Limbo and Inside are masterpieces. In fact, for my money, not only are both of Playdead's sidescrolling platformers two of the best indie games of all time, they've earned their place among the best video games of all time, period. If you agree, I bet you were as excited as I was when Cocoon rocked up at last year's Summer Game Fest with former Playdead Games employees Jeppe Carlsen and Jakob Schmid in tow.
Cocoon marks the pair's first outing with their new studio, Geometric Interactive, and having gone hands-on at Summer Game Fest 2023, I can safely say that I'm as excited about it as I was about Playdead's back catalog this side of release. But I can also say that Cocoon is so much more than a simple copy cat or natural evolution of those ideas.
"It's a very puzzle-focused game," says Erwin Kho, the game's art director. "Jeppe is our lead gameplay designer, and it's all about him having an idea, sketching it out, and then I take over from there. We have a lot of conversations back and forth about what works and what doesn't. The puzzle elements need to be readable on-screen, and the flow needs to be right. Ultimately, it's about making Cocoon look amazing but also making it really fun to play."
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Having spent around 30 minutes with Cocoon, I can confidently confirm Koh and his colleagues have succeeded on both fronts. The intelligence and thoughtfulness of Limbo and Inside definitely underpin Cocoon in motion – but it's also very distinctly its own thing, with an art style that'd be just at home on the resumes of folk like Supergiant Games or Monument Valley's Ustwo.
Spanning multiple worlds, each of Cocoon's puzzle landscapes are contained within magical orbs. Carrying each world on your back, you play as a green-winged insect tasked with guiding each world orb through a network of pressure plates and pipes; flitting between the overworld and inside each orb's biome as you go. The way memories are moved around the human brain in Disney Pixar's 2015 animated film Inside Out is a good point of comparison, with progression here constantly gated by solving increasingly difficult environmental conundrums. David vs Goliath-style battles must be overcome at the end of each zone, lending each finale a hint of Dark Souls for good measure. All of this makes more sense in practice, I swear, with a learning curve that's firm but never unfair.
I suggest to Koh that while Inside and Limbo are great titles to hang your game on – I suspect many fans of these games will flock here simply because of its co-creators' experience – I reckon Cocoon feels like its own thing. "I couldn't agree more," he says. "These are both great games, but Cocoon is definitely its own thing, with its own ideas, puzzles, and intentions. Working on this game is the first time I've been part of something so big and ambitious in scale, so I've enjoyed pushing for that level of excellence against expectations."
Without spoiling too much, I was swept away by one particularly challenging set-piece that was ostensibly Pipe Mania – the puzzler that's since been adapted as a mini-game in loads of games over the years, not least System Shock and BioShock – on a grander scale. Having traveled from the UK to SGF I blame jet lag, but it took me a while to wrap my head around the fact I was supposed to drop an orb into a pipe from a platform above, before pegging down to each junction in turn, fiddling with the direction of the pipework, and guiding the orb to a location downhill of my starting point. As per any half-decent puzzle game, the rush of endorphins upon successful completion is what carries you onto the next set-piece, and I physically laughed aloud after beating this one.
Boss battles come in all shapes and sizes too, says Koh, each with a strategy the player must work out on the fly. The one boss I locked horns with during my demo session was a hulking bee-like creature whose crystalline trail dealt a fatal blow on impact. At first, dodging this was straightforward enough, as I meanwhile grabbed explosive flowers and tossed them at my enemy Zelda-style. After a few hits, however, the boss turned its crystal emissions into deadly rotating barriers that required nimble footwork on-screen, and fast fingers with control pad in-hand. Once the towering foe was felled, this biome was marked as complete, I was returned to the main overworld, and could use the world orb to progress further into the game – a rinse-and-repeat process I assume will carry Cocoon to its conclusion.
Rubbing shoulders with so many unique and eye-catching video games at Summer Game Fest 2023, standing out from the crowd wasn't easy, but Cocoon did so for me on so many levels. It's tied to an ambiguous "Coming Soon" release date, as per its Steam page, and after just half-an-hour of playtime, that for me really can't come soon enough.
Remembering Cocoon's first outing last year at Summer Game Fest 2022