by the time you are in the desert stage it has gotten to a point where it’s pure nonsense. Most of the time there isn’t a hint to how the puzzle is supposed to look. There is a late puzzle that wants you to lay the pieces out a very specific way and doesn’t give you the slightest hint and the shapes make no sense. It was incredibly frustrating and made the play time bloat because you were stuck just randomly moving pieces of the map around. This was a huge problem because you have to move around like 15 pieces, using just the keyboard and generally do it twice because sides that are not alike cannot be placed next to each other. I know they did this to create the puzzle so you couldn’t just place parts wherever but when you are only using arrow keys and the space bar it drives you nuts. The gameplay Just eats up a lot of time moving more pieces than needed.
The desert one was specifically annoying because it was the first puzzle that suffered this problem. Each time you move from one part of the map to the next it changes the location of the wall that you are trying to get to circle another piece. On top of that, you have to put each of the pieces surrounding it in the right order then get all of the shifting walls to encircle it. I wish I would have known that there were still 3 more stages to complete because I might have just bailed and never finished.
I know it sounds like I am really bagging on Carto but a bright spot was the story and the lessons it imparts. It deals mostly with the loss of one’s home and why traditions need to be scrutinized and either modified or abandoned depending on how it is affecting people. I thought this was interesting and for a kid it would be a great thing to impart. A lot of things we do in our lives only make sense because we never challenged them or thought deeply enough about what it is and why we do it. I really liked all of the characters and in my case while I was playing Carto I was streaming. When I was playing Carto, I did all of the voices, because it is text only. It’s funny because all of the woodsmen in one stage sounded like Ron Swanson and a bunch of the people sounded so sad. That might have added a little extra something to the story for me.
I think that Carto is a decent game overall but the convoluted puzzles really make it mediocre. These spots where you get stuck make Carto seem too long and wears out its welcome by the time you are finished with chapter seven and you still have 3 more chapters to go. The movement of so many pieces with just the arrow keys and space bar make it unbearable later. I was personally very impressed by how solid Carto was when it was made by just four people. There is still work to be done and the puzzles/controls really need to be worked on. I would love to have a child play through it just for the story but it would require a lot of adult help in the later levels and maybe some YouTube walkthroughs. I am excited to see another game from Sunhead because I believe they can learn from the mistakes in Carto and make a truly great game. I would suggest trying it out on Xbox Game Pass, if you have it, or try and find it on sale through Humble Bundle or something similar. Carto is a middling puzzle game with decent music, beautiful graphics, and an educational yet fun story.