Pop-Up Pilgrims is reminiscent of older puzzle platformers, like Lemmings and The Simpsons: Krusty’s Fun House, in which you oversee the safety of hapless, one thought villagers. As developer Dakko Dakko’s debut title for the PlayStation VR, the game is reminiscent of the charm attached to their previous releases but doesn’t do enough to justify its existence as a virtual reality experience.
Dakko Dakko has made a name for itself after developing a series of games for Sony’s mobile gaming devices. In 2011, they created The 2D Adventures of Rotating Octopus Character for the PlayStation Portable (later ported to the PlayStation Vita) and followed it up with 2013’s Floating Cloud God Saves the Pilgrims. Pop-Up Pilgrims is a spiritual successor of sorts to the latter largely because it features the same deity that led his followers through a dangerous pilgrimage. Once again, the pilgrims are up to their ears in trouble and need help navigating across cliffs and enemies in order to get home. Pop-Up Pilgrims is a straight-up puzzle game, challenging the player to get everyone to safety but also use them to collect golden idols, break through barriers, and trigger various mechanisms.
The challenge lies in your inability to directly control the movement of the pilgrims. They do their own thing, walking in one direction until they come in contact with obstacles that transfer them across planes. Although the pilgrims can mostly fend for themselves (they won’t get into harm’s way on their own), they need help hopping across gaps, breaking down rubble piles, and avoiding most enemies. Your primary means of interaction is limited to making the pilgrims jump across gaps by moving an on-screen cloud cursor with your head to select a character. After that, tilting your head in the desired direction will display a trajectory that shows how far and high the pilgrim will go when the jump button is triggered. Also, by collecting devotion tokens, you can spawn special clouds that will toss a pilgrim in a direction of your choosing, thus taking away time spent babysitting their route. Later stages introduce all sorts of different mechanics, like timed switches, icons that will change the pilgrim’s behavior for a short time, and locked exit gates that require special orbs to open. Keeping the pilgrims safe is paramount because the game ends if you lose them.
This all sounds pretty straightforward but I found it irritating trying to move the characters around in the direction or route I created for them - and the headset is to blame. It’d be really nice if you could lock onto a pilgrim because I would lose my tracking if I turned my head too much, causing me to miss the timing of a jump or fail it completely, killing the pilgrim and having to restart the stage from the beginning. This issue is even more annoying for longer stages with one or two pilgrims. I cannot properly convey how much it sucks getting near the end only to die because I got tripped up trying to make a jump.
Comprised of ten stages per level, advancing through the game involves achieving specific score thresholds. Your end of stage score is based on how many pilgrims you saved and the number of golden idols collected, and determines your performance rating and whether or not you advance to the next area. Failure to meet the minimum score for the stage means repeating it until you do. And yet, the game doesn’t properly communicate how to get better scores for silver and gold medals. The only values that have a score attached are idols and pilgrims, and as every level features a finite number of each (some stages only have you working with one or two pilgrims), it feels difficult - if not impossible - to score higher. I thought that time might be a factor and replayed an earlier level as fast as I could but it made no difference. As a matter of fact, the tally screen does not take time or number of retries into account. It’s very confusing.
As a virtual reality game, Pop-Up Pilgrims is kind of an odd duck. At best, it looks like a console game that was tweaked with enough depth of field tricks to make it VR-friendly. However, the game’s Saturday morning cartoon visuals translate really well to the platform, as the colorful textures really pop against the backgrounds and best of all, the low resolution “screen door” effect inherent to the PSVR is barely noticeable. There are some caveats, though. Some stages are built so wide that you can’t rely on using your peripheral vision, and have to turn your head all the way to the left or right. Because of the targeting mechanic concerns I mentioned earlier, having to look away to check the progress of a switch timer or ensure that the pilgrims on the other side of the map are safe, can make it easy to inadvertently lose one of them to a bad jump or some off-screen danger. Juggling characters located on different parts of wider maps is a test in patience and the constant worry of having to restart the stage because of a mistake is an uncomfortable burden to bear.
Though later levels offer different and more challenging obstacles, it won’t take you long to settle in. I wish the practice of targeting and interacting with people was less reliant on the headset, but if that had been the case, there’d be no reason to make it a virtual reality enabled product (though to be truthful, it doesn’t need to be). If you’ve played any of Dakko Dakko’s previous games, you have a fairly good idea of what you’re getting into; a simple and straightforward game that bubbles with personality and is effective at passing the time.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.