I knew I had to give Aka a shot when I saw the trailer for it. It’s one of those games that’s too adorable to ignore as an animal lover. You’re telling me I can pet a dog and be petted by a dog? Say no more. I’m in. Cosmo Gatto’s Aka contains several likable moments, from taking a nap on a giant capybara to helping a crocodile-like creature feed its babies. As much as I adore the storyline and soundtrack, the clunky gameplay slightly dampens the gaming experience.
You can buy Aka on Steam or Nintendo Switch for $12.99.
Story – Learning to Heal
War has finally ended, and an adorable soldier named Aka must rebuild his life. The red panda seeks a paradise rid of bloodshed, so he sets sail to a quiet place named Pine Tree Island. Thus, Aka’s journey towards inner peace begins. Overcoming this internal struggle won’t be easy, of course. Demons of the warrior’s past still linger.
Aka wastes no time evoking emotions. Sentimental moments pack wallops, which I wasn’t expecting given the adorable art style. As you explore lands, you’ll meet several ghosts who’ve died during warfare and cling onto the islands because of their trauma. It’s up to Aka to help them go to the afterlife. Moving on and finding inner peace is a recurring theme in the game, something many of us can sympathize with.
I also love the idea of repairing the damage from war, instead of simply moving past it. Since Aka is now leading the life of a pacifist, his focus is to learn to create and not destroy. As a result, the red panda uses his sword to collect grass for crafting materials instead of slaying enemies. Aka can also collect dead trees and traps left behind from the war. These gameplay aspects are simple, yet memorable because they represent the red panda’s healing process after the brutal battle. This symbolism is uncommon in many games where the primary goal is to kill.
A couple of plot twists caught me off guard as well. The ending, in particular, was one of the biggest. It’s sad, but sticks with you even after the game ends.
Gameplay – Mixed Feelings
Let me start by saying I gained early access to Aka on December 13th of 2022. You may wonder why didn’t I review it then. Well, the truth is Aka had so many bugs at the time that it was unplayable. They ranged from minor glitches, like Aka’s frozen-sliding pose, to major ones, such as unreachable sections of islands. Eventually, I encountered a game-breaking bug where Aka got stuck behind a rock in a cave.
I had no choice but to wait for patches so I could complete the game. Since the updates, I’ve finally revisited the red panda’s adventure. Occasional glitches and lags remain, but there’s no need to worry about game-breaking bugs anymore.
My relationship with Aka’s gameplay is still a little complicated even after the patches. While it’s quite relaxing, some discrepancies make it a little cumbersome.
Exploration – The Islands are Your Playground
Aka is an open-world experience that gives you plenty of freedom to trek four areas: Pine Tree Island, Maple Island, Palm Island, and Bamboo Island. You start at Pine Tree Island, where your bison friend named Thom helps you get settled in. From there, you’ll explore the islands and learn of their secrets while unlocking quests and doing outdoor activities.
One of the best parts about Aka is that there’s more to the islands than meets the eye. Each island invites you to discover every nook and cranny, and there are tons of hidden areas. In fact, many items come from interacting with the environment and being curious. It’s easy to get distracted by the unknown faces and the strange items you stumble across.
Although the explorative freedom in Aka is great, perhaps the game offers too much of it and not enough guidance. I’m mostly talking about the obscurity of the main mission. I often felt lost and had to guess how to continue the story because of the complete lack of direction.
At some point, I thought I was doing the main mission, but it turned out to be a side quest. You only get a better sense of what you’re supposed to do upon visiting a building on a specific island. It’s helpful to introduce the main objective early on so players can avoid feeling aimless. There’s no need to spoon feed gamers, but at least give some sign that they’re on the right track to finish the primary quest.
Speaking of quests, you don’t always get rewards for completing them. I thought I’d mention that since many expect rewards for doing favors. Quests vary from cleaning islands to crafting materials to cooking for characters. There’s also a lot of backtracking, so you’ll revisit the same areas in search of certain materials.
I should also point out that the design of the island selection process isn’t very smooth. When you interact with the boat to sail to another island, the map pops up. Once you move Aka over the island you want to travel to, you automatically transport there. This mechanic is frustrating because it’s easy to hover over an island you didn’t want to go to by accident.
Activities – So Much to do!
Crafting, cooking, farming, and mining are mainly for completing quests for other characters.
Farming is my favorite activity, and it’s more complicated than you may expect. Specific crops interest certain wildlife. For example, carrots attract black flies and repel white ones, while onions do the exact opposite. Therefore, it’s best to plant these two next to each other so that you’ll get the best crops.
Farming in Aka is fun, though a few kinks are hard to ignore. More specifically, a blue square highlights the spot where Aka aims to sow seeds, but you have to position him perfectly to plant it in the desired area. That often requires adjusting the red panda many times since the controls are sensitive. Harvesting crops (and picking up other items) is also tricky. When I prompt Aka to pick something up, sometimes he’ll just stand on top of the item. Other times he’ll do the motion of picking something up, but he won’t actually grab the object.
When you need a break from farming and other rigorous activities, you can chill out with other animals. If you’re interested in star-gazing with a rhinoceros or basking in a hot spring with monkeys, you can do those things in Aka!
Aka can also enjoy his calm lifestyle with mini-games, including a marble maze and several rhythm games. The most interesting one involved playing cards.
Strangely enough, there’s no guide to the card game. I had trouble in the beginning because I didn’t know what to do, but it was fun once I got the hang of it. The coolest part is that the characters you meet become playable cards. In other words, you earn cards by meeting new people. I love this idea because it encourages players to talk to strangers.
Graphics – They’re Better on PC
Aka’s graphics initially drew me in, but I noticed they looked off on my Switch. The art style is still appealing overall, though it looked better in the trailer. I couldn’t figure out why at first. Then I stumbled upon the developer’s playthrough on PC, and it made sense. The PC version’s graphics are better than the Nintendo Switch version’s display.
As you can see, the PC version (right) looks clearer and more vibrant compared to the Switch version (left). The font in the picture taken from the PC also appears sharper. The worst part about the graphics on both platforms is the world map. It looks like a rushed afterthought, rather than a planned out addition to the game.
Despite that, it’s obvious the developers spent much time on most of the graphics. For starters, a different region inspires each island’s landscape. From the cherry blossom trees of East Asia to the sandy beaches of South America, there’s plenty of variation in scenery.
The mixing of 3D, 2D, and hand-drawn graphics is the best thing about Aka’s art style. Most of the characters that contribute to the story are in 2D, and it’s an intriguing contrast to the 3D environment. The developers also use a watercolor art style while elaborating a character’s background, which gives a refreshing change.
Music and Sound – The Sounds of Serenity
Aka’s music is just as outstanding as it is diverse. Every island has its own daytime and nighttime song with a mixture of melodies. Flutes and violins mingle while you’re tending your farm on Pine Tree Island. Meanwhile, Bamboo Island showcases what sounds like a pipa (a traditional Chinese string instrument) alongside bamboo flutes. The cello and piano join in during the songs of the night, creating a slower, heavier aura that makes you more relaxed.
While the music is amazing, the sound design is okay in comparison. Nothing particularly stood out about it. I will say that I enjoyed listening to the environmental sounds and music while on Pine Tree Island. The birds in the background add a nice touch while you wander around in the beautiful nature.
Aka was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch.