Two-dimensions and virtual reality may not sound like they naturally align, but it’s not that Pop-Up Pilgrims omits the third dimension entirely. You become the third dimension.
You control Floating Cloud God, a (seemingly) benevolent being from on high, rather than his loyal subjects on the ground. Floating Cloud God has the ability to inspire his acolytes to take a leap of faith in the direction of his choosing, allowing them to overcome obstacles otherwise impossible. Gaps in the ground have never been more dangerous!
Pop-Up Pilgrims originally asks one thing of you: grant the pilgrims safe passage by escorting them to the torii in order to recover some lost scrolls. Controls are simple to understand and feel great when properly utilized. A small(er) cloud acts as the centric cursor used to highlight activatable subjects. You can direct their trajectory in a small radius around them before flinging one off a cliff, and the left and right directional buttons make it easier to pinpoint a specific pilgrim in a cluster. The little guys and gals will continuously walk back and forth until you make them leap somewhere else…unless they run into an environmental trigger. Pilgrim-sized plants indicate that they’ll jump up or down to the next layer. Bridges can be turned on and off to connect more distant layers. Enemies are typically reserved to their static spot on the map, but they don’t need to move much in order to cause a ruckus among your disciples.
It’s all an incredibly simple set-up, but the game’s magic doesn’t come from its core mechanics, it comes from its visual depth. Screenshots do this game no justice. Not only does it boast an alluring art style with cute, chibi-like characters, it plays with perspective in a wild way.
Each layer of the ground pops forward as if you’re standing in front of a moving diorama. Switching between layers with the up and down buttons is met with a nice jiggle of the selected landscape, so you almost always have a solid grasp of your position on the field. Layers can hide collectible items and even entire platforms that are key to beating a level. Levels wrap around you, as well, but it never feels wholly encompassing. The area all around (and behind) you is a soft, faded color that changes depending on the level. While it’s nice to be able to focus on the game at hand, Pop-Up Pilgrims relishes in its ability to distract you while your pilgrims are running around untamed. It’s weird to see it just…stop.
As Floating Cloud God, you can do more than just influence your followers to jump. Once certain conditions are met, like bringing a green sphere to a shrine, some hearts will fill the space underneath Floating Cloud God’s cloud. Holding R2 and hitting a directional button will place a jumping cloud on the ground, moving the first pilgrim that runs into it in the corresponding direction. Using this mechanic is damn near mandatory sometimes, especially when your pilgrims turn into an archer. Archers are buffed-up pilgrims that gain a ranged attack in exchange for a leap. Warriors run fast and leap farther while attacking any hostile in their path, but they can be a pain to direct. A clever use of god clouds can really get you out of a pickle, but many levels are left unchecked. Sometimes you gain way more hearts than you need, allowing you to freely subvert the natural obstacles painted by the environment. Boss fights require you to navigate the land while observing the enemy’s position, but manually positioning pilgrims removes most of the difficulty. However, if left unchecked, your pilgrims will be floating up to the sky as a ghost in no time.
In the same way, coins can be picked up and brought to a certain point (on the maps where coins are present, not always) for more pilgrims. There’s technically no limit to how many pilgrims you can have, so long as there are enough coins to pick them up, but they become superfluous later on in the game. Each pilgrim is worth 50 points, as is each shiny, golden, squid-looking item floating around the map. You only need eight pilgrims returned and eight golden collectibles to get a gold “perfect score” plaque at the end of a level, or 800 points total. 400 points is the minimum required to progress, which means you really only need to get one pilgrim safely through the level if you collect seven of the golden icons. This lack of weight given to the lives of pilgrims kind of flips the whole game on its head, but that aspect doesn’t start to show its prevalence until you get closer to the end of the game.
Pop-Up Pilgrims is far from a bad time. Its endearing cleverness is quick to establish itself, but it wears thin once design inconsistencies start to pop-up towards the end.
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