Amanita Design should definitely be a familiar name for adventure games fans: the Czech studio has been around since the early 00s, even though they only recently managed to break through and reach a bigger audience, also through smaller titles like Pilgrims. Machinarium, probably their biggest hit so far, has been a clear inspiration for their recent adventure games, even though the studio seems to fare as well when trying different game experiences, in particular for titles designed for gaming on the go like Apple Arcade and Android.
Pilgrims may look and play like a simplistic mobile adventure but feels like reading an ancient russian book from the 19th century.
Designed by Jakub Dvorský and his team, the idea originally came from a mini-game designed for Samorost 3, furtherly expanded on by way of using Czech fairy tales tropes and characters. Deck building is a mechanic that seems to be quite fashionable lately, so the idea is exactly that: a deck building adventure game.
Building on that overall design idea, the player is tasked with unlocking new characters and objects, thus cards, in order to progress through the story. That is, if getting to the end is one’s only concern, but not really something I would recommend since a single straightforward run would result in a pretty short experience. Instead, Amanita’s design gently nudges the player towards experimentation; as a take on the well-known “try everything with everything” trope from adventure games, I have to say it is pretty refreshing, leading to some unique and funny consequences.
In one scene an evil old hag ends up with her eyes ablaze and then crawls away on the ground, her eye sockets ghastly empty. The overall light macabre inspiration from fairy tales is felt throughout, I find it as a breath of fresh air for sure. PIlgrims is designed to be as immediate as possible: in each scene, the player chooses which character card to “play” and, subsequently, which object to throw together in the scene. Of course, other characters’ reactions and results vary depending on the single main card chosen, unfortunately, it is not possible to put everyone into a scene at the same time for maximum chaos.
Since this is designed to be a mobile experience first and foremost, the controls are simplified to the core, but that also means the charm of leafing through an old picture book is perfectly replicated. A small detail I personally loved to death is how the angles of each picture look old and slightly creased, like gently worn by time. It’s that small attention to detail that makes the Czech studio one of the best in the business.
The sound design follows a similar footprint, with what sounds a made-up language that will inspire a smile or two… except it is not made-up! It’s actually Czech, at least for the most part. I have nothing but praise for a game that uses its original language, transforming it into an ingenious design feature. The folkish/rock soundtrack by Tomáš Dvořák is also pretty good on its own.
The experience of playing Pilgrims is not very far removed from watching a weird 70s cartoon, like Fantastic Planet, especially because of that sinister “adult” vibe that makes the game actually more suited for adults rather than children. But, then again, that is Amanita Design’ trademark for most of their titles. Still, even after listing all those very positive things, I still think Pilgrims could have been something more.
Since there are really only two main characters in the game, it would have made sense to write two separate stories, a good way to make the adventure more varied, even without artificially prolonging the experience. As it is, the player will have seen basically everything in a little more than an hour, there are a full 50 interactions/animations to unlock but those are just that, a small bonus which is not gonna prolong the experience’s length that much. It’s just that the art style is so spot on and everything so whimsical and funny that see it end so quickly, well, it is a bit of a letdown really.
Those looking for a weird, quirky, short adventure game which ingenoiusly uses the deck building mechanic as a way of narrating a short peculiar story of paying back a gambling debt, will probably have to stop at Pilgrims and not look any further. It offers little more than an hour of entertainment, sure, but then again, it is priced like a cheap movie ticket. Amanita Design confirms their great talent for art design and interesting – if a bit shallow – gameplay.
Get a tablet, sit in front of a fireplace, legs crossed, and let the game take you back in time and to another world.