Another cartoony sailing game? You know I'm going to try this. I saw Tchia on PS+ and checked out a couple screenshots and a short gameplay footage video. That was enough to sell me on it. But the fact that it was inspired by a real world area and legends was pretty cool too. I'm not going to pretend I know anything about Pacific island life, but it sure looks pretty. Does this game live up to its own lofty goals of showing what it's like to explore the islands? It at least has some language stuff going for it.
This is a pretty simplistic story: you, a young girl, are forced to go on some island adventures looking for your father who is captured by the evil warlord who has some sort of mystical powers. But guess what, you have mystical powers too! What a relief. As you dive into the story, you'll see what New Caledonia has to offer, meeting people who will help you out when possible and even find a love interest (which I think is a touch inappropriate given the age of the character, but I digress). The story is nothing to write home about and you're going to feel like you've seen it in various forms before.
While the story is too simplistic, the gameplay is a bit better. Or at least more varied. You're going to have a compass, a boat, and a to-do list to get you started on your quest. Early on, you learn how to shoot your slingshot, dive for different items, and harness your mystical ability called "soul jumping." How is it soul jumping when you can inhabit inaminate objects? Good question. The basic gist is that you have the ability to somewhat briefly "take over" an object and manipulate it. This is the main mechanic behind solving puzzles throughout the game.
You'll be faced with some enemies who are some sort of scrap cloth creations and the soul jumping mechanic is all you can do to stop them. Inhabit a can of petrol and throw yourself at them to explode. Inhabit a lamp and throw yourself into a pile of scrap to avoid them respawning. That's kind of the crux of the "attack" gameplay. It's an interesting way to have you fight without making you fight and keeping the stakes on the lower side. If you do botch it and get caught, you don't "die" per se, you respawn. And it's not health you lose, but stamina. When your stamina is gone, you "pass out" and respawn nearby.
The stamina system is not my favorite thing. You have a far too limited supply to start, though you can supplement it by eating a particular stamina fruit. If you seek them all out, you can pump it up just enough to still die from falling after trying to glide from the highest perch. A bit of a hint here is to let yourself fall close to the ground while keeping some stamina available so you can pop your glider open again just before landing. If you do run out of stamina in that scenario, it's not going to kill you to fall. For as quickly as it drains, it regenerates roughly as quickly. As long as you play your cards right, you probably won't ever run out fully.
Aside from the fighting mechanics, there are some other aspects that improve your quality of life with "soul melodies" you can play on your ukulele and tiki carvings you can do to open areas. The tiki minigame is terrible and shouldn't have been included if you ask me. I get why they put it there, but forcing it in some situations rather than making it entirely optional is a drag. It's not difficult, but it's slow. The soul melodies are fine, taking a ton of inspiration from Ocarina of Time or Wind Waker. The first set you learn lets you change the time of day, as an example. This helps with puzzle solving and item collection.
I haven't mentioned this yet, but this game is an open-world game. You can do things in whatever order you want within a chapter, however you can never skip around chapters. Most of what you need to do is straightforward and easy enough to handle. There are a bunch of fast travel docks you can pop around to as well, though you need to discover them first. You can also climb up hills that you definitely wouldn't be able to in real life, which makes island exploration much easier. If you do get stuck (or frustrated with the controls), you can skip entire gameplay segments which is a great mechanic that you rarely see. It does make me wonder if they did playtesting on this and realized how clunky it is in spots, though, and that's why they included it. My guess is that they couldn't get over the controls in some spots. Oh, and there are some racing mini-games where you become a dolphin, shark, turtle, or something else and run a little time trial. It becomes an exercise in frustration with the loose steering.
Yeah, let's talk about those controls. They're bad. The control of your character is too loose, especially in puzzle areas. And the "throwing" soul jump system is not refined enough to give you the accuracy you'll want to solve puzzles efficiently. It leads to a lot of frustrating spots that you can either power through or accept that you're going to skip some stuff. I did end up skipping a couple parts later in the game because of how frustrating I found the controls (and lack of items to soul jump to).
The sailing controls are awkward on their own as well. They took an arcade approach to sailing that I appreciated (especially after having played Windbound) -- you can set your sail to a particular height which increases or decreases your speed, then you have to go grab your rudder to steer. The steering is slow and clumsy, which hurts you more in the tight river system within islands, though has no real bearing on the open sea. Ultimately, sailing was fine.
Diving to explore the ocean was confusing at first. There isn't an obvious way to resurface, you just have to mash buttons one at a time until you find it. You also run out of breath (STAMINA) very quickly, so don't try to look for too much under there.
Running around the island is probably the best control experience because there's no imminent danger and you can go basically anywhere you want.
I wanted to like Tchia. It has cute graphics, an interesting setting, fun arcade sailing, and a bunch of different things you can do outside of the main story. But when you get down to the main story, it's not very good. Not only that, but there are extremely clunky pieces to the game that you're going to wish you didn't have to do. I'd be surprised if most people who finish it don't skip at least one section of gameplay (if they realize it exists). I'm openly anti-open world games because I think they too often allow the publishers to ignore a compelling story in favor of a bunch of random things to do. This game is no exception, but I am grading it more harshly because of the way it sells itself as a way to explore New Caledonia.
If there were actually more to explore (i.e. islands with some LIFE on them rather than a few carefully placed villages or items), it could work as a pure exploration / island game. But it feels dead and too small to give you any satisfaction while you explore. Add on to that the clumsy controls in so many areas and you are setting yourself up for a headache.
If you're bored and can play this for free, maybe you can give it a shot just to see some of the cute graphics and go sailing. But if you want to play a game with a good story, this game is not it.