Pikmin 4 Review – Cultivated charm

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Pikmin 4 Review – Cultivated charm

The wait for Pikmin 4 to finally spawn has been long and somewhat agonizing. Shigeru Miyamoto himself said that Pikmin 4 was "very close to completion" way back in 2015, and that was really the last we heard about the project for a very long time. Fans were left to wonder if the series had been permanently sidelined as year after year passed. Thankfully, Pikmin 4 finally resurfaced last year and will be marching our way later this week.

More Pikmin is almost always a good thing, but there are some understandable questions about this entry. Has Nintendo nursed the series' most robust entry yet? Or has Pikmin 4 gone to seed in its nearly decade-long journey to release? Grab your gardening gloves; it's time to dig in.

Like most Nintendo series, Pikmin 4 sticks to a familiar setup, albeit with a few extra layers of complication this time around. The hapless face of the franchise Olimar has crash-landed on yet another planet, and unfortunately, the entire "Rescue Corps" team sent to retrieve him has crashed as well. You take on the role of a single remaining rescue squad. member who must find and retrieve Olimar, the rest of your team and several other skippers who have ended up on the planet. In a fun addition, the player can customize this new protagonist using a simple Mii-like editor.

The fundamentals of Pikmin haven't changed much in the two decades since the series debuted on the GameCube. Players lead around a small army of Pikmin, which you can throw at the game's various bug-like enemies or objects you want to rescue. Pikmin pick up the corpses of fallen villains and other objects and carry them back to your field base, where they are processed by your "onion" into seeds that sprout more Pikmin. The different colors of Pikmin have their own unique abilities. Red is fire resistant and aggressive, yellow is electrified and light, the new Ice Pikmin can freeze enemies and bodies of water, and so on. Your goal is to build up your Pikmin army so you can reach and retrieve treasures (real-world items ranging from cantaloupes to GBA units) that you can process into spaceship fuel.

The big core addition this time around is Oatchi, an adorable space dog with the chubbiest, most squeezable cheeks this side of the Orion Nebula. You can ride on Oatchi's back and all your Pikmin will also attach to his rear, or alternatively you can put the pup to work attacking enemies or carrying items. There's a bit of strategic balance to using Oatchi – riding him makes the fight more manageable, but it's more efficient to jump off and task him when he's not under much threat. Oatchi also offers new ways to explore the environment, as he can smash certain obstacles, jump onto small ledges, and swim.

Oatchi's new traversal abilities allow Nintendo to add a new layer of complexity and interconnectivity to Pikmin 4's levels. Pikmin 3 already pulled away from the series' strategic roots, opting to focus more on adventure and exploration, and Pikmin 4 pushes even further into that territory. The stages are large, wide and open, with less focus on narrow tunnels and passages. There are a handful of the series' standard garden-themed scenes, but Pikmin 4 also serves up some more unique playgrounds, including one set on a sandy beach and another inside a suburban house (which could really use an exterminator). Level design is less impressive than before, with maps offering lots of secrets and treasures, but a lower density of enemies. Add in the fact that Nintendo has ditched any kind of general time limit to complete the game, and Pikmin 4 can feel downright laid back at times.

This safari-like feeling is enhanced by impressive images. While it's clear that Pikmin 4 is built on a beefed-up version of Pikmin 3's engine, with some enemies and assets being directly reused, the worlds are more detailed, the lighting is better, and draw spacing and shadows are unusually high quality for the switch. Even better, unlike many recent ambitious Switch titles, inconsistent performance isn't a problem, even with plenty of action on screen. This might be Nintendo's most technically impressive game to date.

While exploring Pikmin 4's overworld is generally a breeze, other parts of the game present a tougher challenge. Caves, last seen in Pikmin 2, return, with each level hosting more of the underground dungeon-like areas. The daily time limit can essentially be ignored in caves, but you also can't spawn new Pikmin while exploring them. The layout of these caves tends to be tighter and more puzzle-like, with a greater concentration of enemies that provide the pushback longtime Pikmin fans may crave. Delving into their dank depths is important, as the caves are where you'll first encounter new types of Pikmin and many of the game's shipwrecks, and you'll need to travel through them to reach certain parts of the world.

And if caves don't provide enough spooky, shadowy adventures, Pikmin 4 also adds all-new night missions. These are essentially castle defense challenges, with players having to fend off waves of red-eyed monsters to protect a pile that produces Glow Sap. The sap is used to produce medicine to cure the castaways with a strange ailment that causes their bodies to sprout leaves, and is key to advancing the main campaign at certain points. Your only allies in these missions are Oatchi and the new Glow Pikmin, which are created by collecting special crystals and only items during the mission. It would be nice if Pikmin 4 allowed you to explore freely at night, but these new missions are a decent challenge and just the right level of stress.

Another addition to Pikmin 4 is Dandori Battles, which are essentially the multiplayer missions from Pikmin 3 picked out and placed into the main single player campaign. In Dandori matches, you are transported to stand-alone arenas where you fight one-on-one with different opponents. Collect more items and points within the time limit and you win. These are fun enough and require more actual strategy than any other part of the game, but feel a bit out of place in the single player campaign.

Pikmin 4 even adds new items between your expeditions, as at the end of each day you return to your base camp. Once you've rescued a castaway, they'll return to your camp, and some will offer side quests or set up shops and services that let you buy upgrades and consumables, train Oatchi, and more. Visiting your base is a nice respite between missions, and there's an undeniable charm when the crew of rescued skippers see you off in the morning and welcome you back in the evening.

Pikmin 4 has a lot of new teams, to the point where it can feel a little overwhelming at first. The game begins with an almost suffocating amount of chatter and tutorials. That said, after a few hours you should find your groove. And that's where my experience with Pikmin 4 stayed for the majority of my playtime – in a nice, cool groove. I can't exactly complain about it, but the game didn't quite capture me the way previous entries in the series did, especially Pikmin 3, which I consider one of Nintendo's unsung masterpieces. While Pikmin 4 adds a lot, some things are missing or not done as well as before – the main campaign feels a bit tacked on, the big level-limiting multi-stage boss fights from Pikmin 3 are mostly gone, and the Full Campaign co-op from Pikmin 3 Deluxe is sadly not coming back (a simple help mode where player 2 throws pebbles at enemies is all you get).

Fortunately, Pikmin 4 is starting to come together better in the last few hours. Without giving too much away, rescuing Olimar isn't the end of the main campaign, and the game's final stretch features more intricate level design and deeper, more difficult dungeons. Heck, the game even serves up at least one truly over-the-top boss fight. There's even a little treat for those looking for a more old-school Pikmin challenge. You also can't deny Pikmin 4's charm. The animations of the individual Pikmin are still a marvel, and Oatchi is one of the most lovingly crafted characters Nintendo has ever created. Pikmin 4 may not be the exquisitely crafted gem that Pikmin 3 was, but it's a great game in its own right.

And the game also delivers on the quantity front. The entire campaign will take you around 20 hours, and clearing everything should take 30 hours or more. Multiplayer Dandori Battles don't have the depth of Pikmin 3's multiplayer, but they should add a few extra hours to the overall package. There's certainly a lot to enjoy here if you let the game grow on you.

This review was based on a copy of Pikmin 4 provided by publisher Nintendo.

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Pikmin 4 adds or reintroduces a lot to the series' formula, including caves, night missions, and an adorable doggy sidekick, to the point where the game starts to feel a bit rushed and unfocused. Fortunately, like a well-managed Pikmin team, the game comes together in a charming, efficient way towards the end. While the franchise may have bloomed a little brighter in the past, Pikmin 4 will still provide a bountiful harvest of fun for longtime fans.

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