featured image tchia preview
Content Type: Gaming News
Date: January 19, 2023

I need to start by saying something very important: go put Tchia on your wishlist right now. You don’t even need to read this, just do it, before you forget, then come back and let me tell you why.

Done? Okay, we can continue then.

When the developers of Tchia, Awaceb, reached out for us to preview their game, I was dubious. I’ve played many 3D platformers from small teams and liked very few. That is until I watched the trailers, as well as an introduction to the game from the developers. From that moment on, I knew I’d enjoy what I was about to experience. But, enjoying something is a spectrum, and it remained to be seen how well the game actually played, and how it actually made me feel. I won’t beat around the bush here: the experience only got better once the controls were in my hands. Let me tell you the story of how the preview build of a game that hasn’t even been released yet made me feel something that I haven’t felt for years in gaming: wonder.

When I booted up the game, an earnest developer’s voice told me what to expect with the preview. He explained a few mechanics, mentioned what had happened in the story so far, and told me about how the game was inspired by New Caledonia, the developers’ homeland, a tiny island in the Pacific, near Australia. I was enthralled, but antsy to actually play. After all, it doesn’t take much to make something look cool when you have edited footage and a script. I was ready to play. After looking through the menus to see some of the best accessibility options I have ever seen in a game (and I want to give true accolades for that, in and of itself), I started the game.

tchia preview shotgun woman start
Gaby and Louise, when Tchia first meets them

Once I loaded in, I was almost immediately greeted with a shotgun blast — not the way I expected my serene island adventure to begin. Our protagonist Tchia, downtrodden at the point in the story after her father’s kidnapping, is being threatened by a woman sitting on her porch, surrounded by beer cans. Near the woman is her daughter, looking shy and somewhat embarrassed by her mother’s behavior. The wonderful, stylistic art design is almost at odds with the scenario, until the woman speaks, and tells me about her love for crab, and how she will welcome me if I can just bring her a delicious red crab. Now is when I will mention that all of the local, traditional-language voice actors do a great job, and the language barrier is never an issue thanks to good subtitling.

A fetch quest, then? Not the most engaging, but I can do it. First, though, I have to test things out. I run around and climb onto a nearby house (not the woman’s; that would be rude). Alright, the climbing is solid, allowing you to traverse vertical surfaces with ease. Nice. There is a Breath-of-the-Wild-esque stamina meter, and when it is exhausted, Tchia stumbles down, hilariou sly rag-dolling to the ground. I come across a collectible, a Braided Trinket, which I later learn is a kind of currency that can be exchanged for cosmetics (more on that later), and then I decide to try out the one mechanic I’d heard the most about: soul-jumping.

Near me was a dog, rendered in the same adorable style as the rest of the game. A perfect target for my soul-jumping control. I aimed, went into a darkened vision that highlighted the dog (and several other soul-jump targets) in green, and then I took control. And, like that, I was the dog. I ran around, dug a little, and realized that the dog was much faster than Tchia was on foot, making it clear that soul-jumping wasn’t just a gimmick; it would be critical for traversing the huge island that I found myself on. Testing out my abilities on a nearby pigeon (as well as a rock, a chicken, a tortoise, and a lamp), I took flight, with simple, easy movement that I was not expecting from such a small project. Oh, and everything you soul-capture gets a little flower in its hair, like Tchia herself. It’s very adorable.

I opened the map and looked around, and then realized something was wrong… I couldn’t find myself on it. And here we come to the first thing that really surprised me about Tchia: it makes you actually explore. The map is detailed and helpful, but it does not display where you are on it, only where you last interacted with the navigational prompt (like a vantage point or road sign). You can press a button to give you a general idea of what area you are in, but it is up to you to navigate.

tchia preview map
I only had access to the northern island, Ija Näj, but it was more than enough to make me yearn for more

And what a joy navigation is. Throughout the game, I’d become lost — like, actually lost — in the forests and mountains of the island. I would find myself in strange places, collecting odd objects, and taking control of wonderful animals. I would find secrets, and I would huff with frustration as a landmark I thought I was approaching turned out not to appear as I crested a hill. The game world isn’t so large as to make that a huge burden, but just large enough that exploring its world feels like actually exploring somewhere. My eyes were not glued to a minimap or a compass; they were searching for landmarks or following paths. I can honestly say I’ve never experienced something so much like real-world hiking and exploration in a game. I loved it.

But, back to the game. I was a pigeon, flying towards my objective after figuring out where it was using the map. Into a little marsh, I descended, my eyes peeled for red crabs. They were easy enough to find, and of course, I soul-jumped into them before putting a few in my pouch (more than the woman I talked to asked for; remember that), and then I gathered a few more Braided Trinkets. The trinkets scattered throughout the island are plentiful, and each has a unique animal design that makes it just that much more quaint. Then I went back to Gaby, eager to see what the story held.

tchia preview characters cutscene
The characters are so quaint and whimsical, and immediately likable. Even the one that drinks too much and shoots a warning shot at you.

I was expecting quests. A little reward, a short cutscene, and a brief explanation of what to do next. I got that, sure, but so much more. Here is where Tchia won my heart. The woman thanked me earnestly, in the style of collectithon games (while downing a beer, just one of the little ticks that makes so many characters in Tchia so immediately endearing). She gave me a treasure map (more on that later) and some cosmetic items (also more on that later) and then asked me to help her daughter, whose name is Louise, make dinner in preparation for a feast that night.

The next scene saw me rolling tortillas alongside Louise, a sweet girl with pigtails and a little birthmark on her cheek (this game gets all the points imaginable for representation. The minigame was very simple, reminding me a bit of Cooking Mama, but it did require some active engagement. That would be boring, except that the two girls, Tchia and Louise, had a heartfelt, meaningful, and realistic discussion about their lives. And that simple, mundane moment felt so much more real than countless moments in games with much higher budgets where cutscenes show characters, fully voiced and mo-capped by talented actors, expressing themselves at emotional peaks. Something about the mundane tasks of just making food in a kitchen while having a conversation with something new just… Felt right. It made me smile, it made me feel warm. It was authentic, earnest, and moving in a way that games rarely are. I never thought one of my favorite moments in gaming in years would come while making chimichangas, but I’m glad it did.

tchia preview rolling food

After the food was made and nighttime rolled around, it was time for a celebration, featuring the whole village. Lively art and stylistically-designed characters were everywhere, but there was something deeper. This was not just some party, but a meaningful cultural touchstone, the kind of thing you see in travel documentaries. I’ve never been to New Caledonia, and I’ve never even researched it, but I was immediately transported there by this celebration, lovingly made by the developers as a genuine attempt to show the world the beauty of their culture and homeland. Those kinds of attempts can ring hollow easily, or be hokey and overly sincere, but the balance is perfect here. The developers wanted to show me what their world was like, and they succeeded, making me fall in love with a place I’d never thought much about before.

When the music began, I was smiling ear-to-ear, my wonder far exceeding what the situation probably merited. Tchia was on stage, holding her ukelele (something you are able to play at any time), and a circular prompt appeared. I would be joining the band tonight, it seemed. The minigame here is simple, though much trickier than the food-making one from before. Its mechanics weren’t much different from those of any rhythm game, even though it did display what actual notes and chords I was playing (something I appreciate, as a musician). But the song, a traditional language piece celebrating life, was so celebratory, so fun, that it again moved me. I was part of the celebrations. Talk about immersion, and some gamers might mention how Arthur Morgan shivers in the cold in Red Dead Redemption 2. Me? I’ll mention the minigame where I played the ukelele to the tune of a celebration song from New Caledonia in Tchia.

tchia preview celebration ukelele playing

The party ended, and I realized that I didn’t really know what to do next. Yes, there was an objective marker on my map, but it was there due to something from before I took control of Tchia in this preview. I wanted to explore. And I had a treasure map.

And a good treasure hunt requires the right outfit, so I sat down at a nearby campfire and looked at the customization. I was expecting something small (because it hadn’t yet sunk in just how lovingly-crafted this game is), and I was again blown away. Tabs upon tabs of customization, each with room for dozens of entries (and with quite a few already unlocked). Even without having done much, I had more ability to customize Tchia’s look than most triple-A open-world games give you over the course of the game. There were no stats associated with the gear, it was all freeform. You could just… make Tchia dress however you wanted. I don’t normally obsess over dress-up in games but, dang it, this game won me over so much that I just had to get Tchia looking just right. And I had the option to do so. I’d later learn that the same would apply to your boat, which is the fastest way to traverse the coast in the game.

tchia preview customization
Even early on, the customization is impressive. I imagine that these menus will be surprisingly full after collecting everything.

After gearing Tchia up as a makeshift mountaineer, I rushed off south, toward the spot where my treasure map indicated there would be a treasure. Finding it was simple enough — I just had to look for the big, round rock off the coast — and it rewarded me with yet more stylish cosmetics, as well as a map and key to the next treasure chest. After a couple more, I came across one which required something more.

Dropping into a great big hole with a lake at the bottom, I found the treasure chest easily enough. But there was a problem: it was wrapped in chains, and I couldn’t open it, even with the key! I looked around, but the only things around me were birds; nothing that would be able to break the chains. What was I to do?

And then I remembered it. The extra crabs I saved, from my earlier quest! I pulled one out of my bag, soul-jumped into it, and snapped at the chains, hoping it would work. And, lo and behold, the chains snapped! Puzzle solved, using the resources of the island and my unique ability! I felt like a resourceful genius (until I later realized that there was a crab symbol on the map, but we are going to pretend that wasn’t there). From then on, I always made sure to keep useful items in my backpack, in case I needed them. And, at times, I did, whether to burn away sinister cloth spirits or to unlock other routes to other treasure chests. Between that and traversal, I made incredible use of the game’s soul-jumping mechanic, making it fully integrated with the game’s other systems and world.

tchia preview crab chest unlocking
Chains, prepare to be destroyed

And that’s the thing. Everything feels so perfectly made for one goal: to share with the world a love for New Caledonia. It is personal, it is deep, it is informative, and it is beautiful. Everything, from the absolutely wonderful, lovely characters to the amazing vistas to the intricate navigation, down to every tiny detail, exudes passion for the project. I’ve always thought that games are best when they set out to do one specific thing very, very well, and Tchia set out to show people the beauty of the developers’ homeland. And it has, indeed, done it very, very well.

After I finished exploring, having seen much of the island’s southern reaches (enamored the whole while), I decided it was time to head north, to a little “L” that had been sitting on my map for a while. The boat ride was slow and serene, and I kept looping back to the island to grab another Braided Trinket or investigate a village, but I eventually made it to the “L,” which is where I once again found Louise, the daughter of the woman with the shotgun from before, near a little shack filled with scenic photographs and a camera.

The girl was sitting on a wooden platform, at the edge of a cliff. The landscape below and before her was stunning in the sunset; a smaller island off the coast rose majestically from the water. I don’t usually get stunned by vistas in games — it is too easy to make a landscape look impressive — but this did it. Gorgeous. Breath-taking. Serene, like looking out upon nature while on a real-world vacation.

tchia preview wooden overlook incredible vista
Don’t pretend this isn’t breathtaking. It’s better when you’re playing it.

After soaking in the view, the camera cut back to Tchia and Louise, the latter taking a picture of the scene. They are sitting at the edge of this wooden platform and looking out. They are friends now, after their heartfelt conversation while making food, enjoying each other’s company. Tchia pulls out her Ukelele, and Louise smiles at her. And then… Magic.

While I played a melody using the same mechanic as before, Louise sang a song in her native language about “Cocotte, the small green parakeet.” The camera pans across the landscape, at one point following a parakeet, as Louise continues the song, reveling in the beautiful imagery in its lyrics. And I sat there in awe, totally emotionally captured by this cute, adorable little game about New Caledonia.

The scene was just two new friends, calmly playing music together in front of this gorgeous view, and it left me with tears in my eyes. I’ve watched Lee die in front of Clementine, I’ve watched John Marston make his final stand, and I’ve played Silent Hill 2 and That Dragon, Cancer. I’ve seen cities rise into the air, dropped white phosphorous on sheltering civilians, and let Abby go at the end of The Last of Us Part II. And yet, two girls singing and playing the ukelele in a gameplay preview of a serene open-world platformer hits as hard as any of those, and makes me feel the kind of wonder I haven’t felt in gaming since I slew Valus in Shadow of the Colossus, way back in 2005.

tchia preview green parakeet song moving
It doesn’t look like much, but this serene moment is what makes Tchia my most anticipated game this year

Like… What else can I say? This is a quaint game. It isn’t action-packed, and there is some polish it still needs (it is a very early build of a game made by 9 people, after all). Its objectives are simple, and its main plot does seem a bit threadbare. But… Well, it is the only game I’ve played that made me fall in love with a place I’ve never been, and the only game to make me want to explore its world for the sake of it in years. And, more so, it is the only game I can truly, honestly describe as beautiful, as a piece of art, in a very long time.

If this game is built up to completion with the same level of love and passion and reverence for the culture that was put into this preview, it will probably be one of the best games released this year. And, even before that, I can confidently say that you should play it when it releases. Whoever you are, you owe it to yourself to experience Tchia when it releases sometime later this year.

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