There's a moment late into Chicory where the hero of its tale questions their role in its story. Was it pure chance that they inherited a powerful paintbrush capable of restoring color to a monochromatic world, or did they deserve the responsibility and legacy associated with it? It's not a surprise that this question comes up at all, but rather when it does. Near its climax, Chicory's hero isn't satisfied that all of their actions up to that point have assuaged their underlying insecurity. It's this moment, along with numerous others surrounding it, that makes Chicory: A Colorful Tale an exceptional story to watch unfold. And it's a tale made all the more compelling by captivating puzzles and a distinct visual style.
The world of Picnic is one that has become accustomed to expecting a lot from a singular Wielder. These skilled artists are chosen from many to maintain the color in the world using a magical brush, letting their own unique styles literally define the look of a society. It's a tradition that has continued for generations, but one that ends abruptly when the latest Wielder, Chicory, tosses aside the tool after a cataclysmic event strips the entire land and its inhabitants of their color. My hero, who I unwittingly named Pizza (every other character is fittingly named after food, too), jumps at the chance to take over the mantle and accept the responsibility because of a sheer admiration for those that came before, but soon begins understanding the burden that accompanies the title of Wielder.
With the magical paintbrush in hand, A Colorful Tale invites you to get creative with its world. It's essentially one big coloring book, letting you decorate it according to how you imagine it might have looked under Chicory's reign. It's a literal mechanic built around the Wielder's duty to the land of Picnic, while also letting you better understand how each Wielder before you might have struggled with the requests of its citizens. Characters will frequently ask you to return their household or favorite coffee shop to its original state, sometimes not coming away satisfied with the results. Other times they'll drown you in praise for creating the simplest possible logo for a t-shirt, or for a slap-dash recreation of a much better-looking piece of classic art. Both instances instill a sense of imposter syndrome--either you're not good enough to be the Wielder, or the citizens of Picnic are simply settling because they have no other alternative.
Regardless of your feelings toward the reception of your art, the act of painting in Picnic is delightfully simple. Each named area lets you cycle between a limited number of colors, all complementing each other and the overall theme of the place you can paint. Prominent objects on each screen can be colored in with just a click, while you can use broad strokes to create elegant patterns across the floor or adjacent skylines. As you progress, you'll find more brush styles and textures that let you put down complex patterns, providing an incentive to revisit areas and give them another pass of polish. Painting in your surroundings is never required, but it's a cathartic exercise even if you aren't artistically inclined. Seeing a scene burst to life from the tip of your brush feels rewarding and allows you to create something unique, thus letting you experience the world of Picnic differently compared to every other player of A Colorful Tale.
As you progress, your bond with the brush strengthens, unlocking new abilities that change how you can navigate through the world. One allows your paint to glow in the dark, letting you illuminate previously impassable caves, while another lets you swim Splatoon-style through your paint to reach previously inaccessible areas. Your ability to navigate through Picnic is restricted by what powers you currently have, giving you reasons to return to previously explored areas to scour them for new secrets while also traveling to entirely new settlements. Each ability is easy to understand and works harmoniously with all the ones that came before it, layering your adventure with new wrinkles at an enjoyable pace.
Puzzles are where your understanding of these new abilities comes into question, and A Colorful Tale is full of fantastic challenges that delicately balance difficulty with satisfaction. Each of the game's chapters is themed around a new puzzle type that slowly ramps up in complexity, revealing the possibilities of your latest acquired ability and how it cohesively works with your existing ones. Just like the abilities themselves, understanding what is required is mostly straightforward; sometimes you'll need to color in some fauna to have it shrink or grow, other times you might need to push an explosive gas bubble to a rock formation to create a path, but the puzzles will challenge you through the execution. A Colorful Tale never feels head-scratchingly difficult, but it also evolves its puzzles from their humble beginnings into small, satisfying problems to solve on each new screen.
The puzzles fit well into the areas they're used to theme, which gives the rather large map of Picnic a lot of depth. Whether you're exploring the dark caverns of a bug-inhabited city or a solitary mountain peak overlooking the entire land, the ways you move around these areas are intrinsic to their style. It gives the setting a tangible sense of character, letting you fondly recall specific moments and areas not only by their colors and catchy soundtrack, but by the challenges that allowed you to access them.
A Colorful Tale never feels head-scratchingly difficult, but it also evolves its puzzles from their humble beginnings into small, satisfying problems to solve on each new screen.
Each of these areas also hosts numerous characters with their own stories and problems to solve, giving you multiple optional opportunities to hit pause on your main adventure for a detour. While Chicory's main tale focuses on core themes of depression, impostor syndrome, and more, its side stories give you well-timed reprieves filled with touching conversations, quirky objectives, and consistently humorous moments. One of my favorites allowed me to become a stereotypical TV detective, attempting to solve a crime by finding clues in my immediate surroundings. The short quest is filled with some standout one-liners, comedically dramatic camera cuts, and loads of expressive animations across all its characters that communicate tone perfectly, in lieu of voice acting. It's a bite-sized nugget that comprises all the best bits scattered across all of A Colorful Tale's side stories, which give you a great reason to continue exploring Picnic after credits have rolled.
Yet it also serves as a reminder of how A Colorful Tale's stories, be it the main or side ones, continually subvert expectations. The mystery resolves itself in a surprising way, with the obvious suspect not being guilty. Though that's not subversive, the way the real culprit is confronted by the victim is, culminating in a touching exchange that reaffirms how the pursuit of perfection can often bring out our worst traits. It's a message that permeates through A Colorful Tale's stories where it can, which often forces you to confront what it means to create something for the purpose of being consumed by others. It asks questions about the value of its reception as opposed to the value of the joy it brought you to create, which is relatable irrespective of how you choose to interpret its literal examples. It does so in a way that never comes across as condescending, but rather introspective, and forced me to ask questions of myself while also enticing me to see how its next chapter would unfold.
Each chapter culminates in increasingly intriguing boss fights that mirror the message of each one almost literally. When confronting Chicory's insecurities, a mirror image of your idolized mentor manifests and projects her problems onto you, for example, which also informs the design of the puzzle-like battles. These scenes, soaked in dark, negative color filters, contrast the rest of A Colorful Tale's cheery presentation in a striking way, effectively portraying the severity of the emotional traumas of the characters they represent. They can, at times, also feel significantly more difficult than the rest of Chicory's gameplay, but that's thankfully offset by checkpoints that put you right back where you died after a brief pause. The game also includes an option to skip boss fights entirely if you are more interested in the eventual narrative resolution than the fight to get there.
It's difficult, in fact, to find much friction in the gameplay of A Colorful Tale that prevents you from experiencing its deeply moving tale, and it's balanced well enough to offer an engrossing adventure with standout puzzle mechanics and satisfying solutions. Chicory: A Colorful Tale is a game about self-exploration, frequently presenting earnest themes that can be challenging to engage with given how relatable they can feel. But it's also an exercise in confronting these insecurities and barriers that prevent you from enjoying what you put out into the world and rediscovering its importance in the process. It's an evocative tale that doesn't rest on its narrative alone, making it one of the best games you can play this year.