Wholesome platformers are becoming more commonplace in the indie scene, and I think that’s a good thing. However, they seem to be adopting a direction that’s more like, “what if it was Banjo-Kazooie, but you don’t have to do anything difficult.” That’s fine, but when I visualize my ideal cozy platformer, it’s Chibi-Robo.
Kela van der Deijl’s Mail Time is shaping up to be a bit of both. It’s a simple joy-maker with some platforming and collecting mixed in. It has been on my radar for some time now, and with Steam Next Fest I was excited to try out the demo.
Mail scouts march
Mail Time has you begin by designing your own “mail scout.” While it’s a pretty simplistic character creator, I always appreciate the addition in games like this. Once you’ve got your flesh assembled, you set off on your first delivery. The important detail here is that you’re of diminutive size, which means you’ll be weaving through giant vegetation on your way to deliver letters to animals.
While you’re told to make your delivery and come right back, doing so will severely shorten the demo. It’s somewhat delightful to me that you essentially have the option of just focusing on the critical goal, but if you actually want to dig into the meat of the game, you’re going to have to make friends with the animals.
Unsurprisingly, they all have problems ranging from petty to priority. For example, one little guy has dropped all his blueberries (in bizarre spots scattered around the map), and you need to gather them. Another requires you to deliver rent before she’s promptly evicted. Yes, it’s largely a lot of point-A to point-B fetch quests, but I’m not sure what else you’d do in a mail delivery game. I’m personally down for that sort of thing, I’ve always liked those quests in games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time where you knock on like, 15 doors until someone lobs a scimitar at you that you’ll never use.
A short trek
I did as much as I could in the demo and clocked in under a half-hour. I’m not sure how indicative that is of the Mail Time’s intended length. However, what is demonstrated does have some rough spots. Notably, the camera is entirely manual. This can be preferable, but when you’re platforming, having a camera that moves to try and give you the best perspective is often needed. Going up the trees, for example, I kept swinging the camera too far, and it would clip into the trees themselves.
It also has this weird problem where, if you pick up an item, it will announce it by blocking your screen. That’s not strange; what is strange is that the game doesn’t stop behind it. If you pick up an item, it will follow you until you stop moving, then it will move in to drop into your pocket before splashing up on-screen. This is maybe not a bad way of doing it, but it’s contrary to everything video games have ever taught me. If I pick up something minorly important, it usually just drops into my inventory. If something key gets picked up, then the game makes an announcement. Here, everything gets splashed on your screen, but Mail Time won’t interrupt you, it will just block your view.
The graphics are certainly charming. The pastel colors give objects a really solid look that I really enjoyed, and the character designs are cute. There’s something of an N64 quality to it, without having to reduce the polygon count and slap ugly texture filtering everywhere. It’s quite nice.
I’m not entirely sold on the actual gameplay, though. Even though I was already sold on doing some fetch-quests, there’s a lack of impact to them. Animals are often just down the street from your intended target, which removes a lot of the adventuresome feel. Likewise, successfully delivering something doesn’t really net you any reward. Perhaps the full game will have some sort of currency to collect or any other kind of progression system, but playing the game while it’s lacking anything like that is so strange.
I’ll still probably check out the full version of Mail Time when it drops, but my expectations are somewhat tempered. The strangest impression that the demo has given me is that it doesn’t know how to speak video game, and I really don’t know what to make of it. I like games that buck expectations, but when I’m playing something that walks like a game but doesn’t quack like a game, I kind of feel uncomfortable.
However, we’ll see if Mail Time can deliver when the full version drops in April 2023. You can play the demo right now as part of Steam Next Fest.