Chariot review: Girl, you're gonna carry that weight

PC, Mac and Linux. Also coming to PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, Xbox 360 and PS3

In a clearing, all nature's beauty comes to bear witness as a dead king is laid to rest. His daughter has taken his coffin from the royal palace to a sacred place of burial to pay her last respects. It's a bittersweet, but solemn moment that starts Chariot; a moment that is ripped from you by a needle scratch ending the gentle score, as the ghost of the dead king poofs into ethereal being and starts to complain. The coffin is not regal enough. There's not enough treasure. Why can't he have a better sepulchre? It goes on like this for the next few hours.

And your job is to give the ungrateful jerk everything he wants.

Make no mistake, the nameless king whose coffin you lug around in Chariot wouldn't last 30 seconds in say, Morrowind, Westeros, or Middle-earth, but because he's in a delightfully lush fantasy world of sparkling mines and overgrown flora, where even the undead skeletons are unerringly cheerful and hand out supplies like candy, the king's neverending bastardry goes unchallenged. Not since Katamari Damacy's King of All Cosmos has there been a monarch so demanding, who contributes nothing to the Sisyphean task at hand. That task is to help the princess ferry the dead king's coffin across all the lands he once surveyed, magnetically collecting precious gems along the way until you reach a resting place more to his liking. And thus an adventure begins through dozens of labyrinthine stages, with this 200 lb albatross in tow.

The king's coffin is on wheels, and using a surprisingly intuitive mix of the right trigger, which latches ropes to the coffin, L1, which has the princess climb or pull herself closer, and the right stick, which draws the coffin in or gives it more slack, the king can be pushed, towed along, used as ballast, slid down hills, lowered and raised, and occasionally just plain tossed off of stuff in order to reach your goal. Insurmountable obstacles, strange arrangements of platforms, hills, and rails (some of which only the princess can cross, others, only the dead can stand on) require a spelunker's ingenuity to cross, with careful and thorough considerations given to the coffin's momentum in any given situation. You can actually find leftover blueprints for spelunking gadgets, like a peg to stick the coffin to a particular surface, or a propulsion engine which gives the coffin more momentum for getting up complicated inclines, but you can only carry one gadget at a time, and knowing which one you need requires a lot of trial-and-error, and there's never just one solution to a problem. It's a mental skillset that rarely gets exercised enough in games (aside from, naturally, Spelunky), and Chariot does great work throwing the player into some diabolically challenging situations without making any puzzle seem impossible.

Thankfully, both the princess and the coffin are invincible, so the occasional situation of deciding to just drop the coffin from great heights, or swinging it into walls, or accidentally slamming it into the princess' head, have no repercussions. There are, however, treasure-stealing little beasties called Looters who are typically drawn by the sound of the coffin hitting too hard, or are released from cave walls when you steal a jewel blocking their hiding place. They don't do damage, but unless the princess beats them away with her sword, they do run off with your ill-gotten treasure, to the king's supreme dismay if you get to the end of a stage with nothing to show for it. Still, most of Chariot's challenge is rooted in practical questions of physics. Getting yourself from point A to point B is not a big deal. How to do it while carting around a box of literal dead weight is the tricky part. Seeing your best laid plans come together is just as likely to bring a satisfied smile to your face as it is to send your blood pressure into the stratosphere.

It is definitely a challenging, slow-moving ordeal that the poor princess has to endure to please the king here, and that's why Chariot is at its best when you have help. In a rare move in these halcyon days of always-online, jump-in-jump-out multiplayer, your help needs to be sitting on the same couch holding a second controller. Local multiplayer is something of a dying art – though it's not without its adherents – and Chariot makes a strong case that there's still life in the idea. The second player plays as the princess' fiancee, armed, oddly enough, with a slingshot as opposed to the princess' sword. It's strange, but having a second player not only creates even more work for every one of the puzzles, but also injects a sorely-needed dose of strategy and camaraderie.

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You can play Chariot solo, but you probably shouldn't. Many of its most frustrating puzzles don't necessarily get less frustrating with a partner, but bickering whenever a plan goes awry is half the fun. Single players can still traverse the worlds, even if the scattered co-op exclusive puzzles remain out of reach, but the frustration of the game's hardest areas are compounded when it's just you. No one has your back if you slip off the wrong cliff. There's no one to bounce around new ideas for swinging the coffin across a level. There's no one to high five in game when an insane idea works. Yes, there is a high five button, and hitting it when no one else is there is the loneliest feeling. It's just you, and the never ending whining of the King.

That brings us back to Chariot's biggest issue. Ultimately, it's a quest to appease a mad, domineering, passive aggressive tyrant whose greed and constant, malicious jabs during gameplay are inescapable. All the glorious loot you collect isn't for the princess' sake, i,e, the person actually doing all the work. Your impetus for doing the co-op only areas, or trying to cram the coffin into strange spaces, or straying from the main path in general is the constant search for more loot. More loot gets you better equipment, finding the blueprints for new gadgets and gear out in the world makes the journey a little easier, but it still is just a means to an end. And the end is, indeed, just a quest for more loot, and it's not a powerful enough reason to want to keep going when the game is at its hardest, and you've heard the same complaints from the king rattling off for the 300th time. There are plenty of games that get by on being sheer collect-a-thons, but few where the collect-a-thon's is ultimately a self-perpetuating machine to make a loathsome person happy.

As much as Chariot wants to charm you with a jaunty, medieval score and bright, cartoonish aesthetic, the journey through rolling hills and meadows can still be soured by the wrong companionship. The times you spend with a friend, celebrating the fun, working through the harsh, and sharing the anxiety of an uncertain solution are the best. The hours spent in the court of the crabby king, wishing there was a button to press to send the coffin down the nearest river and be done with it are the worst. Ultimately, friendship wins over all. Chariot's constant stream of devious, brain-bending obstacles, and the sense of accomplishment you get when you and/or a friend persevere are enough to earn a recommendation, with the caveat that you'll have to deal with one awful, squeaky, rotten third wheel along the way.

This review is based on a PSN download of the PS4 version of Chariot, provided by Frima Studio. Images: Frima Studio.

Justin is an ex-patriate from New Jersey, currently living in upstate New York. He has been a media journalist for 12 years for multiple websites, including Corona, UGO, CHUD, Gamespot, and Slant Magazine. Outside of his long-standing passion for games, he is an avid fan of film. 5,000+ word screeds on the merits of the Matrix sequels are available on request.

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