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December 2022

The Perfect Pencil

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC
Genre: Platformer
Developer: Studio Cima
Release Date: 2023


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Switch/PC Preview - 'The Perfect Pencil'

by Cody Medellin on Oct. 5, 2022 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

The Perfect Pencil is a narrative-focused platformer set in a strange world filled with perilous paths and unsettling creatures.

Like the roguelike, the Metroidvania is a sub-genre that comes up in a multitude of games every year. Just like those types of games, when one starts to think that the Metroidvania titles have run their course for now, a new title comes along to remind people why these types of games keep sticking around. The demo for The Perfect Pencil does a very good job with that.

You play the role of someone named John. You have no idea how you got to this dark place, and you happen to be wearing a cape and no head. Heading to where the light shines, you reach a beach where a kindly repairman gives you a small projector for a head. After briefly displaying a horrifying image of a white wolf, the repairman correctly assumes that the wolf is what you fear, and to find your way back to salvation, you'll have to face and destroy the wolf. After walking further up the beach, you discover a man whose foot is pinned by a pencil. Retrieving the giant writing instrument sends you on a fantastic journey.

From the very beginning, you can tell that The Perfect Pencil is aiming for something odd. The secrets you reveal with your projector head show off odd riddles that initially don't seem to make any sense. The beach suddenly transitions into a dank cave full of mushrooms and pillows. Characters give you sandwiches for answering riddles, while others throw something away and immediately ask you to retrieve it for them. Amidst the people hiding in bushes and fish men, enemies include people completely wrapped up in pillows and blankets, snipers hiding in pillow piles, and people crawling in overturned cribs and riding baby buggies. Their exaggerated looks combine with the oddly colored environments to make it seem like something inspired by Alice in Wonderland — with an aesthetic by Terry Gilliam.

There's a bit of psychology being used here, as everyone you encounter seems to be dealing with fear in their own ways. Some try to succumb to sloth and sleep it all away. Others try to keep themselves preoccupied with other tasks to ignore the world around them, while one character wants to wallow in pity instead of doing something to improve their situation. The story becomes more fascinating when you realize this, and it'll be interesting to see where it goes from here.

Despite the game's overall strangeness, the combat and platform mechanics feel familiar enough for those who play plenty of high action 2D games. The developers have openly stated that their game is heavily inspired by the likes of Hollow Knight, and that is readily apparent from the moment you swing your pencil. Your attacks, whether they're quick or charged, have a very wide arc that extends quite far. You can also slash upward and down below if you start with a jump. Later on, you start to gain powers like a dash and the ability to produce a temporary platform in the air. Your leaping distance is also quite high.

The healing charge is a gameplay mechanic that is engaging even for longtime veterans of Hollow Knight. Landing hits on enemies builds up an energy gauge on your pencil, and you can hold down a button to give yourself a temporary charge. While charged, instead of unleashing more damage on enemies, your next strike refills one unit of your life bar. The trick is that you can't keep your charge all of the time, but you also don't lose that charge if you let it fade away or miss while taking a strike. It leads to a bit of strategy, as you must prepare to get healed and hope your gambit pays off instead of simply running away and depending on enemies to drop health when they die. It also makes boss fights more manageable, since you can get yourself out of a low health situation.

At this early stage, The Perfect Pencil performs rather well on the Steam Deck. The game has very few graphical options at the moment, but it runs consistently at a solid 60fps with everything on. The characters are at just the right size for the system's screen, and the text is always legible. More importantly, the battery life hits around 4-5 hours on a full charge, but the lack of options currently means that there isn't much to tweak. When it finally releases in full, this will feel like a game that's perfect for the system.

The lack of a release date means that no one really knows how close The Perfect Pencil is to completion. That said, it has the right blend of tight combat and overall strangeness to generate enough motivation to want to see it through to the end. Hopefully we'll get a more solid release date or another chance to play the game as the development continues.

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