Despite Nintendo’s triumphant return with “Odyssey” and indie developers Gears for Breakfast working wonders with “A Hat in Time”, 3D platformers have remained a pretty dormant genre. Microsoft threw their hat into the ring in 2017 with “Super Lucky’s Tale”, while former Rareware legends up and left to create “Yooka-Laylee”, both titles met with a mixed reception. Way before all of this however in 2014 a game titled “The Last Tinker: City of Colors” released, toting itself as a “joyous action adventure and definitely no platformer, as there is no jump button”. Despite their claims, “The Last Tinker” has been come to known as a platformer without the platforming. Yes, it omits the jump button, but does that inherently make it something other than a platformer? I said no, open to the idea of innovation in a deeply troubled genre and hoped for the best.
It came back to bite me. Is “The Last Tinker” a platformer? Somewhat. Is it any good? Not really.
“The Last Tinker’s” promise of a “joyous action adventure” isn’t completely baseless to be fair. Rather than utilising jump mechanics the genre is known for, “The Last Tinker” has you, a monkey named Koru, use an “Assassins Creed” style free running system to traverse the bright, bold and quickly fading Colortown, interspliced with run-of-the-mill brawler fighting mechanics. The former mechanic is obvious in its inspirations, and in theory isn’t a bad replacement for a jump button. In theory. “The Last Tinker’s” gameplay follows a very linear structure, coupled with equally linear level design which kills a lot of the enjoyment you’d usually find in a 3D platformer. Rather than utilising a hub world like most, “The Last Tinker” is much more traditional, hopping from chapter to chapter, introducing new characters, powers and story beats and emanates an intense “on rails” feeling.
This is made no less apparent by the games literal on rail sections, having you grind across the city’s absurd transportation system in the vein of a bad 3D Sonic level. These sections are a drag, offering no challenge and often feel like a means to show off the games visuals. It’s indicative of the whole game though, you never feel the need or desire to stray from the path the developers have set for you. Even during the platforming sections, exploration simply isn’t an appealing (and in many cases viable) option. Leaping from one pillar to the next is as simple as holding the trigger and pushing forward. In limited sections the game will throw a remote level of challenge at you, requiring you to time your “jumps” out the way of danger, but they’re sporadic and even when they occur don’t save the already bland mechanic.
As a result of such linear corridoring, there’s little room for creativity, both on the players part but also the developers. They creates a scenario where the game almost plays itself. If there’s no urgency or desire to go anywhere other than the one route that even matters, why is the player needed? In comparison to a game like “Super Mario 64”, “The Last Tinker” feels more like a movie than anything else. The subtle complexities of Mario’s movement system, how you can skip parts of the level or diverge into a completely new challenge in a matter of a few steps, simply doesn’t exist in “The Last Tinker”. The linear restraints only emphasise the brilliance of games like “Banjo-Kazooie”, a genre classic which, despite the lack of fluid movement seen in Nintendo’s seminal hit, managed to stay engaging and fun by incentivising exploration of the vastly charming world Rare created.
To “The Last Tinker’s” credit, it doesn’t completely flop in world building. Sure, it lacks the character and memorable characters platformers of old had, but the use of bright colour – as the games subtitle implies – works pretty well in keeping it visually engaging. The games focus on colour translates to the story too, very much aimed at children but describes a simple, effective tale of different people (represented by their colours) falling out of unity as a result of their differences. Travelling to each world has a distinct look and each colour have their own characteristics which feed into the level’s goal. The people of the green district are timid and easily panicked, resulting in a more serene, stealthy approach to the level. The red districts hot headed inhabitants rely on brute force and anger to solve problems, and in that regard so do you. Despite the overt simplicity to it all, it works well at defining objectives and building a world you want to explore. If only the game let you.
My biggest issue with the games presentation isn’t how it’s executed, but rather how it feels like missed potential. This is made no less apparent by the games use of sound, an aspect that plays a pivotal role in the final few chapters, but is otherwise unimaginative and out of place. This is in complete contrast to Grant Kirkhope’s genius score for “Banjo-Kazooie”. While stellar tracks in isolation, the dynamic way they change according to player input and its effectiveness at building character and charm is where their true brilliance lay. Treasure Trove Cove makes you feel tropical but head towards the sunken ship in the middle of the map and you feel like a pirate, or dive deep into the sea and the track’s clear notes are drowned out in a fitting fashion. Of course asking this specific detailing of “The Last Tinker” would be harsh, but the reality is the game does very little sonically to even do the bare minimum. Bustling and energetic scenes of the marketplace are met with soft rock guitar twangs that sound like shoddy ripoffs of a bazaar-themed Bastion track. The pairing of the sombre setting of the blue district with quirky, upbeat jazz themed songs is a complete dud.
Surrounding all of this however are the combat sections, the self proclaimed “action” to the otherwise benign “adventure”. “Acceptable” would be a kind description of “The Last Tinker’s” combat gameplay which steadily gets better as the game goes on, but never peaks above merely adequate. Rather than using a light, medium and heavy punch system, the A, B and X buttons are split into powers each of the “color spirits” exhibit. As Colortown divides, splits and falls, you’re task to to gather the color spirits and use their powers to defeat the thematically fitting plague-like foe, “the bleakness”. As previously mentioned, each colour has their own inherent personality, and as a result the fiery brute force of the red spirit is naturally the most effective, even if it opitomises the combats biggest flaws. Mashing the B button sums up the first third of the game. Without the other more interested yet less effective powers, “The Last Tinker” feels as generic as you can get with its combat. Enemy variety is decent, but the lack of strategy needed to defeat them makes it quite redundant. The following powers offer additional variety, like greens terrify power or blues cute sadness effect, though again the lack of a real challenge meant I was constantly mashing B most of the time to get it over with. Additionally, as a result of the formulaic structure the game follows, the blue power comes way too late into the game, meaning even if you wanted to use its powers, the game is almost over anyway.
There is one positive to come out of the blue districts levels however and that is its focus on sound. Despite my qualms with the sound design for most of the game, during the cave section “The Last Tinker” oddly shows signs of creativity in its level design, closely related to how sound influences it. Leaping from platform to platform has flashes of genuine challenge as the level shifts and moves around you in rhythm to the sounds of the cave. In addition several puzzle sections require you to match your attacks with the sounds played, a unique set piece in the vein of something like “The Legend of Zelda”.
I’m still not completely averse to a platformer without jumping, “The Last Tinker’s” approach to such a game not being it however. With a more open world and more intelligently designed levels, a system reliant on freerunning could work perfectly well. Arkham style brawling with jerky animations and a lack of impact? Not so much.
Review by Will Ford.