In a sea of farming and crafting simulators, having a unique look or concept can really help a game stand out. Aka stars an adorable red panda and features a cozy, painting-like art style, which was more than enough to grab my interest when I heard about its crowdfunding campaign earlier this year. Unfortunately, the cute design is about all Aka has going for it because the rest of the experience is unengaging, clunky, and short. Those hoping for more may very well find themselves Turning Red.
Aka begins with almost no setup, plopping you on a deserted battlefield where the titular character has decided he has had enough of war and decides to leave for an island to start a new life at the invitation of an old friend. This great war Aka is getting away from is central to the “story,” if you can call it that, because the main questline involves finding and helping ghosts from Aka’s time at the front. When you complete a ghost’s quest, Aka remembers who they are, and you see a short cutscene that recounts how they died. The hand-drawn artwork for these scenes is lovely, but the stories are so barebones: the game spends so little time explaining the war, Aka’s role in it, or these people so dear to him that it’s incredibly difficult to feel any connection to the characters or the narrative. Honestly, calling it a narrative is practically a lie because the game does not expend the effort to tell any sort of coherent tale.
To be fair, that’s not a dealbreaker in and of itself. After all, plenty of games have no story whatsoever and are still fun to play. But, and you can probably guess where I’m going with this, Aka isn’t one of those games. The core gameplay loop involves running around four small, isometric islands, picking up primarily repetitive quests — get rid of traps, clear away old ruins, chop down dead trees — while gathering or growing materials to craft a small assortment of items. This is a little interesting the first couple of times you do it but becomes boring long before you “finish” the game and see the credits.
Part of the problem is that there’s little direction or guidance in Aka. Outside of a foundational tutorial at the start of the game, you are largely left to your own devices to find things to do and to learn how to do them. That sort of freedom can feel exciting in a larger sandbox game, but here it just feels aimless. There isn’t even all that much to do in the first place, and because of the almost nonexistent story and forgettable characters, you don’t feel particularly motivated to do more than necessary to “beat” the game. For instance, you can craft a few pieces of furniture to decorate your home, but once the novelty of playing interior decorator wears off, you realize that you have no reason to be making any of this stuff because you don’t really have any reason to be in your home after the beginning of the game. Similarly, you have to do some light farming to get some of the materials you need for quests, but you have no other reason to engage with the system. You can’t sell your crops, and you can’t build a farming village or any of the things you might expect to do in games with similar setups.
Figuring out how to do things in Aka can also be a challenge because the game doesn’t sufficiently explain its basic systems. For example, there’s a collectible card game you can play, but unless you go to the right island and talk to the right NPC, you are simply thrust into a match and have to figure out how to play on the fly. Again, this kind of discover-as-you-go gameplay can be fun, but here it just feels like an oversight. Case in point, I couldn’t figure out how to “beat” the game until I watched a YouTube video, because the game doesn’t make it at all clear where the last ghost is. I’m not saying the game needed to hold my hand, but it definitely needed to signpost things a lot better.
Even the controls in Aka need some work. Placing crafted objects and farming are particularly frustrating activities. Aka targets the space directly in front of him, but because he can move in any direction in an essentially isometric grid, getting him to face the right way and thus target the right square can be deceptively difficult. He also feels a little floaty when moving around, so you’ll often think you’re pointing him in the right direction only to have him overshoot or end up adjacent to where you expected. Like almost everything else in this game, the controls technically work, but they feel extremely clunky. I played with a controller, so I don’t know if a keyboard and mouse would improve things. But then again, this game is also on Switch, where a controller is your only option, so there’s really no excuse.
As if all that wasn’t enough, Aka is also short and glitchy. You can probably “beat” the game in one sitting, and it took a slower player like me only a few sessions to see everything the game has to offer. I also encountered a fair amount of bugs during my playthrough. Some were fixed with a restart, but others persisted, and one seemed to render a quest unfinishable, though luckily it was not one of the ghost quests required to see the end credits. The developer is aware of some of these bugs, so I imagine they will be patched, but they are hard to ignore because the rest of the game is relatively weak.
Of course, even a weak game might still be worth it for the right price. Aka isn’t particularly expensive, but I still find myself unable to recommend it due to its many issues. In the end, I ask myself whether I would be satisfied if I had bought the game for myself instead of receiving a review code. Unfortunately, the answer is no.
You can take a nap on a giant capybara, though, so there’s that.