We’re quickly pulled into the story of the titular Tchia and her childhood world. She’s no misbehaving child, but she’s a courageous adventurer as she eagerly sets out to seek out the world’s ruler, Meavora, who’s captured and imprisoned her father. This means navigating far away from her home island and seeking out new lands, rich with lush biomes — everything from red, dusty plains and rusty city buildings to overgrown bamboo forests and wandering rivers. Quickly, Tchia learns of a special power she was born with: the ability to shapeshift into animals and objects in her immediate environment. It’s a mechanic that’s implemented with expert care, despite the sheer number of things Tchia can transform into. In turn, it transforms Chia from an adventure heavily reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda into something new and beautiful. Chia‘s variety and fluidity of movement, experimentation, and exploration make the game a true delight.
Chia doesn’t have a map in the traditional sense; instead, it’s a digital version of a paper map, still a little crumpled from being in the bottom of a backpack. As Tchia, you must seek out landmarks to fully grasp your geolocation. There’s a single-button function that gives an estimate of your location, with Tchia pulling back to take the whole nation into consideration before circling a larger spot on the map. (Quests and pinned spots are marked on a compass you can put on the screen, too, making navigation much easier if potentially wandering off isn’t your bag.) Chia‘s map reinforces the game’s focus on exploration; don’t run straight from task to task. Take some time to look around.
In your travels, you’ll come across various minigames that put your skills to the test. You can carve sculptures, which is something of a matching and memory game; you can unlock ukulele melodies by stacking rocks in certain spots; you can race sailboats in time trials, weaving between rocks and through narrow passages; the list goes on. You also take on armies of enemies made out of scraps of fabric, kept alive only by the evil leader’s magic. It’s not combat in a normal sense. You have to use Tchia’s transformative powers and your environment to eliminate enemies — perhaps becoming coals in a nearby fire to burn the fabric to dust.
I spent a lot of time wandering, looking for different animals to become. Each animal feels different in a locomotive sense, but most also have a unique “ability” of sorts. It’s nothing major — stags can sprint, sharks can bite, and seagulls can poop. The search for all these different animals, and the ensuing experimentation, complements the exploration. It felt fresh enough to keep me interested even in some of Chia‘s more remote places, where the islands can feel a bit empty. Ironically, my favorite thing to transform into is a rock. Hear me out: Rocks are one of the faster ways to travel, and they mitigate fall damage — a rock won’t crack from a plunge from too great a height, like Tchia will. I started playing a game where I had Tchia jump from rock to rock as far as I could go. Being a rock is also handy for knocking down coconuts and for flinging at enemies. It’s silly and amusing, a small moment of levity that Chia brings to what is sometimes a dark story.
With a premise like Chia‘s, where you can do something as absurd as transform into a mobile wrench, that humor is important. The mechanic might have felt forced in a game that took itself too seriously, but Chia deftly pokes fun at itself, and video games in general, without ever crossing into true self-deprecation There’s one moment where Tchia has to take a ticket and fill out forms to see the world’s leader, as if she were at the DMV. She fills out loads of paperwork before embarking on a quest for items far, far into the island. But as she’s leaving, another person comes in and pulls a ticket — it’s visitor number 1,000, and as a prize, he’s sent up to see the leader without any fetch quest. Of course, that could never happen to Tchia, because then there would be no quest. As video game players, we know that. The moment made me laugh.
Chia‘s lightness also comes from music, an element just as important as the shapeshifting mechanic. It’s more than mere background noise. Music is used as a narrative tool, forging connections between characters Tchia encounters along her journey. Throughout the game, characters meet—often around a campfire—to sing and play instruments in English, French, and indigenous Kanak languages like Drehu. (Chia is inspired by the Awaceb co-founders’ homeland of New Caledonia, which is a small archipelago in the Pacific, where these languages are spoken. Awaceb hired New Caledonians to voice Chia‘s characters.) Tchia plays along with the songs, her ukulele connected to the controller and fully playable in rhythm minigames. These aren’t played for score, and that’s important; it allows the player to engage with these moments in a way that feels less competitive and more collaborative.
Chia could easily have filled the action-adventure mold of so many games before it. It takes even more of a risk by pulling so heavily from The Legend of Zelda. But, despite those influences, it isn’t weighed down by that sameness. Tchia’s transforming power comes from her eye, green where the other is not. It makes sense, then, that it would let us see Chia‘s world, and this genre, in a whole new light.
Chia will be released on March 21 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Windows PC. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Kepler Interactive. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.