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Portabliss: Tengami


This is Portabliss, a column about downloadable games that can be played on the go.

Days after having soaked in the culture of Tokyo's suburban streets, I played Tengami for the first time, and it was the perfect set up to blow me away. Nyamyam's point-and-click (or point-and-tap) adventure draws inspiration from Japanese fairy tales, and when you see it in action for the first time it certainly feels magical. Its papercraft world, glossed in subtle, flowing shades of red, green, and blue, folds in and out frame-by-frame through some meticulous 3D wizardry. Sliding to turn and fold the paper of its pop-up landscape is an elegant pleasure, and walking in its world and visiting its lovingly detailed shrines makes me wish I'd really taken the time to explore Tokyo's rich history, rather than spending all my hours and yen in Akihabara arcades – that was great too, but still.

Tengami is the creation of a three-man team, which explains why it took more than three years to create. As Nyamyam's Jennifer Schneidereit told me in September, a good year or so was spent on the 3D digital editor that makes the game's pop-ups mirror the physics of paper. The technical aspects run even deeper, like how the book's look and feel is based on a natural Japanese paper that has watercolor-like gradients, or how its puzzling temples have their roots in the schematics of real Japanese shrines.

Gallery: Tengami (iPad) | 16 Photos

Nyamyam wants players to feel a sense of wonder as they play Tengami, to enjoy just exploring it like they would any pop-up book. A recent trailer showed a woman taking her iPad to a babbling brook, where she played the game against the serenity of an evergreen forest. What the trailer didn't show was her furrowing her brow at the tortuous puzzles.

Don't get me wrong, I can dig a complicated, thorny puzzle – I loved trying to work out what to do with the clouds of Braid. That said, the environmental puzzles of Tengami, which have me going back and forth and turning pages left and right to find clues hidden within the folds of paper, seems at odds with the deliberately slow pace of the game. When I say slow pace, I don't just mean the picturesque world, or the subtle narrative, but the literal speed at which my character walks, nay, plods through the environment. Backtracking at a snail's pace is a severe test of how much I appreciate my surroundings.

I enjoy Tengami more when I have to directly affect its papercraft world to traverse it. I feel more connected to the game's pop-up feel when I'm tugging structures out or folding them back in to create paths for myself; I would happily play a game built singularly around its paper-layered mazes, no matter how difficult they got.

As it is, I find the first two chapters of Tengami like slightly overcooked Wagyu beef: tough, a little dry, and not as rich or resplendent as they could be. Maybe there's an element of acclimatizing in play, but it's a shame that I'm only really salivating by Tengami's third and final chapter. Everything slots neatly into place here, and I adore navigating the sea to the gentle creeks of my wooden sailboat, complemented by the jade mountains in the backdrop, and the delicate melodies of the shamisen strings. Even the tricky, clue-unearthing puzzles feel more compact and less frustrating.

Tengami will undoubtedly feel too slow and too awkward for some, but others will be happy to give it its time – it only lasts a few hours – and really revel in its sublimely rendered take on Japanese pop-up. It's out now on iOS for $5 – it looks strong enough on iPhone, but if you have an iPad then play it on that. Wii U, PC and Mac versions are due in the summer.
This review is based on the iOS version Tengami, provided by Nyamyam. Images: Nyamyam.

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