The Perfect Pencil, from Studio Cima, is a fairly traditional 2D action-platformer, in a crowded genre, but it’s elevated by the psychological narrative and thematic visuals.
You take control of John – a man withdrawn from a world that he watches pass by at a great distance. He envisions that distance as a terrifying corridor of darkness.
The game begins as a headless John plunges into the darkness, awakens on a beach, and receives a new projector head from a seemingly friendly “repairman”. A flashback of a white, snarling beast establishes the primary villain before he sets off to discover more about the world he now inhabits and a way to escape – if that’s really what he wants.
Shortly after entering a mysterious, mouldy, and mushroom-filled forest, John pulls a pencil from the foot of a trapped man. Unfortunately for John, this new secondary antagonist – despite his lamentations – was quite content with an excuse to stay put. Wielding the pencil like a sword, John sends him fleeing and The Perfect Pencil settles into a comfortably familiar rhythm.
That said, it quickly becomes clear your choices in dialogue, and your willingness to assist many of the characters you encounter in the world could influence John’s fate. You’ll need to resist the completionist urge that most videogames expect, and think before you fulfil a request.
Now – at least based on the demo – The Perfect Pencil has already nailed the foundations of a good action-platformer, with responsive controls, precise platforming, and pattern-based combat.
John runs, jumps, and dashes through dense, interconnected zones. Using his new projector head and convenient radar, he can also scan objects and characters for both insightful observations and hidden quest-related items.
He can slash in multiple directions, including while airborne, and builds up a combo meter to perform charged healing strikes. It’s perfect for topping up health by slaying basic foes after a tough battle, but it can be used mid-combat if you master the timing. Boss fights are multi-phased battles that’ll test your reflexes and ability to land hit.
Upgrades come in the form of lenses that provide a potential buff, but you can only equip so many simultaneously based on their combined power. It remains to be seen how deep the combat gets, and how extensive the player upgrades are, but first impressions are satisfying.
Of course, like any good game in this genre, the world is also packed with hidden passages, optional encounters, riddles that lead to stashes, and – mercifully – the ability to record important clues so you don’t have to backtrack. The Perfect Pencil uses scattered checkpoints and has respawning enemies, but getting back on track after death never took long as you can avoid most of them.
Despite its compact size, the visuals in The Perfect Pencil are fantastic, thanks to a combination of thematic designs, detailed animations, and solid technical performance.
The opening beach is dark and oppressive as John stumbles forward like a deer in headlights. The first major area you encounter – the “Soft Forest” – is filled with characters literally trapped by their habitual misery and laziness, sporting a mix of vibrant green mould and pink, noxious mushrooms. Colourful pillows, blankets, cradles, and bottles litter the environment while enemies manifest as variants of literal man-babies.
Animations are detailed, smooth, and expressive, from John’s traversal and combat movement to enemy attacks, and their pitiful, overwrought death animations.
There’s no voice acting, but the expressive and tonally-appropriate mumbling is effective. Unfortunately, the general audio and music felt subdued and underutilized. Maybe it’s just the nature of the demo area, but I feel a more dominant soundtrack would go a long way to bolstering the atmosphere.
Now, The Perfect Pencil doesn’t stray too far from genre standards but my brain kept thinking back to Hollow Knight – always a good comparison in my books when it comes to tight gameplay and world structure.
The psychological themes, in both the narrative and visual design, are intriguing and I’m curious to see how many aspects of mental health they’re willing to explore.
As it stands, if you’re a fan of 2D action-platformers, a more thoughtful narrative, or simply crave mechanically-satisfying gameplay, give The Perfect Pencil demo a go and keep it on your wishlist.
A preview code for The Perfect Pencil was provided to gameblur by the publisher.