I learned what a cartographer was thanks to video games (thanks, Halo) so perhaps it’s fitting that I enjoyed Carto so much. The Humble Games title is a nice departure from the next-gen console blitz of AAA games all reaching toward our ray tracing future, sure, but it’s also just a really satisfying puzzle game with some familiar but unique mechanics.
If you’ve ever played the board game Carcassonne, you mostly know how to play Carto. The adventure game has an explorable map you can wander aimlessly but is best parsed in square sections you can rearrange to discover new tiles and secrets. Each piece of the puzzle is different, and each side of these square is a type of land that matches up with and connects to others. Grass connects to grass, water connects to water and forest connects to forest. On and on. You can even move the tile Carto is standing on to shuffle yourself across lands easily, as long as everything lines up.
Some new pieces are stumbled upon as white wisps as you adventure, but more complex and essential pieces only emerge after solving puzzles. You’ll find sheep, discover a desert oasis and shuffle around room tiles to unlock new tools that help you move around each island faster. The building and tunnel puzzles are particularly interesting, as they take a bit more thinking to piece together.
Depending on how sharp you are, some puzzle solutions may be very obvious. But executing those solutions often takes some digging. There’s usually someone you can talk to on screen that will give slight hints, and nothing is so complex that it feels impossible. Finding the balance between obvious and challenging is the hardest part of making a puzzle game, but Carto hits the sweet spot. It’s a game that flows surprisingly well, and even if the mechanics are simple there’s some depth to the journey you take.
Carto is the exact opposite of the major AAA releases that get consoles sold and garner huge marketing budgets. The graphics are fairly simple and the animation is far from stunning. It’s an indie title through and through, but it’s well made and offers a nice, quick journey that’s equally clever and funny. It’s a calm, clever puzzle game that has a lot of heart.
I played my way through this on the Switch, and it’s the perfect platform for this kind of indie game. It’s portable, doesn’t need long sessions to make progress and also looks good on a bigger screen. And in a gaming marketplace where bigger and better is selling new consoles, Carto plays well on pretty much any device you like using for games.
It’s extremely chill, with relaxing tunes and challenging-yet-encouraging puzzles. As the landscapes change and Carto finds her way through islands and tunnels and mysterious forests, it’s easy to be reminded that sometimes the simplest mechanics are the ones that work best. And at $20, Carto offers a journey that’s well worth the shuffle.