It’s difficult to put any solid label on a game like COCOON. While it shares many similarities with other games that opt for a minimalistic art style, a strong sense of color theming, and a focus on exploration and puzzles, COCOON manages to set itself apart right from the get go by extending its focus on minimalism to everything, from its visuals to controls, and even down to how it even chooses to tell its story. Made by developers that previously worked at Playdead—whose previous works included critically-acclaimed titles like Limbo and Inside—the small team behind COCOON has opted to make sure that the game finds its own voice.
And I would be lying if I said that it didn’t work out quite well. Going into the game as a fan of both Limbo and Inside, I thought I would see similar throughlines in COCOON, and while those similarities are there in terms of how the game prefers to use its environments and animations to tell its story rather than throwing exposition the player’s way, COCOON manages to differentiates itself from its predecessors in a number of ways, not least of which is the game’s use of color.
COCOON is an incredibly bright and colorful game, and while its story isn’t altogether as cheerful or happy as its visuals might at first indicate, the game definitely feels a lot more uplifting than its gruesome predecessors. One of the most interesting things about COCOON is how it punishes the player for messing up. You can’t really die in COCOON. And while this might essentially come off as a pedantic difference at best, since getting hit in a boss fight means you get thrown back to right before entering the arena, essentially resetting the fight, the fact that the game never really outright “kills” you goes a long way in encouraging exploration.
When it comes to gameplay, COCOON relishes in its sheer simplicity. There are only two things you can really do in the game—move and interact. Interaction is highly context sensitive, and where you press the interact button can have different effects depending on the kind of thing you’re interacting with. For example, interact with an orb and you’ll just pick it up. Put the orb in a specific pedestal and hold down the interact button, however, and you’ll end up entering the orb. There are a host of other things you can do, like pulling objects and activating switches, but the game doesn’t really bog you down with a high number of verbs.
While the controls might come off as quite simple, however, the puzzle designs in COCOON can often feel downright ingenious. With little more than the ability to pick up or drop an orb and activate a switch, there’s a small puzzle in the early section of the game where you have to race against your orb going through pipes in order to hit the right switches and make sure that the orb goes the right way, allowing you to ultimately pick the orb up in the right spot and letting you continue with your exploration.
"COCOON relishes in its sheer simplicity."
Speaking of orbs, COCOON’s big gimmick is that it revolves around having entire worlds inside orbs. Early on, you only have to manage a single orb, entering which takes you to a desert world filled with ancient technological ruins and an incredibly angry moth-like monster. Since these opening sections essentially act as an unobtrusive tutorial, the puzzles are relatively simple, and largely revolve around figuring out how to cross, say, a destroyed bridge.
It’s after you beat the first “boss” of the game—the aforementioned angry moth—that COCOON starts kicking things into high gear. Beating the boss essentially unlocks the desert orb’s special ability that can be used in the world outside the orb. In this case, the orb gets the ability to create hidden paths that can only be traversed if you’re carrying the orb with you.
COCOON has the tendency to take single ideas that might sound simple from the outset, and take them to situations where the ideas can get fully explored, especially as it starts introducing more orbs, each with their own bespoke ability, into the mix. The second orb, for instance, lets you travel vertically through stone pillars. For the sake of spoilers, I won’t go into detail about future orbs beyond the second one.
"COCOON’s big gimmick is that it revolves around having entire worlds inside orbs."
Aside from the fact that each orb has its own special ability, it’s also worth noting that each orb also has its own world that is specially themed, each with its own set of challenges to overcome, puzzles to solve, and bosses to beat. Without going into too many spoiler-heavy details, all I’ll say about the boss fights is each one is wonderfully unique, which is quite an accomplishment for a game that doesn’t really have a combat system aside from “pick up bomb” and “explode bomb”.
The big limitations that players have to figure out is that they can only carry a single orb at a time. While this isn’t really a big deal when it comes to transporting multiple orbs, since you can put orbs within orbs within orbs, leading to a stack of worlds within worlds, where this truly becomes challenging is figuring out what kind of orb you’ll need to make use of to solve puzzles in the overworld.
Not all is well and rosy in the world of COCOON, however, especially when it comes to some of its puzzle designs. While most puzzles in the game are rather simple once you figure them out, some puzzles tend to hide clues to solving them in the overworld with rather obscure hints. An early example that I found myself stuck on for an embarrassing amount of time revolved around figuring out the right order of musical switches to hit, with the order being clearly shown on a nearby pillar. While this largely comes down to my own mistakes in not noticing the symbols on the pillar, future puzzles only start getting more obscure with their hints. For example, another similar puzzle revolves around finding the right order of switches on a nearby hidden platform that can only be seen if you’re holding the desert orb.
"COCOON has the tendency to take single ideas that might sound simple from the outset, and take them to situations where the ideas can get fully explored."
Some of the game’s puzzles can also start feeling more tedious than clever, especially when the game has you constantly run back and forth across platforms to hit switches in different order just to understand all the tools at your disposal. Rather than making the player feel clever, these puzzles felt more like they could just easily be solved by brute forcing through the relatively short number of permutations between the switches.
Some puzzle designs aside, COCOON feels like one of the best puzzle-solving games to have come out in quite some time. Its visuals and ambient music do an excellent job of creating a chill atmosphere while you’re solving puzzles, while at the same time easily ramping up the pressure when you take on a boss fight. The game’s minimalistic approach to storytelling also never feels overbearing, and its simple concepts and controls get taken to quite interesting extremes once you zoom out a bit and get a better picture of the world you inhabit, as well as the world you carry on your back.
This game was reviewed on PC.
Wonderful visuals; Simple without feeling simple; Interesting concepts with its worlds-within-worlds concept.
Some puzzles can feel too esoteric or tedious at times.