Shio is an indie platformer that launched about two weeks ago on Steam, and I’ve wanted to write about it ever since I picked it up. There’s one major reason I haven't done so until now, though - bugs. The developer of the game, Coconut Island, has been releasing patch after patch in order to iron out a handful of annoyances, and I wanted to wait until that calmed down before recommending (or not recommending) it to anyone. With most of those problems now solved, especially the gamepad issues, everyone can now play with the precision and timing that Shio demands.

Shio is one of an increasing number of games that are self-titled “masocore” platformers, likening themselves to Super Meat Boy in their difficulty and gratification. Most of these games, however, fundamentally misunderstand what made Super Meat Boy great aside from its challenging level design. Super Meat Boy was fast, firm and fair; it didn’t restrict the player in order to achieve “difficulty,” and it wasn’t malicious in its design. I Wanna Be The Guy, 1001 Spikes, and Cloudberry Kingdom are examples of games that rely on trial and error in order to create the illusion of challenge, which turns them into boring exercises in memorization. But does Shio fall into this same trap? Well, yes and no.

First, the good: Shio uses the unique mechanic of whipping a lamp in order to leap between lanterns in midair, which basically means that you’re supposed to be speed-platforming most of the time. When this works well, it really feels good. With some practice, you can get into a satisfying rhythm of jumping between lanterns in a single bound and beating par times with style and grace. Whipping your way around the numerous hazards and obstacles can be enjoyable and addicting, even if some parts degrade into trial and error for reasons that I’ll get to in a little bit.

Despite all its difficulty, the experience of playing Shio can be strangely meditative. You play as a wayward masked man who’s only known purpose is to light the lanterns around the mysterious, towering city that the game takes place in. Shio’s lovely minimalistic art design is the work of an award-winning Chinese digital artist, and combined with the game’s relaxing and well produced soundtrack, it creates an atmosphere that just makes you want to stop your frantic leaping and take it all in sometimes. The world, architecture and set pieces of Shio were inspired by 19th century China, and each new level changes up the aesthetic in a noticeable way that keeps the game’s visuals fresh.

The story, on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired - or at least it has up to the point that I’ve reached in the game. Subtle, emergent storytelling can be good in the right hands. But Shio (insofar as I’ve seen) has little to offer besides cryptic, asynchronous information and nonsensical poems to go along with it. There seem to be multiple points in the story that are unrelated to one another and it keeps implying that this is all taking place in a dream...or a dream-like state...or something? Maybe it will all make sense in the end, but I’ve yet to be engaged by the story at all.

On the gameplay side, I should give you fair warning: Shio’s platforming is about as floaty as it gets. That isn’t really a bad thing - while it may feel slow compared to something like Super Meat Boy, the levels are designed around the fact that you spend most of your time in the air. What’s odd is the fact that you don’t actually have any control over your jump height, no matter how lightly or firmly you press the button. Certain lanterns launch you higher or lower based on their placement, not yours, which sometimes creates this feeling that the level is playing you and you’re simply going through the motions.

Other than that, a lot of the frustrating trial-and-error moments in Shio come from the camera being centered on the character most of the time, so you can’t always see the hazards above/below/ahead of you. Remember yelling at the early Sonic the Hedgehog games to zoom the hell out so you could see what’s coming at you? Shio brings back that feeling in more than a few different areas.

So, should you be playing Shio? That depends on whether you’re a fan of high-risk, high-reward platforming, enjoy minimalistic art and ambiance, and have at least a decent tolerance level for some crap. The game succeeds at being what it wants to be in most scenarios, but it doesn’t do anything particularly revolutionary. If you’re looking for a solid platformer with a cool aesthetic, you’d do well to get Shio for its fairly modest price - even though I think comparing itself to Super Meat Boy might be a little too bold.