Cocoon Hands-On Preview: Best In Show

“Even making the game was like a puzzle,” explained Cocoon‘s art director Erwin Kho as we talked on one of Summer Game Fest’s comfy couches. So, there’s no doubt it’s puzzles all the way down in the mind-stretching game from Geometric Interactive. Which makes sense considering former Limbo and Inside gameplay designer Jeppe Carlsen is one of the studio’s founders.

The strength of that connection — and the stellar-looking trailer we’d seen at launch — assured it a place among my demo appointments for the event. I walked away from my time with Cocoon absolutely astounded to find a title starring a bug was my game of the show.

Every level of the section I played was masterful. Its design is so intuitive I didn’t even realize until partway through that there was no UI. No prompts. No tutorial. Just gameplay that trusted and guided me in equal parts. I’m a huge fan of this kind of game design — my love of Tunic is well known — and it’s brilliantly implemented here.

Immediately following the events of the reveal trailer, I plop onto the desert floor. My previous residence is an enigmatic blend of futuristic technology and nature, as most things I encounter in the game are. Its minimalistic look seamlessly stitches the two disparate elements together into a gorgeous, alien world.

During our chat, Kho spoke about the various inspirations for this dazzling but strange concept. One of his favorites being a close-up of a deep sea fish. The kind that dwells so far under the ocean’s depths it’s adapted to a sunless world. I didn’t get to see the level inspired by this creature, but it paints a tantalizing picture.

Taking my first steps into the desert, I find I’m actually in a small oasis. I splash through the water, exploring all the paths leading from the shallow central pool. Eventually, I emerge from behind a pillar of arid rocks and the camera pulls out as I look over an unexpected vista. The canyon below hosts a strange orb with an ominous black bird circling overhead. I stay for a moment enjoying the view and the unobtrusive music, which I quickly dub Desert Meditation.

It would have been easy to miss this spot — and there’s no gameplay advantage to finding it — but now the world felt bigger, more mysterious, and I had an objective. Needing to find the orb, I track back through the dusty pathways and make my way to the ground below.

Would it surprise you to learn it was a puzzle? As the first one in the game, it’s not difficult. Instead, the challenge acts more as a way to learn some simple mechanics and visual language. I grab the orb, which is attached to a kind of bungee cord, and drag it across the sandy floor to open a gate.

It doesn’t sound like an amazing feat, but the bird I’d spotted when I was high above the ground on a safe perch cast a very different-feeling shadow as I stood on the open plain. Feeling vulnerable and tense, I imagine the predator swooping down to end my little insect life every second it took to unbar the way. In another game, it might have been a forgettable, low-stakes teaching moment. But no part of Cocoon’s demo is forgettable.

Even getting from place to place varies wildly in the thirty-minute experience. An elevator launches me into the air to scale a cliff. A tangle of pipes and corresponding switches require me to run alongside my orb to open a path. A once-invisible bridge reveals itself, section by section, under my feet as I inch along its track. And, of course, there’s jumping between worlds.

Some of the orbs I encounter contain universes unto themselves. Though I can carry them like an overgrown marble, there are also points at which I can hop into them, teleporting into the world I could previously only glimpse from its glassy surface. The creatures in each world could live their entire lives not knowing they were enveloped in a, possibly, neverending chain of worlds within worlds. The concept makes my head spin for a second.

My first world-hoping experience doesn’t go exactly as planned. I seem to unleash a powerful being on my desert planet — which I come to think of as home base. Chasing the creature down triggers a boss battle that’s more a puzzle than a fight.

The oversized enemy charges me, leaving behind waves of crystals I try desperately to avoid. But it didn’t count on a native, bomb-like creature living in the soil and I watch carefully for signs of these incendiary lifeforms I can use to fight back. The crystal patterns get increasingly intricate and harder to avoid as time goes on. However, when I get hit, I don’t die.

Interestingly, losing to the boss thrusts me out of my current world instead of killing me. This is fantastic for a couple of reasons. One, it acts like a forgiving checkpoint system that lets me jump back into the action almost immediately to try again. Two, it maintains a sense of risk — so the fight still has tension — but also cleverly mitigates frustration.

Destroying the boss results in an unexpected new ability that further opens up the world. I could have continued to explore Cocoon for the rest of the day, but sadly, I only had a short time to play. Knock on wood, it’s able to stick to its 2023 release window because I need to see what else it has in store as soon as possible.

6 responses to “Cocoon Hands-On Preview: Best In Show”

  1. Great coverage, Jill. Cocoon and Hauntii are ones to watch!

    1. Thank you, and they really are!

  2. […] Written coverage on everything I saw at the not-E3 celebrations will roll on into next week, but did you catch me talking about Summer Game Fest over the week? I snuck, stumbled, and smooth-talked my way onto a few cool guest spots and gushed about my favorite indies of the show. […]

  3. […] had a sneaking suspicion we’d be getting an update on this SGF darling today. Thankfully, my instincts didn’t lead me wrong. Fans can look forward to getting their […]

  4. […] no news on what we can expect to see at the the showcase. However, with past hits like Cocoon, Gunbrella, and Sea of Stars, Day of the Devs is always a must-watch […]

  5. […] plenty to play as autumn looms. If you’d like to know more about Cocoon, read our Summer Game Fest preview, in which Jill declares it the game of the show. Make sure it’s on your radar and your gaming […]

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