We play good games all the time. Heck, it’s safe to say that we play great games on a fairly regular basis. What’s surprising, though, is how few of those great games genuinely feel fresh or inspired. Take the platforming genre for instance. For every Rayman Legends — a superb game that introduced novel mechanics to the genre — we get a handful of run-of-the-mill indies attempting to follow in the footsteps of classics, without realizing that those classics generally earned their esteemed status by being innovative at the time of their release. That brings us to Chariot, a game about hauling around the expired body of a king while searching for a gold-filled tomb fitting enough for his eternal slumber. Contrary to the fact that you’ll literally be pulling dead weight, Chariot is a game brimming with life and originality.
So what makes Chariot so fantastically fresh? – the whole concept, actually. This is a game designed for two-player couch co-op, where working together isn’t just beneficial to progression, it’s practically essential. One player fills the shoes of the King’s daughter and the other as her fiancé, and the chariot – which is basically a casket with wheels – is their responsibility to push, pull, and reel through 25 pretty large levels. The core means of doing this is attaching rope to either of the wheels and lifting the chariot over humps, through sequences of perilous platforms, and keeping it safe from any other dangers. Deciding who goes where and coordinating your overall efforts makes Chariot an authentic co-op game about communication and teamwork. It’s truly unlike anything we’ve played before.
Consider the chariot an appendage of sorts, because where you go, it goes too. If it ventures off-screen without your supervision, you have a short amount of time to recover it before forcing a restart of that section. Items can’t even be collected without getting the chariot within their immediate vicinity, and checkpoints won’t be activated without the presence of both a player character and the chariot. These are great decisions, actually, because they factor into what makes Chariot feel like an entirely fresh journey. Babysitting and caring for this object (or person, depending how you look at it) adds a dynamic to the game that we’ve never really come across in a platformer – no, no, Yoshi’s Island isn’t exactly the same thing.
Each character has their own method of attack – the princess has a sword for close-ranged slashes and her fiancé can throw rocks that bounce off of walls. It’s the one – very minor – difference between the two characters, but it’s one that does affect your tactics when fighting off looters. What are looters? Well, in certain areas of each stage you’ll see creepy red eyes peering at you from the background. When in close proximity to these, the chariot must be handled with a smooth and silent skill, because any bumps or bangs against walls or the ground will generate noise that will wake them up. These looters never attack the players; they just pilfer the casket for whatever gold they can carry away. That’s when you and your P.I.C. (partner-in-charioting) must fight them off.
Levels can last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour depending on your intent to explore. There are arrows placed throughout the environments that indicate the necessary path, while other types of signs will alert you of optional routes where gold, blueprints, or skulls can be found (more on these items in a bit). Most of these areas are built around puzzle-ish platforming and will require a team brainstorming session before attempting to tackle. When finally collecting that deviously-placed item, there’s a sense of satisfaction that few games can provide. Not only would we feel super smart for visualizing the best method of approach, but executing the plan successfully really made us feel like veteran spelunkers.
Part of this satisfaction comes from the fact that the physics really make the player responsible for the outcome of each scenario. Nothing feels orchestrated or planned to where all players will carve the exact same path. For example, when climbing in a recent Tomb Raider or Uncharted game, there’s typically one clearly-defined route of discolored bricks or wooden planks to shimmy and jump between. At most times you feel as though you’re just holding forward along a set path (that is pretty much what you’re doing). In Chariot, however, even when there’s only one way forward, you still feel as though you’re getting through on your own terms, and that’s a part of the magic here.
There are moments where this freedom, along with the physics, can make things a little fumble-y, and patience will be necessary to reach the game’s end. Overall, the controls themselves are tight and responsive, but there are sure to be occasions where you question whether or not a mistake was your fault or to blame on a moment's confusion in the physics engine. Part of the issue is that once you hit a certain point in the game, around world three, the levels can grow to be overly complex and slightly convoluted if your sights are on completionist status. Some levels have multiple entrances and exits that lead back to sections of previous levels, and navigation can be a tad bit befuddling at times. On the other hand, this degree of exploration really made us feel like we were on a larger-than-life adventure with a litany of secrets to uncover, and we're quite fond of that.
Between levels you’ll check in with an Eliah Wood-sounding skeleton that runs the Royal Catacombs Workshop & Outpost, where players can spend their loot and acquired blueprints to upgrade special items and the chariot itself. These special items can come in the form of a peg that allows temporary suspension of the chariot wherever you plant it, or even a bird-shaped bomb that attracts and blows up looters. Both characters can select one of these items before entering a level, but neither can use the same one. This, along with differing attack styles, adds an extra layer or responsibility and taste of asymmetry to the proceedings.
Now, don’t think that just because the synopsis of Chariot sounds morbid that it’s a dark or adult video game. If you’ve glanced at any of the screenshots accompanying this review, you’ll see bright colors, bubbly characters, and an overall soft and cartoony art-style. From start to finish, even given the gravity of the circumstances, Chariot carries a silly and light-hearted attitude. Not only does the king make recurrent appearances in ghost form to make demands, but he also adds commentary to your actions from within the casket, often criticizing how he's being handled or questioning the princesses’ choice in men. It’s not sidesplitting funny, but it should have you chuckling, nonetheless.
That brings us to the visuals, which will, unfortunately, not be to the liking of all audiences. This has to do with the choice of art-style, not quality. It’s undoubtedly a good looking game – wait until you reach the second world and bask within its dynamic lighting – but visuals of this kind are sometimes negatively associated with smartphone gaming — and that's a shame. There were times were we would’ve preferred a presentation that wasn’t as round and cheery as a Nick Jr. cartoon, but we were largely satisfied with what was onscreen. The animations are comical, the color palette is effective, and there’s nothing that looks bad. The music that accompanies the scenery can be spotty – literally, it comes and goes in a noticeable way – but it’s not really a detractor.
Earlier in the review we mentioned that the assistance of a buddy is practically essential to participation, but it needs to be said that it isn't actually essential. If you don't have a friend to fill the seat besides you, Chariot can be played solo, and there's still a great time to be had. However, let it be known that a co-op playthrough with a friend of comparable skill level is something of a revelation and we can't recommend it enough. Chariot keeps on giving — really, there are even speed runs and leaderboards worked into the mix — to make for one of the most memorable games of the year.
In the end, Chariot is one of the best cooperative gaming experiences we’ve ever had. It’s immensely rewarding, abundantly creative, and the sense of accomplishment that it instills within the player will lead to high-fives being thrown around the room on a regular basis. You will harbor feelings of contempt when player two unintentionally pulls you off that hard-to-reach ledge that took five minutes to reach, followed by moments of utter gratitude when they latch on at the last second and save you and the chariot from falling out of view. Both of these sensations, no matter how extreme, are crucial to a memorable cooperative experience, and when Chariot is at its best, it’s cooperative bliss. There are sections of the game where questionable design choices and convoluted environments may attempt to impede your enjoyment, though they can be overcome with a little patience or a reliable partner.
Your chariot awaits... and you'd be smart to take it for a ride.