Quick View of Summer Catchers
Release date: February 11, 2021
Price: $11.99 (console) – $3.99 (mobile)
Platform: Nintendo Switch, PC via Steam, and Android & iOS
A code for this game for Nintendo Switch was provided by Noodlecake
Catching A Good Impression
I was on board with Summer Catchers from the second it came across my feed. Gorgeous pixel art showcasing vibrant landscapes in moody tones? A majestic, crystalline deer in a snowy forest? A girl on a mo-ped?
This indie game was looking to sweep me off my feet.
Summer Catchers starts with the conceit that its protagonist, ever stuck in her snowy surroundings, longs to see the ocean. And so, with some help from the denizens of the forest, she sets out to make that journey. A long one, to be sure, but one with a deeply personal motivation.
It sounds like the kind of slow, quaint, and charming experience that made Void fall for A Short Hike. But that is not exactly what I got.
Wintry Mixed Bag
I want to be clear that Summer Catchers is still a visual treat, especially if you’re keen on pixel art and nature. Luckily, I’m smack-dab inside that Venn diagram, and that was enough to keep me on the hook. From the little log-cabin outposts you visit to carefully-crafted postcards, Summer Catchers puts you through some delightful settings.
Getting there, however, is a bit more hectic.
To reach each checkpoint on your path to the sea, you traverse “endless runner” courses on your home-made scooter. It’s your job as the player to react to obstacles – a frozen lake, brambles, a boulder – by using one of your scooter’s cartoony power-ups.
In theory, this isn’t so bad. In practice, it’s not so good.
The first hook is that everything flies by very quickly, even on the lowest difficulty. It feels like there’s a disconnect between the seat-of-your-pants gameplay and the more long-haul conceit of the story.
The second is that your ability to react is notably inconsistent. Rather than mapping each of your abilities to a different button, only three are made available at any given time. Some may be duplicates. You can only swap out one every five seconds, and juggle all three with just one action button. This all makes it so cumbersome to react to split-second developments that, more often than not, I crashed my scooter due to what felt like rotten luck rather than a mistake on my part.
It’s why, even at a third of the price, I wouldn’t want to play with the imprecise control of a touch-screen. While the developers have done a little to re-balance the game away from its luck factors, it still leaves me scrambling in a way that feels more madcap than challenging.
Thankfully, Summer Catchers has more going on than frantically dodging logs in the road. Every now and again, the game will break away to gawk at the passing scenery, or a friendly fairy-light, or a vignette in a forest clearing.
When this game is having its quieter moments, they feel genuinely quaint and cathartic. I just wish they came more frequently.
One or two show up each level, which feels like a decent pace. But you’re stuck in those levels for so long that you need the break. The game’s structure is a very formulaic “fulfill four tasks to unlock the path forward”, meaning you have to play each section a minimum of five times total (plus once more with some belligerent nemesis hot on your heels). And because they can only be taken individually from the same hub, it feels less like progress, and more like you’re being gated away from the whole journey you’ve undertaken in the first place.
There’s not that much variety in the prescribed tasks, either, which makes it a delight when a deer-spirit pulls you aside to attract fireflies with music. It feels like you’ve hit something of a roadside attraction, but a tiny one made just for you. And it’s those small moments that will always endear a story to me.
Unfortunately, there’s a catch. You only get one opportunity to see each attraction. So if you flub that Rhythm-Game-From-Left-Field in the woods, you’ll never get another swing at it unless you start a new save file. For some, this could make these moments more fleeting and meaningful. For others, you could be left feeling like you’re missing out.
Catching Up with Friends
Probably my favorite attraction is the companions. Each area of lodging in the game (aside from providing you a charming postcard and a tiny peek into what set your character abroad in the first place) introduces you to one or two new companions.
Some will join you, offering a little assistance when you’re lucky enough to have the right tool to hit the right power-up in a level. Others become your pen-pals, offering a little bit of respite each time you come back to gather supplies and “reload” on jump power-ups.
A few will take time before they respond to you at all.
It’s yet another way in which the game both keeps and breaks up its own repetition. You get some consistency as a comfort, but there’s enough variance on a case-by-case basis that I at least enjoyed checking in with each one, especially how with the game could just as easily have left each behind as you progress. Instead, by building a long-standing rapport with each, the world you’re traveling through starts to feel richer and more complete.
It’s a nice, gradual way of opening up the character’s world socially hand-in-hand with their broadening horizons through travel.
It is when Summer Catchers moves at that pace that it is most successful.
Will it Catch your Fancy?
I still feel fondly about Summer Catchers in spite of itself. The art is endlessly appealing, I love the road-trip setting, and I even ultimately have fun with the scooter-driving gameplay once I settle in with it. My problems seem to stem more with how its appearance is sometimes odds with what the experience it’s giving me. I don’t even know if that’s more a result of me having unrealistic and unfounded expectations.
But there genuinely do seem to be come odd choices in here. With the game’s devotion to great pixel art, why do the menus break style and use smooth, generic typefaces? Why do I have to pay money for each instance of a bumper power-up like I’m putting coins into an arcade machine?
Some players will be able to shrug those details and missed connections off more easily. For them, the individual parts of Summer Catchers will probably work perfectly well, and the frantic pace of its levels could hook them between its more thoughtful moments.
But as a complete product, a few parts don’t exactly line up, which leaves me unsure where to place it. At the very least, I feel strongly about the experience that it’s so close to being, which means it’s doing something right.