Pikmin 3 review: To boldly go

-–-Transmission begins---

Sinan's Log, Hour 0

Disc, check. Wii U, check. Pen and paper, check. Way too many snacks ... check.

Looking at reconnaissance. The Pikmin are an alien race of little colored globules, creatures that are half-plant, half-animal, and full-cute. In their new Wii U adventure – which the locals refer to as "Pikmin 3" – they're joined by three new playable characters, alien explorers from the planet Koppai who crash-land on the Pikmin homeworld. There the explorers must survive on the fruit around them, which they find through the help of the indigenous critters. Unlike humans, the explorers are content with fruit, and wouldn't prefer tacos.

Alright, let's do this.%Gallery-191097%

Sinan's Log, Hour 2

Settling in, snack levels already low. Maybe it was something in the third taco, but I feel content just staring at Pikmin 3, basking in the strange A Bug's Life perspective, the lush garden with its towering plant pots and hulking insects. The animations are detailed, each Pikmin's emotion palpable.

This kaleidoscopic world is pleasant not least because my repertoire is simple. A button to whistle calls Pikmin in a highlighted area to my side, while another button lets me throw them at targets. The Pikmin automatically react to nearby objects, taking down walls, picking up fruit, or attacking a creature as needed.

This trademark Nintendo simplicity and beauty is mixed with abundant death and despair. In my shaky hands, many Pikmin fall foul of the garden, swallowed by wildlife, drowned, electrocuted – at least I've learned I can whistle to shake them out of their pain in the seconds before they perish.

Even as their sad little cries and ghostly wisps become familiar, I find being with the Pikmin relaxing. There are always new Pikmin to grow, after all, happy to be around (and happy to die, it seems).

It helps that there is no time pressure to punish my neglect. I need one spare container of fruit juice to survive each in-game day, and it's easy to bolster supplies. The days, roughly 20 minutes in real-time, feel distinct. I'm forming goals for each one, like building a bridge, or finally reaching a juicy-looking plum. While there's the priority of defeating each section's boss, the overall looseness lets me explore at my leisure, and when the sun sets my satisfaction is personal.

It's all rather lovely. Feeling chilled. Signing off.

Sinan's Log, Hour 5

These are the continuing voyages of the starship Joystiq.

As time wears on, I'm drawn to the GamePad with Pikmin 3. The Wii Remote offers more accurate aiming with its pointer, but the right analog camera control feels vital. The Pro Controller also offers this, but doesn't have the touchscreen map.

At first it unsettled me, but it's clever how the touch controls lead me to drag delegated routes for explorers rather than tap them, making sure I consider the obstacles along the way. Also, off-TV support is a boon for this now supine, snack-engorged reviewer.

I'm happy to report my three new explorers are solid company. Not because of their personalities, which are a bit lacking, but because with them I can multitask effectively. I'm growing confident enough to switch between the three, and place them across different areas of the map with different Pikmin – there's a lot to get done each day. Yet Pikmin 3 doesn't punish me when my confidence wanes. If I want to stick to one big group, I can; things just take a little longer.

The additional missions outside the story mode impose time limits, so they're not as flexible, although the option of a local co-op partner helps. In the competitive Bingo Battle, which tasks two players with collecting items the quickest, the GamePad map is too strong an asset for whichever player uses it. It's a nice idea, but the campaign is definitely Pikmin 3's main draw.

Maybe more disappointing, then, is the lack of puzzles that take advantage of Pikmin 3's multiple explorers. Some ask the heroes to chuck each other across platforms, in order to delegate Pikmin in places they otherwise couldn't reach. Beyond those few instances, it never feels essential to have multiple explorers. ​Maybe it's a side effect of the simplistic available actions, but it still feels like a missed opportunity.

Also bothersome is the Pikmin's sometimes clumsy AI, leading them to get stuck around corners, often in rising and declining spots. It can be avoided with careful movement, but it's still unnecessarily annoying, and out of place in an otherwise carefully designed game.

Despite analyzing these foibles, and my dangerously waning snack levels, I'm still enjoying my exploration of Pikmin 3. It's almost too pleasant not too, and I remain tickled pink.

Signing off.

Sinan's Log, Hour 9

Talking of pink, I've just encountered the second new Pikmin, the winged fellows. They joined late in the story, as did the water-loving blue Pikmin. The first newbies, the rock Pikmin, arrived early on, as did the series' standard red and yellow guys. Pikmin 2's white and purple offerings, meanwhile, only feature in the bonus missions and multiplayer mode.

It's strange to come so far without reflecting on the new Pikmin, but in the game's puzzle-filled world they feel like connecting pieces that just fit. The rock Pikmin can break hard structures like glass and ice, while the winged Pikmin pull pink stalks out of the ground (these hide various goodies like fruit and coins). Like blue Pikmin, they can also safely travel across water. The beauty, of course, is that it's much more complicated than that, especially in combat.

The rock Pikmin, for example, can cause serious damage when hurled at a target, and do great work against armor. The winged Pikmin aren't good battlers, except when it comes to air-fights. It goes deeper still, but I like to treat these new Pikmin as tank and air units and, like any tank and air units, they need to be used wisely.

That's especially true in boss fights, which at this late, snack-depleted stage are getting much tougher and much, much bigger. Even with the aid of directional dodges, when facing the likes of a massive teeth-stuffed sandworm, or a lanky long-legged spider, a mistimed hurl or whistle can lead to dozens of Pikmin sinking, squishing, and slamming to their dooms. The Simon Says nature of the puzzles doesn't apply here, and bosses require considered strategies, lest I want to be stuck replenishing my Pikmin the next day. It's a challenging change of pace.

This mission is very nearly at an end. Signing off.

Sinan's Log, Hour 12

The mission is over. As I report this final log, I feel almost ready to get up.

It's with great pleasure I complete my tour of duty with Pikmin 3. It's not the most complicated experience, but its cute exterior belies some inner sophistication, even if it is sometimes let down by little troubles. Despite its overall friendly nature, Pikmin 3 can make its giant garden truly intimidating when it wants to, ratcheting up the challenge for its boss fights, but never to the point of becoming overwhelming.

Even after losing a thousand Pikmin to horrible, painful deaths, maybe it says it all that I still want to explore Pikmin 3 further, to accomplish one more task by the day's end, and just to exist in its beautiful, relaxing world a little bit longer.

---Transmission ends---

This review is based on a retail copy of Pikmin 3, provided by Nintendo.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.