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Cleo – A Pirate’s Tale (Switch) Review

Nautical rednecks and me

Cleo – a pirate’s tale originally released on PC last year following a successful Kickstarter campaign from a solo developer. A game previously not on my radar until the imminent Nintendo Switch release this week, it is a top-down low-poly adventure with the spirit of a point-and-click puzzler that was destined for the Gameboy Advance in another life. 

Our protagonist Cleo is an unassuming young daydreamer who fantasises about the adventures she has read of the legendary Captain Cabeca and his fantastical voyages. Her father kicks her out of the local seafarer’s watering hole after she finds a dismembered hand in the kitchen that summons a chaotic ghost that creates a mess she ends up having to cop. Cleo, unable to swim and not accustomed to the ocean, ends up on a fishing boat that succumbs to the wrath of a Kraken. What happens next is a whimsical journey in which Cleo believes that her survival against these sudden bizarre events means she must be destined for nautical greatness.  

Cleo washes ashore a mysterious island and begins questioning the dim-witted inhabitants – a mix of pirates, hoteliers, and tourists. With simple controls, a diary to keep track of progress, and the optimistic curiosity to investigate this colourful new world, players are encouraged to interact with everything and everyone. To ignore this core tenet of classic point-and-click games means to miss out on clues and directions with which to progress events. There is little to push the plot forward beyond getting home. To do so will mean collecting every tool not bolted down and looking for the contextual prompt to apply it to an object or conversation. This simple method of puzzle solving readily indicates to the player that if a said item does not yield a positive result in the contextually appropriate setting, you must keep looking. Nothing too abstract as to require a guide.

The retro visual style has personality in spades

Unfortunately, some of these crucial items might be little more than a couple of pixels and easy to miss. One instance for me was a worm in the ground, easily missed if not for the vibrancy of the colours popping on my Switch OLED. Also beneficial would have been clearer visual communication to indicate traversable areas to the player. Throughout the game, you may be stuck in a room and find yourself circulating the darkened perimeter repeatedly before a contextual pop-up appears to exit/enter another area.  

All characters are voice-acted and would not be out of place in a morning children’s cartoon. Despite this, the jokes often range from sarcastic callouts to meta commentary on delayed Kickstarters and the waning relevance of point-and-click games. None of the humour is sharp enough to elicit a chuckle, but it maintains a lighter vibe throughout that those kindred child-at-heart types will certainly appreciate. The audio quality of the voice acting could be better, with the character’s voices lacking range and sounding almost garbled and low-fi – like listening to an audio drama on cassette. However, these voice actors can’t hide the fun they’re having in going full cartoon pirate and bringing their low-poly characters to life.

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Kraken Fodder is a competitive dice game that uses a standard deck of cards and is introduced early on. An interesting idea, cards from one to six are cannons that can be loaded with one to five dice. The opponent can also choose to do the same unless they have already expended their five dice of ammunition. It’s ultimately a bluffing game against an AI, which doesn’t quite work because there’s not enough information given to the player to determine if it’s in their best interest to use more than one dice or hold out. A king and jack can reload, but if they get knocked out in the first couple of rounds, there’s no coming back for you. It’s a cool concept that needed a wrinkle or two more to empower the player’s decisions and save imminent, arbitrary losses.

Kraken Fodder is a no from me

While it seems an odd thing to focus on, Kraken Fodder is forced on the player at two junctions in order to progress. It may not seem like much, but this mini-game grinds the pace to a halt. One early instance in the second chapter saw me endure nine straight losses before I succeeded and could continue, which wouldn’t be so bad if I felt like I learned or gained anything from the experience. A third instance occurs later on, but you can argue at length to successfully avoid playing it. For a game that can be easily clocked in a deliciously brief five hours, the time taken to finish two of these matches ended up chewing up far too much of the game’s otherwise praiseworthy brevity.

One final whinge about this mini-game, the rules and intrusive pop-ups during a match constant refer to your opponent as “he/his”, even when facing a clearly femme-portrayed character (and playing as one). 

Also problematic, as an aside, is the depiction of an Asian character that is clearly a Fu Manchu stereotype. It is a shame that Cleo’s parodied elements of late nineteenth-century nautical fiction also had to implement reductive otherness with an inappropriately tokenised side character whose comical portrayal doesn’t seem to play into any joke beyond an offensive stereotypical depiction.

Just relax, take it easy

Final Thoughts

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Cleo – a pirate’s tale is not particularly memorable, but its playful lampooning of pirate fiction had me wholly engaged. It was a little like being transported back to ABC’s Rollercoaster afternoon cartoon lineup. I may not have been laughing or especially filled with glee, I was nevertheless endeared to the adventure and its goofy cast to make the five-hour runtime easily digestible with only a couple of minor snags along the way. 

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch // Review code supplied by publisher

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Cleo – A Pirate’s Tale (Switch) Review
Jolly Without The Roger
Lean, light, and pleasingly presented, this is a perfect snack on the Switch when travelling on your next exciting adventure.
The Good
Full voice acting sets the swashbuckling tone
Bright art direction evocative of the Game Boy Advance era
Lean, delectable runtime
Puzzles are simple yet enjoyable
The Bad
Kraken Fodder, a card-driven dice mini-game, is painfully a missed opportunity
Pixel hunting
Audio quality is a tad off
Problematic missteps in a character depiction and tutorial script
7.5
Good
  • Christoph Schultz
  • Greycap Audiovisual Mediadesign UG
  • Switch / PC
  • August 10, 2022

Cleo – A Pirate’s Tale (Switch) Review
Jolly Without The Roger
Lean, light, and pleasingly presented, this is a perfect snack on the Switch when travelling on your next exciting adventure.
The Good
Full voice acting sets the swashbuckling tone
Bright art direction evocative of the Game Boy Advance era
Lean, delectable runtime
Puzzles are simple yet enjoyable
The Bad
Kraken Fodder, a card-driven dice mini-game, is painfully a missed opportunity
Pixel hunting
Audio quality is a tad off
Problematic missteps in a character depiction and tutorial script
7.5
Good
Written By Nathan Hennessy

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