It’s an interesting idea releasing a couch co-op game during a global pandemic with a lot of the population in some form of lockdown. Either you’re not living with your usual gaming partners and can’t get them on the sofa with you; or you do actually live with people, but the sheer frustration of their gaming ineptitude causes you to beat them with their own controller. It’s brave then that Studio Gauntlet has decided to release Bonkies at this point in time. The inspiration for a couch co-op title did come from a wifi-bereft hospital stay where a developer realised that there were very few in the genre kicking around, though no one knew what the future held at that time. At least we may be on the way out of it and soon enough you’ll be able to get up to four other players into your living room to huddle around the TV and try and build structures in space… with monkeys.
Bonkies is primarily a co-op game that has a team of monkeys in space suits wielding huge mechanical arms all try and work together to build structures. You’ll be presented with an outlined shape on the screen and the pieces needed to fill it, and it’s up to you to figure out the best way of doing that in the time limit. It’s a bit like a less pressure version of Tetris crossed with Planet of the Apes. Mostly taking part in low gravity, the team float around the play space grabbing components to build structures and trying to stack them altogether as the timer counts down. Success can mean either moving on to the next stage of the puzzle, or completing it and getting to experience the next challenge. As the goal for the simians is to conquer the solar system, get enough progress done on one planet and the next opens up, gradually layering on new mechanics and elements to get to grips with.
Control-wise there’s a stick for movement, buttons for grabbing and boosting, and a choice of face buttons or right analogue stick to stabilise a load. The latter is particularly handy as picking up a girder and jetpacking off tends to start it swinging all over the place. Having 4 directions to lock the arm into place means it’s the perfect way to orientate a shape if you’ve not picking up at the right angle. This assumes you can pick things up though. A lot of the puzzles in Bonkies will need at least two players to grab and lift items, and that’s where the couch co-op comes to the fore. Creating a structure requires both figuring out how to produce it, and communicating with your partner(s) to make sure everyone is synchronised. For all its cartoonish stylings, Bonkies has a set of physics underpinning it that can be unforgiving for the slapdash amongst us. The time constraints are very generous in the early stages, but tighten up fairly quickly, and failing to be on the same page will cause mayhem in the build.
Bonkies is not just a fancy jigsaw simulator, the puzzle side is pretty devious. Its way of building complexity is to introduce new items that can disrupt the construction. Things like magnets that join girders, engines, power cores that are sensitive to movement, and even plain old exploding blocks all get incorporated. The engines are particularly challenging as grabbing them turns them on and off and it’s easy to have them whipping around a dome on their own because you’ve forgotten to hold on. They also signal that you’re likely to have to “fly” a construction to the solution point, and that in itself can be a nightmare as a couple of you try and steer a mass of unfixed blocks around the screen. Each new addition is logical though and increases the potential for chaos that’s inherent in the game, so at least you get a laugh out of watching your carefully balanced blocks get blown apart.
For those that don’t have willing players in the same room, there is a single player mode with a story about one of the chimps getting stranded on Pluto and needing to get home. It works well, though the puzzle difficulty cracks along at pace compared to the co-op, and it’s over very quickly. Bonkies is for multiple people to get stuck into together and that’s clear from the focus in the menus. It’s not averse to trying to force more players into the game too, with some challenges requiring 3 or more on screen to complete. If there’s only two of you though this can feel like you’re being pushed out, though it’s possible to at least start them and see how far you can get. Whilst the idea is about getting multiple people laughing and jostling each other in real life, it does feel like it could do with an online option to get the most out of it, particularly on consoles where even if you’ve got the people, you might not have enough controllers.
With a variety of materials to build with and scenarios to tackle, the physics engine does an admirable job, though in some cases it doesn’t react exactly as you’d expect. Balancing seems to be its downfall – literally in some cases – where you can position everything precisely to achieve a perfection Mr. Myagi would be proud of, yet still see it all topple over and be forced to start again. It’s the same with directing anything with a rocket underneath. It takes very fine movements and adjustments to stop it all from going wrong, and that can make it appear a bit arbitrary at times. Then at other points you can’t help but be impressed with the systems at play, like when you drop a sheet of glass and it breaks, creating more pieces to contend with; or giving you antigravity supports that have built in strain gauges so you can see exactly when you’re overloading them.
It’s a decent distraction in single player, if slightly more challenging than you’d expect from the silly premise and colourful presentation, but is clearly a game built for social gaming. All the content has gone into that area, and it makes no effort to hide that, to the point where I was surprised to see a solo campaign. It has solid controls, mostly reliable physics, and plenty to go after for the competitive out there, like the “banana” times on each level that also unlock new characters. It’s bright and cheerful fun that doesn’t drift too far into making it a game to fall out over. Once we’re able to actually visit with people again, Bonkies will come into its own.
A PS4 review copy of Bonkies was provided by Crunching Koala’s PR team, and the game is available now on PS4, Xbox One, Switch and PC for around £12 depending on platform.