Date: March 20, 2023
Tchia came right when I needed it. When I got the review code to play it, there was a lot going on. With tasks piling up and family troubles at the same time, it is safe to say that stress was mounting. I was close to being overwhelmed, and it was going to be some time before I’d be able to take meaningful time off — I’m sure most reading this can relate.
And then I booted up Tchia, and over the course of the following hours, got that much needed reprieve, and much more. I won’t beat around the bush: Tchia shot right up to the top of my list of games released in 2023, and it will take an extremely strong contender to knock it off that pedestal. Tchia is beautiful, poignant, and refreshing, all at the same time. It is authentic and genuine, and any other words of praise that I could apply to it.
Tchia is an achievement, not just for the developers at Acaweb, but for the New Caledonian culture they represent, and for the world that desperately needs a game this wholesome right now. Whether analyzing the magnificent exploration, the touching story, the light, engaging gameplay, or the infinitely charming characters, Tchia stands on top of a huge (and growing) pile of “cozy games” to be one of the best examples of the mood and genre. It isn’t for everyone — gamers who only prefer dark action games that pack a challenge need not purchase — but if slower, more serene games are up your alley, you owe yourself to pick it up. Let me try to explain why.
It is rare to begin a review in earnest with “Exploration” as a header. Generally, “Gameplay” comes first, or sometimes “Story” when a gameis particularly narrative-focused. But not usually “Exploration,” even when that is a selling point of the game. And that is, quite simply, because I’ve never played a game that did exploration as well as Tchia does. It is not only at the heart of the game, it is what everything is built around.
The developers sought to create a game world reminiscent of their home country of New Caledonia, and to inspire wonder in players for it. And they succeeded; through passion and dedication, Acaweb has created a game which shows off the tropical beauty of New Caledonia in a fantastic way.
So yes, Tchia’s world is incredible. The fictional islands it is set on, primarily Ija Näj and Madra Näj (among other, smaller, perhaps more secretive islands), are gorgeously designed. Tchia’s game world is not the densest packed, the most detailed, the largest, or the most exciting. But it just might be the most lovely. It borrows quite a lot from Legend of Zela: Breath of the Wild, in that you have a powerful climbing mechanic and can go, essentially, anywhere you see, but that is where the similarities end. Whereas Breath of the Wild still guided you through its world by, essentially, using environmental markers, enemy difficulty, and so on to guide players from place to place, Tchia truly gives players freedom of exploration. Treat Tchia like a vacation: go wherever you want, when you want.
What makes this work is also Tchia’s biggest selling point: you are able to jump into any creature or object you see and take control of it. While this is not the first game to feature a mechanic where you can, essentially, shapeshift, it might be the most elegant. Taking control of something is intuitive, and the controls for any creature — whether they be on land, in the air, or in the sea — is equally great. There is basically no learning curve for becoming a bird or a shark, and this makes traversal natural and intuitive.
In the hours I played, I never once dreaded having to traverse long distances, and never used fast travel aside from to test it out; moving around the world as various animals (and by boat) is so satisfying, and exploring is so relaxing, that I never felt a need to rush it.
That is not even to really touch on the excellently done rafting mechanics, which is your fastest method of traversal (not counting fast travel). By making you control each part — sails, rudder, and anchor — seperately, it means that you stay engaged while piloting the raft, without ever feeling overwhelmed. A recurring theme in Tchia, the boat gives you just enough to work with that it is lightly stimulating to keep your engrossed in the exploration, while staying simple enough that anyone could play and enjoy it.
I could go on, mentioning how the compass and lack of specificity on the map encourages getting lost, or how the puzzles and treasures are all places in such a way as to give you that sense of blissful wonder very frequently, but I think you get the picture. Exploration in Tchia, like the whole game, is deceptively deep while being simple and engaging enough to rope in anyone needing a serene journey.
But the exploration of a game, even when it is as good as Tchia, only matters so long as the endpoints of that traversal is worthwhile. Thankfully, in Tchia, it is. Between the modest score of collectibles, the tens of minigames, and the many fascinating gameplay mechanics that sporadically show up, Tchia is a game that always wants to show you something new. But it is more than that; it is a game that seeks to explore through gameplay what most games only ever engage with aesthetically or through their narratives.
Let me give you an example (probably the best in the game): Tchia has a music minigame. This has been done many times before. Entire games — hell, entire subindustries within gaming — have done music. But, with the possible exception of something like Rocksmith (which is as much educational software as it is game), music never really felt right. The focus of every rhythm game I’ve ever played, even the best ones, has been wrong. But Tchia? Tchia gets it right. And it all boils down to this tutorial screen:
“You can’t win or lose at music, just have fun!” might as well be the tagline for the entire game (replacing “music” for whatever is most applicable). Tchia is not about winning or losing, it isn’t about racking up the highest score or going the fastest or completing things optimally. It is about enjoying yourself. About exploring. When the music comes on? Sure, you can try to get 100% accuracy; maybe that test of skill is your jam. But what it’s about, really, is the music; play around with it. Ignore some of the suggested notes. Play your own. Just feel it. That’s what music is about, after all.
And that’s what makes Tchia’s gameplay stand out. It is, again, simple and easy. But it all serves a purpose; you don’t just complete minigames — which make up a huge chunk of the activities within Tchia — for the sake of them, you do them because they are fun, and often because they help you engage with what the game wants to show you (namely, the culture of New Caledonia, or at least their artistic variant of it).
I will not waste your time by telling you the dozens of gameplay mechanics that feed into Tchia, the destinations of all the wonderful exploration. They are best experienced themselves by the open-minded enjoyer. That is to say, it is best if you just dive right in.
Tchia should not be a game with a brilliant story. Hell, it didn’t even have to have much of a story at all; it could’ve just been an island exploration game with a loose premise to give Tchia herself a reason to be there. If Acaweb had done that, the game still would’ve stood by itself. They were under no obligation to craft a touching, heartfelt, meaningful story within this world; and yet, they did.
The story begins with Tchia, a girl who lives alone with her father on a tiny island, far away from the two larger islands. She is lonely, but content with her life. The short interactions she has with her father are wholesome, and the game immediately lets us know its cultural priorities by only featuring French and Drehu voice lines (the two languages most commonly spoken in New Caledonia). It, like the rest of the game, begins warmly, and gives us insight into other ways of life. But, quickly, the game shows that it is willing to engage with more than just fluffy scene-setting.
Before long, Tchia’s father is kidnapped by a cruel, machete-wielding man with sunglasses. He takes her father away, to Maevora, an evil spirit who exerts complete control over the region. Tchia is, thankfully, rescued by a kind merchant/vagabond of sorts, and thus begins the story proper. Throughout it, while never deviating from the calm mood of the game, you will get the chance to explore a shocking breadth of emotions. From joyful bliss to solemn contemplation to awkward teenage angst, this game is not afraid to let you simply feel things.
At the heart of this story, as is at the heart of most good stories, is a huge cast of charming and intriguing characters. I don’t know if there is a game where I’ve found as much joy in meeting new characters and having more interactions with them. Whether you are slowly winning over a shotgun-wielding farmer, awkwardly trying to not fumble a handshake/high five/fist bump with a fellow kid, or trying your best to appeal to the better nature of a baby-eating demon, every cutscene brings so much life and charm, all because of the characters’ interactions with Tchia and each other.
The key to this is relatability, with essentially every character (with the exception of the aforementioned baby-eating demon) being both deeper and more quirky than they first seem, so that further interactions with them revealed more about who they are, almost always showing a softer side that is immediately relatable.
And no connection in the game is as powerful as the one as it’s arguable core: the adorable relationship that forms between Tchia and Louise, the daughter of the aforementioned shotgun-wielding farmer. To say too much would spoil what might be the most heartwarming “kid crush” stories around, so I’ll suffice it to say: Tchia, for everything else it juggles, also manages to casually toss in one of the cutest queer romances ever written, especially within family-friendly, wholesome confines. Between this and the devastating Episode 3 of The Last of Us show, it is an excellent year for wholesome, meaningful queer stories to find their way into media properties one might not expect.
All of this is to say that Tchia, of all games, did the impossible. It created a story that, at once, melds seamlessly into its world and gameplay, while still packing plenty of emotional punch, AND without ever breaking the mood of serenity that the other aspects of the game work so hard to provide. Not to mention the slew of cultural information the game manages to slide in, making the New-Caledonian-inspired culture so fascinating that it practically begs me to read through New Caledonia’s Wikipedia page to learn more. This is a game with something to say, and that is willing to say it softly enough that it forces you to listen.
Tchia is a magnificent game, and so far the best game I’ve played this year. Its atmosphere, its sense of wonder, its charm is all undeniable. From exploration that actually feels like exploration, a cultural exploration that is at once imaginitive and informative, and a story that is genuinely sweet and sweeping, Tchia is an achievement. It will help put New Caledonia on the map for many gamers, and there is no better foot for it to put forward than Tchia.
This is not the game to go to if you want something difficult and dark — in fact, there is hardly any difficulty to speak of. But this is the game you should go to if you just want something cozy to play, a relaxing experience that is fascinating and engaging, without wearing you down or stressing you out. This is an escapist game and at the same time a very deep one, perfect for contemplative days or soothing escapades. There are tiny flaws — some very small bits of jank, slow traversal mechanics that might make some more impatient gamers groan a bit — but those are so massively outweighed by the positives that they might as well be non-existent. If you need a reprieve, this is for you.
Tchia releases on March 21st for the Epic Games Store. If you need a wholesome game to let yourself sink into, you owe it to yourself to check it out here.