Quietly revealed in August, The Touryst from Shin'en Multimedia recently arrived on Nintendo Switch and quickly left a strong impression. With its voxelised design, smooth frame-rate and unique gameplay, it's unlike anything the team has worked on to date - and I think it's one of my favourite Switch releases of 2019. Beneath its stylised but relatively simplistic visual design lies one of the Switch's most capable graphics engines - a game that basically never deviates from its target 60fps and never makes you wait more than a second. It's fast, it's beautiful and it's worth checking out.
It's the latest in a long line of technical showcases from Munich-based Shin'en Multimedia - ex-demo scene coders who've managed to extract phenomenal results from all Nintendo platforms, from Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance to Switch. Users of Nintendo's latest machine may be familiar with Fast RMX - an updated version of Fast Racing Neo originally released for Wii U. Fast RMX offers a whole slew of modern effects and techniques at an unwavering 60 frames per second and despite being a launch title, it's still gorgeous - and one of the best-looking games on Switch. The Touryst heads in a completely different direction, but it's equally as impressive - if not more so.
So, what is the Touryst? At its core, this is an exploration-driven adventure game. It's a game that has you traveling across various islands solving the mysteries below the surface. The concept is simple yet the execution is simply perfect. It's never explicitly spelled out what you should do in each area but it's so satisfying when everything clicks. Each island is a beautiful chunk with its own themes and concepts. Leysure Island is one of my favorites - it includes a range of shops to mess around with including a theatre, a music store selling songs from previous Shin'en games and an arcade with three original games.
At its core, all of this is driven by the team's in-house engine. According to Shin'en's Manfred Linzner, The Touryst uses a deferred renderer building on the work done for Fast RMX. In order to maintain a smooth frame-rate, the team has once again opted to use a dynamic resolution system. In docked mode, resolution can vary from a maximum of 1080p to slightly less than 50 per cent on both axes. Typically, outdoor areas average around 810p to around 900p while indoor areas stick closer to full 1080p in most cases. Portable mode uses the same technique, with a maximum resolution of 720p and 50 per cent of that on each axis for the lower bounds. It typically jumps between 612p and 720p in this mode.
The team has opted to avoid anti-aliasing as pixelated edges fit directly into the visual style. Because everything is presented as voxel shapes, hard edges wind up looking perfectly acceptable in this specific game. It's clear that these choices were made as a result of the art direction. The engine is mostly deferred but certain effects are forward rendered - that was a choice made that allows for a range of optimisations and increased artistic freedom during development.
Perhaps the most unusual visual element centres on the voxelized nature of the world. The Touryst still uses triangles as its primitive of choice but the way in which the models are created is fascinating. Essentially, the team uses a program known as MagicaVoxel - an 8-bit voxel editor and renderer. I took at a look at the tool myself and it's possible to rapidly carve out and create unique designs. It's a fun tool to use and Shin'ens designs are often beautiful to behold - enhanced via Maya and converted into a format compatible with the game engine.
While the overall look is relatively simple, environments still look rich and detailed. Elements like grass, flowers, rocks and animals are placed into the game world. To save on space, these are generated procedurally saving time and space. This ties directly into both loading and file size. The Touryst occupies just 231MB of storage, and almost completely free of loading screens. Traveling between islands and screens is nearly instantaneous. Even the bootup sequence is ridiculously fast. Compared to many of today's releases, it's a revelation!
Another key feature of The Touryst is its lighting. Everything is rendered internally in high dynamic range allowing improved contrast between bright and darker regions. Sub-surface scattering is also used on characters despite the abstract design. This is all combined with a strong depth of field effect which lends the action something similar to a tilt-shift appearance. Basically, Shin'en has managed to create a hybrid of stylised designs, as viewed through a more realistic lens, and embellished with a wealth of dynamic light sources.
Beyond this, I'm a big fan of the material choices. The Touryst omits any sort surface filtering, lending the game a pixelated aesthetic which I think suits the voxelised design. It's especially effective on the often complex scenery - where a rocky wall can be made up of many different voxel points. It's quite striking.
I also wanted to emphasise the brilliant mini arcade games included in The Touryst. Firstly, outside the arcade is a character who offers you money if you can beat his high score on all three games. This gives these mini-games a purpose beyond simply toying around - and beating those scores requires mastery of each game.
The most impressive of the three is Fast - an homage to Fast RMX and its prequels - and designed to simulate the look of classic Super Scaler arcade games. The mechanics are surprisingly solid and it's addictive trying to beat the high score. The machine also uses a shader designed to simulate an old arcade monitor though, for my money, it goes a bit too far - a good CRT appears much sharper and cleaner than this. There's always the sense the Shin'en go the extra mile. Here, the developer used a music program designed to simulate the sound of older retro hardware - so even the music on these mini-games sounds highly authentic.
The next game involves collecting sticks of dynamite in order while avoiding enemies or gobbling them up with a power pellet. It's basically Pac-Man meets Jetpac and it's pretty good fun. Lastly there's an Arkanoid style block breaker game with a few interesting twists. Outside of the arcade games, however, the general sound design is also wonderful. The Touryst features proper surround sound, unlike many Switch games, and delivers a strong soundtrack with a mix of atmospheric music and more upbeat tracks. I love it.
To re-cap then: the Touryst looks unique and wonderful, requires very little space on your Switch and loads-up almost instantly and features little to no additional loading screens. There's a real sense of polish here that extends into game performance - one of Shin'en's specialities. 60 frames per second locked has long been a focus for the studio with nearly every game it has deeloped running at this frame-rate. The Touryst follows suit: it aims to deliver 60 frames per second and it rarely falters. It's one of the most stable games of the generation and it's absolutely on par with the best that Nintendo itself has to offer.
This remains the case whether you play the game docked or in mobile mode - and it's safe to say that situations like this are rare and interesting. We've recently upgraded our frame-rate test workflow to carry out the analysis as we capture the footage (as opposed to capturing, importing, and exporting). It improves the quality and quantity of our data and in the case of the Touryst, we have over three hours of capture analysted. Over 650,000 frames rendered and just three isolated frame-drops over the entire duration.
Shin'en has always been a studio that gets the best out of the target hardware but The Touryst pushes this ethos further than before - I genuinely think this is the best game the studio has made to date and the first to really deliver its own memorable, unique atmosphere. As you visit each island, it's never immediately clear how you will achieve your goal or what the goals even are but due to the small scale of each island, it's very satisfying to poke at the game until you start to understand what you must do. It's nowhere near as abstract as something like Fez but it taps into that same sense of wonder and exploration.
For me then, The Touryst has become quite the surprise - it's weirdly engaging and fun to play in a way that I didn't fully expect. Even if you don't think it'll appeal to you, I'd urge you to find some way of checking it out. For me, this really is one of the best Switch releases of the year.
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