2023 has been a curious gaming experience. Aside from the obvious Diablos and Resident Evil 4s, my favourite gaming moments have come to Xbox extremely late. If I told a PC player that my favourite gaming experiences have been Inscryption, Loop Hero and now Chicory: A Colorful Tale, they would tell me to go back to 2021 where I belong. Because all these games are tardy, arriving on the black box a year or two later than most other systems.
But when the games are this good, we shrug and appreciate what we have. Because you could turn to ‘delightful’ in a dictionary and find a picture of Chicory: A Colorful Tale. Save yourself the bother and play it on Game Pass ASAP.
Game Pass is the perfect home for it, as it happens. Chicory: A Colorful Tale is neither difficult nor particularly long (although we are happy to be challenged on that, as we have spent hours rummaging around for collectible hats and trash piles). It’s a great example of the discrete, high quality single-player games that Phil Spencer wants to speckle Game Pass with, and we honestly couldn’t think of many better ways to spend a weekend.
Chicory may be in the title, but the main character is l the Janitor. They are a young dog who’s basically on an internship for the superstar of the region, the titular Chicory. They clean, they fix things – all the unglamorous stuff. But in the opening moments of the game, Chicory goes AWOL, the colourful world turns black and white, and Chicory’s signature paintbrush is left discarded on the floor. Something very, very wrong has happened, and all the events we mentioned are undoubtedly connected.
Chicory’s paintbrush was used to paint the world. It’s the reason why Chicory, as the Wielder, was so important and well regarded. He would lift everyone’s spirits by adding a splash of colour, but now you are the wielder of the paintbrush and Chicory is gone. So starts the biggest of all imposter syndromes: you are a janitor who must now save the world, without any artistic ability nor an idea of how to use the paintbrush.
In its broadest strokes, Chicory: A Colorful Tale is a tale we’ve all heard before. Star Wars and plenty of other stories have the inconspicuous farmhand becoming a hero. But what Chicory: A Colorful Tale does so well is to clothe it in neuroses. The Janitor doesn’t think they can do the job, the world doesn’t think it, and you soon find out that Chicory wasn’t much up to it either. But this little pup is so determined to make people happy that they will keep going regardless, and it’s the barrelling positivity mixed with the very believable sense that everyone is making it up as they go along that makes the story truly sing.
It also helps that the writing is so stellar. Chicory: A Colorful Tale has its cake and well and truly eats it: characters are so lived in and lovely that you can fully believe they exist, but they merrily break the fourth wall too, forcing a chuckle out of you. There’s a capybara who bemoans the modern generation, that they never listen and always skip dialogue options. Our instinct was to listen to everything they say and, lo and behold, she handed me one of the game’s collectibles. It’s an indication of another of Chicory: A Colorful Tale’s joys, that if you can think of something, not only can you probably do it, but you’ll be healthily rewarded too.
In terms of the shape of the game, it’s closest to Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. It’s there in the game perspective, the occasional fetch-questing, and the dungeons in each corner of the map. It’s even true of the black-and-white colour palette. There’s a similar playfulness and likeability to it too. If you’ve ever lost yourself in that classic Gameboy game, you will undoubtedly get lost in this too.
What separates them, of course, is the paintbrush. Chicory: A Colorful Tale makes use of the second analogue stick (the first is used to move your pup about), as it’s used to move a paintbrush about the screen. With a tap of RT, you can splodge some paint onto the screen, and the size, colour and pattern of that splodge can be customised to your needs.
At first, we wondered if the painting was going to be superficial. The opening villagers want the Janitor to paint their houses (politely enjoying your messy results), and while it’s satisfying – Chicory: A Colorful Tale never feels laborious in painting whole screens – it’s also lightweight. But we should have had more faith. Everything you can do with a paintbrush (but not that) is possible in Chicory: A Colorful Tale.
You see, corruption has seeped into the black and white world of Chicory, and you have to grab hold of whatever braveness you have remaining, and defeat it. But clear the corruption, and suddenly you gain abilities. You can paint paths to light the dark, or create slides out of paint that luge you from one area to another. Paint can eventually sit in water, allowing you to swim, or cover walls so you can climb.
All of these abilities have appeared in other games – is there a Metroidvania that doesn’t have an upgrade that eventually lets you wall-climb? – but it’s the painting aspect that makes them sing. Not only do you have to spot the obstacle (harder than it seems in the clear but dense worlds), but you have the joy of painting it, and then finding the right ability to overcome it. The tactility of the painting elevates this Metroidvania and makes others bland and monochrome in comparison.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale trusts the player, too, and it makes us wish that more games did the same. You can explore wherever you want, and there’s a good chance that you will get far before hitting an obstacle. In other games, that sudden dead-end would be a frustration, but there are so, so many collectibles, with at least one on every screen, that you always feel like you’ve made progress. Cats, trash, hats and paintbrush effects are all tucked in the corners.
You might have to work for them, which is another of Chicory: A Colorful Tale’s many joys. Optional puzzles encourage you to paint flowers that fling you across the room, or paint buttons that activate platforms. These puzzles are never onerous (a guide was used just once), and most are optional. If you’re still stuck, you can call your parents from the game’s many phone boxes, where your mum answers with a slight hint, while your competitive dad is available for more specific spoilers. We love the very relatable way the mum sighs and asks if you want to talk to dad, as you can see dad’s hand reaching for the phone.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale is so helpful, in fact, that our eight-year old daughter is making headway through the game. There’s no combat, not unless you count boss encounters where you dodge attacks and jab paintbrushes in their eyes, and our daughter hands us the pad at those moments. But otherwise, this is an undemanding, completely approachable game that the whole family can play. There’s even a co-op option, which allows a second player to join in as a supplementary paintbrush.
It’s hard to pinpoint what we like most about Chicory: A Colorful Tale. Is it the endless collectibles that fires up our completionist impulses? Is it the sheer tactile bliss of colouring something? Is it the writing, which draws from an inkwell that includes mental health issues and other modern topics, but not in anything close to a preachy manner? Or is it the coziness of the world, the desire to find more of it, and to paint it all?
It is, of course, all of the above. The accumulated feeling is of a game that welcomes you in and insists you just play. It wants you to freely express yourself on the world and the many canvases it provides you with, as you decorate doughnuts, t-shirts and paintings. It wants you to push out in any direction, painting the world and using that paint as your pathway. And it wants to reward you through collectibles, progress and a response from its characters, regardless of what funky thing you do to them.
Through all the live services and toxic multiplayer experiences, we can lose sight of some simple joys of gaming. It can be an escape, and a means of expression. It can be a comfort and a feeling of progression. Chicory: A Colorful Tale reminds us that games can do them all with one flourish of its paintbrush.