Every now and then you come across an indie title that tackles a genre and does so perfectly. When it comes to indie platformers, there is a ton of quality; games like Limbo, Ori and the Blind Forest, and others have set a high bar. After playing Shu, though, we now believe this little gem deserves a mention among these greats.
Shu is a colourful and cute 2.5D platformer in which you play as Shu, a young bird-like fellow who sets off on a journey to survive and prevent the end of the world after his village is destroyed. Alone, Shu can't do much; he can jump and slow his fall using a cloak, but that's about it. Along the way, however, you'll meet up with various members of the former village that Shu was once part of and they will augment you with new abilities as you travel, but only if they stay by your side. The design of the game is one of its most unique aspects, as the vibrant colours paint a picture of a world unknown and unwelcoming.
As you progress through Shu's five different worlds, you'll find an increasingly hostile environment that is made even more so thanks to the game's 2.5D style. The 2D sprites on a 3D background further separate the character from the world they're traveling through, emphasising its alien feel, particularly towards the end of the game as the surroundings get even more hostile and the levels harder. On top of this, there are no enemies in sight (except maybe the Storm, which we'll get to later), further giving you the feeling you're alone in this world.
The story of the game is obviously not incredibly important, and you get given the jist of it via a cutscene at the beginning - after which you're thrown straight into the gameplay, without a tutorial or anything. This is a good way to start off a game like this, where you're not expecting a blockbuster story with huge amounts of depth, but some fun gameplay and a sense of wonder. The only guidance you get is through some small prompts above the character's head to help you work out what to do, which makes it feel much more rewarding and self-earned as you get past an area or complete a level.
At the start of the game, you can simply run, jump, and glide. These tools are the makings of many a platformer, so it's stuff you've seen before. The environment is mainly comprised of stuff that will help you along your journey - things like bounce pads and gusts of air that when used in conjunction with your glide ability will help you get to new locations. Even with this environmental help, Shu alone is still very limited in what he can do, which is where the other characters come in.
Before long, you'll run into characters, other bird-like people, who provide you with different abilities for parts of your journey. It starts off quite simple: the first character, Joro, lets you ground pound and break certain floors, along with providing you some extra height on bounce pads. Each world has two different partner characters to collect, each with increasingly crazy but helpful abilities, which you then lose at the end of each world. Despite being augmented with abilities you lose after two or three levels, you still don't feel 'underpowered' in most cases, as the abilities are all level-specific. The only exception to this is with the character Yrb, who lets you double jump - after losing this power, you'll feel stunted.
The difficulty curve of Shu is a good one. The game begins quite easy, but quickly becomes harder the further along you get. Despite this, there isn't any point in the game that will get tedious or frustrating. There are certain parts towards the very end that will require a few restarts and may be slightly irritating in their level of challenge, though. Throughout each stage, you come across several checkpoints, and each checkpoint resets your lives to five, meaning you've got six attempts to reach the next one before you must restart.
Inside each level there are several collectibles. First off, there are hundreds of small butterflies that are collected over time, and end up contributing to a scoring system, out of three 'stars' at the end of the section. Aside from these, each level has at least one tablet fragment which, when completed for each world, gives you a small insight into the backstory of the game. There are also 6 baby birds to rescue in every level. The problem with these collectibles is that, aside from the tablet fragments, there is seemingly no actual reward for collecting them unless you're an achievement or trophy hunter.
One of the most fun and challenging aspects of Shu is the chase segments that greets you at least once in every world. After passing a certain checkpoint, the screen with flash white with the word 'run' on-screen. Soon after, you find yourself being chased by a monstrous mass of black clouds called the Storm. These chase segments take you by surprise every time you encounter them, and it gives you a very real sense of urgency and a need to escape from the monster that is constantly on your heels.
For a campaign that only lasts two to four hours, Shu's conclusion is a satisfying one in terms of gameplay. We won't spoil anything here, but it is a truly challenging moment that makes use of every skill you've learned along the way, and beating it is incredibly satisfying. Overcoming that final challenge, you are greeted with a cutscene and promptly sent back to the main menu to replay levels at your leisure. When taking on a level for the second time, you are given the option to collect a little hourglass which then records your best time and submits it to the leaderboards, giving the game a little extra replay incentive for the speedrunners amongst us.
As far as platformers go, Shu stands out to us. Of course, there are many similarly styled indie games around, but Shu had a charm that sucked us straight in and made it so we couldn't put the controller down until we were done. The combination of art style and the unique way the game handles power-ups, along with the genuine challenge it gives you makes for a fun experience. Aside from a few downsides, like inconsequential collectables, Shu is a great experience that you can finish in one or two sittings and feel satisfied with. The only other issue we could say is that it's a little on the short side; an extra world to explore would've worked wonders.