‘Carto’ review: a map-making puzzler where whimsy turns finicky

Lovely map-shifting mechanics makes this cute puzzler worth a look, but isn’t compelling enough to make you stay

Many a great fantasy adventure begins with a map, and for good reason. What better way to transport you somewhere else? Maps provide mystery, wonder and plenty of possibilities, drawing you into the fiction before the journey has even begun.

From the get-go Carto understands the magic of maps. Your character, also named “Carto”, lives on an airship with her grandmother, who – from a cloud’s perspective – uses map tiles to transform the land below. One day Carto gets hold of her grandma’s terraforming map tiles. Disaster strikes, and you end up washed up on a beach somewhere far from home.

As you explore, you’ll quickly realise that unlike a real map, there’s very little abstraction in the universe of Carto. The map is the world and vice versa. So while you can explore a tile of land, you’ll quickly bump up against the edges of reality. In order to continue on your journey and find your way back home, you’ll need to find other map pieces, so that you can build out the environment, connecting tiles together into something larger and cohesive.

Carto
Carto. Credit: Sunhead Games

If you’ve ever played a tile-based board game like Carcassonne, the format will be immediately familiar. You can’t just place tiles down haphazardly either, there’s a simple topographical logic to follow –a road must connect to another road, a sea or beach tile can’t be landlocked, and so on.

I had hoped Carto would be a little more meandering and exploratory, but it’s very much a puzzle game. Eventually you’ll have built the map out and will begin to come across little settlements and different folk. Each little area – grassland, forest, shifting desert, frozen wastelands, even a maze-like library – has its own set of colourful characters who are in need of assistance. They’ll have very precise instructions for you to follow.

Suddenly, Carto becomes less about the self-expression of making maps and more of a jigsaw puzzle. So and so lives in the middle of the island’s largest forest, and you’ll need to shift the tiles around until you’ve created what’s been asked of you, and – voilà – the person you were looking for, or the place you were in search of, will suddenly appear.

Carto
Carto. Credit: Sunhead Games

All the to-and-fro tile shifting can be an interesting way of navigation, and it often feels satisfying as things unravel and you unlock the path ahead. Of course, the downside is there is only ever one real solution. It feels as though the joy of maps and map-creation pairs poorly with the jigsaw puzzle form.

Cartography should be a little more playful and freeform. Like the sea monsters at the edge of a map, sometimes what’s tantalising are the blank spaces and borderlands, as opposed to just the place names and very precise directions or coordinates. It’s unfortunate, but as Carto’s puzzles become more complex, and more fussy, a lot of the mystery and wonder of cartography is slowly sucked out.

‘Carto’ is out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Mac and PC.

Our Verdict

Carto is a great looking game – cute and whimsical, if you like that kind of thing – although the vivid, child-like visuals are a somewhat strange pairing alongside the rigid puzzles. At its best, Carto creates those brilliant, eureka puzzle moments, where a detail down on the ground is reflected out on the map and vice versa. It’s just a pity the map-creation doesn’t allow for a bit more imaginative wandering.

Pros

  • Exploring via shifting map tiles is an intriguing core concept
  • Some clever puzzle interactions that alternate between the world and map
  • Pleasant to look at and listen to

Cons

  • Map-making really just a rigid jigsaw puzzle
  • Some fussy puzzles that require very specific solutions
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