‘Tengami’ review: get lost in a pop-up world (iOS)

by Eric Frederiksen

March 3 2014

Tengami is one of the most immediately enchanting games to ever grace my iPad's screen, but it forgets to go deeper than its quest to mimic the look of pop-up books. (Rating: 3 out of 5 stars)

Tengami is a visual masterpiece. Everything about the way the game looks and moves is perfection. The game is set in feudal Japan, and developer Nyamyam smartly picked up on the importance of paper in Japanese culture, especially at that time in history. Paper forms the basis for the visual style of the game. Taking it a step further, though, that paper theme also informs the way the game itself works. Everything is laid out and moves like a pop-up book. 

The look and movement of Tengami are the two places it shines the most. The paper textures that decorate the screen are a highlight, but it never feels like anyone making the game is trying to say, 'look how paper this is!' The color choices, too, feel self-assured and purposeful. Tengami feels like an old Japanese woodblock print set in motion.

The pop-up animation holds up well even under scrutiny - the folding feels real and the illusion never breaks. Not only does it look good, but it factors into the gameplay as well, with many of the puzzles being dependent on the folding nature of the game.

The shamisen-influenced music adds a melancholy tone to the game, giving everything an ethereal, otherworldly feel. Composer David Wise has been in the industry almost 30 years, and his experience shows.

Tengami is virtually flawless aesthetically, but some trouble with puzzle designs nearly breaks the game. The game is almost entirely free of text, and totally free of voice acting. It tries hard to convey its puzzles through movement and camera placement, but it doesn't always work. I almost gave up during one puzzle, only to find that something that didn't work earlier in the puzzle did work later, but with literally no indication at either point that that was the thing I should be doing. Compared to later puzzles, it felt like this one didn't get nearly as much attention.

Later puzzles felt slightly more logical, but sometimes I would do something simply because it seemed like something I might be able to do, not because Tengami told me specifically that I could do it. I had to guess at the mechanics and simply experiment until the right effect was achieved. I don't want any game to tell me how to solve its puzzles, but mechanics need to be clearly conveyed for me to know to use them.

I'm conflicted with the way the game pulls from Japanese culture. It pulls stylistic elements, but never takes things all the way. I enjoyed the way my knowledge of Japanese kanji - just numbers, in Tengami's case - helped make a puzzle easier for me, without making that knowledge at all required. Everything about the game seems to be Japanese-influenced, but that's it. The music calls to mind the sound of the Japanese stringed instrument, the shamisen; visuals reference woodblock printing; the dialogue feels like it is meant to sound like a haiku, but isn't. More meaningful use of the cultural elements the game pulls from may have given the game some more cohesion between the narrative and puzzle elements.

Tengami is worth playing, even if you have to use trial and error or look up the solutions to one or two of the puzzles. It's a great idea, mostly well executed to create one of the best looking and sounding experiences available on iPad.

  • Tengami
  • Developer: Nyamyam
  • Platform: iOS
  • Price: $4.99
  • In-App Purchases? No

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