The Super Nintendo is no pushover when it comes to the RPG genre; taking the Super Famicom into consideration, the console’s roster of RPGs rises even more both in quantity and quality. RPGs more or less defined the SNES, and it’s hard to pair any other console with a singular genre. This is not to say that the Super Nintendo lacked in other titles (far from it), but its RPGs were more than often on another tier entirely. Chrono Trigger is still considered one of the greatest games of all time, blending fantastic gameplay with a meaningful narrative; Secret of Mana is remembered fondly for its charming atmosphere and unique take on the action RPG format; Final Fantasy VI broke defined narrative conventions to push the genre further. And while it lacks the same legacy as the aforementioned games, Terranigma deserves mention in any discussion regarding the Super Nintendo’s roster of games.
The last game Quintet developed for the Super Nintendo, Terranigma released in the fall of 1995 in Japan, followed by a PAL region release in the winter of 1996. Selling rather poorly due to the Nintendo 64’s looming presence, Quintet’s SNES run ended on a rather quiet note. In some respects, Terranigma can be compared directly to Chrono Trigger, a JRPG that released a year earlier and lacked a full worldwide release, but that game managed to miss the threat of the Nintendo 64’s presence while cementing its status as one of the most influential games to release on the SNES.
Alas, Terranigma was not destined to share the same fate. The dissolution of Enix America Corporation, which had served to localize Quintet’s SNES titles in the United States, also meant that Terranigma never saw a U.S. release. With all this stacked against the game, it’s no wonder that Terranigma fell under the radar of great SNES RPGs. As of 2004, Quintet has gone silent and likely defunct, but Terranigma nevertheless remains a testament to the talent the studio was working with.
Even if Quintet was not able to find the success it needed to stay afloat, and even if their best games more or less faded into the background — simply pieces of the Super Nintendo’s greater library — that doesn’t change how meaningful, beautiful, and well crafted Terranigma is. From its gameplay to its story to its level design, Terranigma is everything an end-of-life SNES RPG should have been, and more. It has more combat depth than any other action RPG on the console, a story so thoughtfully written that it puts modern gaming narratives to shame, and creative dungeon design that rivals that of A Link to the Past. Terranigma is the full package that barely anybody played.
What’s particularly interesting about Terranigma is just how aware it is of its genre conventions, presenting a deceptively simple RPG that eventually turns the world it has seemingly presented on its head. To be fair, this is a trait Terranigma shares with both Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia — its sister games also developed by Quintet — but it takes the premise one step further than either RPG, fully committing to darker and more mature moments with a considerable amount of tact. At its core, Terranigma is a lonely game, one that carefully examines the cycle of life and death. Like many RPGs, it all begins in a small hometown.
Unlike many RPGs, however, players are greeted to a horrifying sight once they leave protagonist Ark’s home of Crysta. Instead of walking out into a lush field of greenery begging to be explored, Ark’s world is desolate, dark, and filled with bodies of lava instead of water. The overworld is more of an underworld — a perverse subversion of what players would naturally expect when exiting a town. There are similarities between Ark’s underworld and, say, Final Fantasy VI’s World of Ruin, but Terranigma’s land is outright apocalyptic, with virtually no life outside of Ark’s village.
The impact of this setting is made all the greater by the fact that Ark’s village is, for all intents and purpose, an average JRPG hometown. Ark is almost generically rebellious, has a love interest who seems to exist solely to benefit his character, and listens to a much older grandfather figure who offers him guidance; in fact, most NPCs feature whimsy dialogue that showcase just how sheltered Crysta is. Leaving Crysta for the first time is a genuinely shocking moment that flips the script completely. Terranigma is anything but atypical, and Crysta exists solely to mislead the player.
Quite blatantly in hindsight, too. Shortly after the game begins, Ark inadvertently opens Pandora’s Box, freezing everyone in Crysta save for himself and the Elder. What follows is Ark traveling to the underworld’s five towers in order to not only restore life back to Crysta, but to also seemingly resurrect a dead world. As the player has intimate knowledge of Crysta but not the other world Ark is resurrecting, said resurrection naturally takes a back seat to Ark’s main motivation of saving Crysta.
It doesn’t take much to realize that Ark will eventually visit the world he’s resurrecting, but the underworld segment intentionally hides something from the player — after the final tower is cleared, Ark will not be able to return to Crysta. The first chapter is easily the shortest in the game, but it’s also the one chapter that plays out the most like a typical RPG. Ark’s relationship with his love interest, Elle, is meaningfully developed, while a clear quest with guidelines is given to the player, and the story moves at a natural pace, clearly presenting the next step. When Ark leaves the underworld at the end of Chapter 1, it comes as a genuine surprise. All familiar ties are severed, and an already lonely world is made all the lonelier.
Although the first chapter gives players access to more or less their entire skill set, it isn’t until Ark leaves the underworld that the combat and dungeon design truly begin to shine. The towers themselves feature plenty of puzzles and enemies, but they’re still very much tutorial-esque. They serve to teach the player, not challenge the player; as a result, it’s easy to get the impression that Terranigma doesn’t offer much of a challenge early on. Once Ark reaches the overworld, however, and players are left to fend for themselves, the entire experience changes. Enemies are more aggressive, puzzle solutions are more inconspicuous, and the comparatively massive overworld begs for deep, detailed exploration.
With enemies targeting Ark more often, his natural move set ends up getting greater use. Fighting with a staff, Ark’s basic attack has him stabbing towards enemies, but by briefly button-pausing between stabs, Ark can carefully move while attacking as well. Should a player start spamming the attack button, however, Ark will lunge into a flurry of jabs that, when properly positioned, can do an incredible amount of damage towards enemies at a frantically fast pace.
Ark can also jump and run, both of which fundamentally change how Ark attacks. By simply jumping while walking, Ark will leap into a spin attack that can reliably knock enemies back while doing fair damage. Running, however, is where Ark shines most. By dashing into a jab, Ark will leap forward with his staff, smashing through whatever is in his way. By running, jumping, and attacking, Ark can also dropkick his enemies; should a player attack immediately after the kick lands, Ark will then transition into his forward attack, chaining two useful attacks together.
Of all of Ark’s abilities, his block will naturally get the least amount of use throughout the game; since Ark is so mobile, an adept player will simply be able to dodge damage. That said, the block does play a crucial role (especially in the final boss where it’s downright necessary for survival) in deflecting certain projectiles, and decreasing the amount of damage that Ark takes. While there’s not much players can do to make blocking as fluid as attacking, it can be used strategically and intelligently.
Outside of his natural abilities, Ark can also use magic through the Magirock system. By trading Magirocks to magician shopkeepers, Ark can purchase rings and pins that augment his natural abilities. The Fire Ring allows Ark to blast out a burst of flame, the Elec Ring delivers an AoE attack over the whole screen, the Grass Pin serves as an alternative to healing, and so on and so forth. Interestingly, as there is a finite amount of Magirocks in the game, players cannot solely rely on magic to get by. This is invoked by the game design itself, outright blocking the player from using magic in some boss fights, and it adds another layer of strategy to the core gameplay loop.
However, good combat is nothing without good enemy and level design. It doesn’t matter how varied Ark’s moveset is if said moves don’t amount to much. Thankfully, Terranigma is Quintet’s best game when it comes to enemy and dungeon design. While Soul Blazer had its fair share of interesting enemies, the simpler combat meant that encounters rarely got too exciting, even with magic. Illusion of Gaia featured more varied combat options, but let the enemy design falter in favor of placing an emphasis on puzzle solving (with a few notable boss fight exceptions). Terranigma follows after IoG’s example, ironing out the kinks in the process.
Enemies constantly target Ark, especially later in the game. Their aggression inherently puts his abilities to the test at all times. While Terranigma isn’t particularly difficult on a whole, the enemies do put up a good fight, and getting careless can quickly lead to a game over. Simply attacking blindly — especially in boss fights — goes against the natural design of the game. Of course, by the end players likely won’t be having too much trouble, since Terranigma is rather generous with giving Ark strong equipment, but the level of challenge never gets as brain-dead as it eventually does in Soul Blazer, or as downright punishing as Illusion of Gaia can occasionally get (Bloody Mary’s boss fight notwithstanding).
In the same way Illusion of Gaia used real-life locations for its dungeons, Terranigma opts to share in that same spectacle, albeit with its own twist. Rather than having the dungeons be based on real-life locations, they’re located in real-life locations instead. For example, the first major dungeon in the overworld — the Ra Tree — takes place smack-dab in the middle of the Amazon. And where Illusion of Gaia relied on more obtuse puzzle solving, demanding that players pay attention to the world around them in order to proceed, Terranigma takes a more Zelda-esque approach. While both games are valid in how they present dungeons, Terranigma’s take is a bit more universal in execution, perhaps depriving the game of higher highs when it comes to dungeon design, but also avoiding lower dips in quality.
Every now and then, Ark will find key items in major dungeons that allow him to bypass puzzles. If items don’t play a role in said dungeons, then the overall designs skews more towards pure exploration, setting players loose and allowing them to explore in order to make progress. Terranigma does require an attention to detail in later dungeons more often than not, but most puzzles are designed around being solved in a way that feels natural and conclusive in regards to the gameplay. Dungeons are spacious, but never so big where players are bound to get lost. Puzzles are engaging, but never frustratingly so.
The biggest contribution Chapter 2 brings to Terranigma, however, is its approach to NPCs. Throughout the second chapter, Ark enters dungeons so that he can resurrect all the life that’s been lost on Earth. In a sequence that mirrors the creation in the Book of Genesis, he brings back greenery, water, and plant life before restoring birds, land animals, and humans — in that order. What this means is that Ark is truly alone for the entire chapter, as humans aren’t resurrected until the very end of Chapter 2, and can’t be interacted with until Chapter 3.
During the second chapter, Ark gets to know the animals around him, as do the players. They form natural connections with one another as animals actively help Ark on his quest. One of the most meaningful interactions in the game comes from Ark helping a young lion cub, Leim, finish his trial into adulthood so that he can go home. The dungeon itself isn’t too long, but it sees Ark interacting with Leim all the way to the end. The two form a bond, getting to know each other, and Leim ends up as one of the game’s more memorable characters as a result.
However, when it comes time for humans to be resurrected, Ark loses his ability to speak with animals. While it seems natural that Ark would have more in common with the humans who have been revived than the animals he had previously interacted with, there is a key difference in how the game depicts animals and man. Animals live in nature, live off nature, and act by their nature. They are not evil, they are not cruel — they just are. Their actions exist for their own survival, and they live off the land as is.
Humans are in direct contrast to this. They aren’t all friendly, with many betraying or misleading Ark during the events of the third chapter. They fundamentally change the world around them, building settlements, tearing down nature, and even showing cruelty towards animals in some specific cases. Mankind does not exist to live in nature, but to change nature. With few exceptions, it is in man’s nature to look out for themselves, even at the expense of the world around them. By the time Ark can communicate with humans, it seems as though he has nothing in common with the people around him, yet no longer has means of communicating with the animals.
In a world teeming with life, Ark ends up coming off more alone than before. Even as he interacts with a larger supporting cast during Chapter 3 — a cast that develops and appears quite often, in fact — any attempts made to forge a relationship with Ark end up falling through. He is an outsider in the overworld, but no one else can save it but him. While Chapter 3 brings out quite a few twists and turns, it really isn’t until near the end when Terranigma puts its theme-building on the back burner in order to push the narrative further.
Ark’s arc isn’t like Will’s from Illusion of Gaia; while it’s easy to fall into the trap of interpreting his story as a typical coming of age narrative, Ark’s is more complicated than that. He’s the only person who can save the Earth because he’s the only one on Earth who sees the full picture. He’s been with the planet since its resurrection began. While other characters do acknowledge the mystical nature of the world, only Ark truly understands its full scope ¯ or at least, that’s the impression that the game gives off.
By the end of Chapter 3, it’s made clear that Ark was tricked the whole time. He was never truly saving the Earth, but prepping it for the embodiment of darkness to take over, eliminating all unnecessary life and locking whatever remains into a state of perpetual immortality. This minor change completely recontextualizes not only what Ark had been doing the entire game, but has implications on his arc as well. He simply followed orders, believing that what he was doing was right, and remade the world as he was told; however, he likewise did something that gave him the strength to carry on even after his supposed failure: he remade himself.
Terranigma’s final chapter is titled “Resurrection of the Hero.” Unlike other chapters in the game, the finale sees Ark tackle one singular dungeon without willing anything else into the world. Rather, Ark’s main act in the chapter is destroying the embodiment of darkness, Dark Gaia. This act restores the world to its most natural state, but requires Ark to die in the process. The resurrection of the “Hero” is not the revival of a person, but the affirmation of an idea that man can change and remake themselves.
By the end of the game, Ark is quieter, calmer, and more mature. Just as he lost his ability to speak to animals, he also lost his innocence in the process. He saw the world as it was — a world that wasn’t his — and remade it so that others could live, not knowing that he would never get the chance to see it flourish. At the same time, however, this is Quintet’s way of once again reaffirming the idea that mankind has to recognize the whole picture in order to survive. Soul Blazer dealt with this directly, and Illusion of Gaia alluded to it multiple times in its narrative. Terranigma places the idea front and center one final time.
Ark has been controlled the entire game, and it’s only the finale where he stands out as his own individual, free to live how he chooses. When Ark dreams for the last time, he dreams of being a bird, flying free above the overworld — free from the control of the player, from the control of the plot’s masterminds, and from his own fate. The final resurrection in a game all about life, death, and reincarnation is that of Ark himself — not as a hero, but as a simple bird.
As the credits roll, players get to witness the world that they created alongside Ark. Control has been wrested away, but that in itself is what makes it such a poignantly beautiful conclusion. Terranigma presents itself as a basic RPG at first, but slowly unravels into something all the more meaningful. Ark’s story is tragic, but it’s a necessary tragedy that never holds back. Quintet built its reputation by telling mature stories with engaging gameplay on the side, and Terranigma is the logical endpoint of their design philosophy.
Terranigma tells an amazing story about life, death, resurrection, and what it means to exist, but it does so while understanding its medium. It isn’t so much that Terranigma’s story is compelling in its own right (though it is), but rather what makes Terranigma such an incredible experience is the mere fact that it’s a video game. Players are in control. They resurrect the world alongside Ark. They play out Ark’s tragedies firsthand. They die alongside Ark and put the controller down, closing out the game. Quintet’s final SNES outing may not share the same legacy or status as its contemporaries, but that doesn’t make it lesser. A must play for anyone who likes engaging combat, well-told stories, or just wants to meaningfully reflect on life, Terranigma may very well be the best action RPG on the SNES.
‘Garden Story’ First Impressions: The Coziest of Adventures
Long-awaited Twitter darling Garden Story just released its first demo. Here’s what we learned after playing through it twice.
Following the unfortunate (but understandable) delay of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, there’s been a distinct lack of chill, aesthetic games to fill the void. Garden Story’s charming environmental art and animation have earned it a dedicated social media following, but it wasn’t until Picogram released a demo just a couple days ago that anyone with a Steam account could actually experience the game for themselves. So, just how fun is this wholesome little RPG?
Setting the Scene
Garden Story’s demo centers around the newly-appointed village guardian Concord (a grape) and their first steps in rebuilding Autumn Town, a community ravaged by a sinister force known as “the Rot.” Chatting with villagers reveals a bit of insight into the situation at hand; it’s soon clear just how much the other townsfolk need the player’s support.
There are several clear parallels to old-school Legend of Zelda titles here, but Garden Story manages to set itself apart rather quickly. For one, this isn’t a solo adventure; the player sets out with Rana (a frog) and Fuji (a tomato) on a friendly quest to be as helpful to the surrounding community as possible. Seeing friends around and watching cute scripted cutscenes between the crew does a great job of instilling a sense of camaraderie and friendship.
In another pleasant twist, everything here is themed around building rather than destroying. Instead of traditional swords and bows, Concord repurposes his dowsing rod and scavenging pick into makeshift weapons. The combat itself calls to mind Stardew Valley; simple, minimal, and clearly not the main focus. There’s a pesky stamina bar that restricts the number of times Concord can attack and how far they can run, frequently forcing players to pause between barrages. In this way, encounters often come off as more of a necessary evil in Concord’s town rehabilitation journey than a main attraction.
Rebuilding a Community
So, how does one go about aiding the town? The method highlighted in the demo was by attending to a quest board with three different types of requests: Threat (combat), Repair (exploration), and Want (gathering). Each is accompanied by a task that plays an integral part in keeping Autumn Town safe and in good working order (e.g. clearing out Rot, finding sewer access so new resources can flow into town, and so on).
Aside from fulfilling requests, there are a few interesting hooks to incentivize hitting every shiny thing you come across regardless. The more different types of items are scavenged, and the more catalogues are filled by being updated with new materials, the more literature becomes available to give little bits of insight into Garden Story’s world and history. Then, in another parallel to Stardew Valley, any leftover resources can be sold in the pursuit of buying tool upgrades.
While the full game will feature four locations to explore and tend to, there was still plenty to do in Autumn Town itself by the end of the demo. Rana mentioned that villagers will post new requests daily, and the demo even featured a mini side quest (called “favors”) that led me to obtain a brand-new tool. Between daily requests, favor fulfillment, and dungeons spread across four different regions, it’s looking like there will be a good bit of content here for those who really want to hang around Garden Story’s world for as long as possible.
Though it remains to be seen just how enticing its complete gameplay loop and accompanying systems are, Picogram’s latest is already delivering on its core appeal: being a cozy, relaxing experience. The color palette is soft, the lighting is moody, and the soundtrack is right up there with the Animal Crossing series as having some of the most mellow, loopable tunes around.
In fact, it’s the sound design in particular that gives Garden Story such an intimate feel. From the sound of a page turning when entering and exiting buildings to the gentle gurgles of a bubbling brook in the forest, it’s clear that composer Grahm Nesbitt poured a ton of love into making this one feel just right. Here’s hoping the full game more than delivers on all the potential shown here.
Garden Story is slated to release in Spring of 2020 and is available to wishlist on Steam.
How Asynchronous Online in ‘Death Stranding’ Brings Players Together
Hideo Kojima’s latest game creates a sense of community by aiding other players on the same perilous journey.
Video games have always been fascinated with the idea of player interactivity as a means of crafting a power fantasy. The player typically goes on a hero’s journey, eventually culminating in them being the one and only savior of the world inside the game. Typically associated with single-player games, MMOs also crafted that same narrative but with the conceit that everyone is going on this journey. Often the acknowledgments of other players are in multiplayer-specific features such as PvP and Raids. Destiny is a great example of a series that takes players on the same journey and makes no promise that the story is different between players by even allowing them to engage in playing story missions together. It all feeds into the larger narrative of Guardians fighting together to save the Light. A game that handles this very similar and perhaps more successfully is Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding.
While lacking any direct player-to-player interaction, Kojima’s latest game is drenched in the conceit that community is crucial to triumph over adversity. You can read many articles about the game’s ideas of community from fellow writers on the site. What hasn’t quite gotten the attention it deserves is how revolutionary Death Stranding feels in terms of utilizing asynchronous online to greatly affect the game itself. Games like Dark Souls and other FromSoftware titles have included the ability to leave notes (which Death Stranding also offers) that help (or trick) players as they venture throughout the world on their own. How those notes’ effects are manifested are often on a much smaller scale – helpful at times but often to warn players of an impending way they might die. They don’t have a large impact on the player, only a temporary means of cheating death.
Where Death Stranding becomes something greater in scale is in what it lets other players do to other peoples’ single-player experiences. In the game, you play as Sam Porter Bridges who is tasked with reconnecting America from coast-to-coast. At first, the game thrusts Sam into its narrative, taking the reluctant, isolated character and forcing him to eventually realize the importance of hope and connections in dire times. As Sam starts bringing more and more people onto the Chiral network (which allows instantaneous communication and the transferring of 3D-printable goods), so too does the game open up and reveal its ultimate goal: to bring players together.
This doesn’t mean players will ever talk to other players, and the game very much avoids any real negative actions that can be performed on players. In fact, someone could play the game without ever actively engaging with online features. Instead, the game will passively hand out “likes” to other players whose ladders are used or roads are driven. If one wanted to fight the game’s narrative and instead keep Sam isolated and away from the community that the Chiral network provides, they could definitely do that – no matter how antithetical it would be to do so. Death Stranding even offers an offline mode that would nullify all of that and keep the experience solely on the player’s impact on the world and no one else’s.
Yet there’s a reason the online mode is the default mode. It was near the end of Episode 3 (which also happens to be when the game unloads almost all of its mechanics onto the player) when I finally realized the impact I was having on other people’s games. I had spent an entire day playing the game, but focusing largely on delivering premium deliveries – these are optional challenges that essentially boil down to carrying more cargo, damaging cargo less, or getting to your destination in a set amount of time. Death Stranding doesn’t ever tell you the best way to get somewhere. Instead, it places a wide array of tools in front of you and assuming the Chiral network is set up in an area, it can provide a rough guide on places to avoid or infrastructure already built. However, one of the key pieces of infrastructure missing for my playthrough was roads. My efforts immediately became focused on building a network of roads that made their way all throughout one of the larger areas in the game.
The game doesn’t ever make you build roads. It tells you the option is there but it doesn’t force your hand. Often tools will be introduced, like zip lines and floating carriers, but the game never demands that they’re used. Of course, engaging with those tools will make your life easier. There are easy ways to start building infrastructure in Death Stranding: ropes and ladders can help to scale mountains or plummet depths. Those will remain in the world for other players to use and will even appear on their maps as they hook up areas to the Chiral network. So, someone who plays the game earlier than someone else could lay down ropes and ladders, and depending on when the other person starts playing, they will find those once they have progressed to a point where they are traversing that area. Where the game becomes even grander in its sense of community is the realization that the more players commit to building roads or setting up zip lines, the more other players benefit.
The reality is that ladders and ropes are temporary – they cannot be rebuilt, they can only be replaced. The game’s Timefall – a weather phenomenon that acts as rain but ages anything it comes into contact with – can reset an entire map after a while if there is nothing more substantial placed on the map. So in my game, I decided that whenever I could build a road, I committed to doing so. This could mean going to multiple waystations and collecting materials that have amassed over time from deliveries, or going out in the world and finding these materials like Chiral crystals. At a certain point, I would load up a truck with multiple deliveries that were on or near the roads I had built, as well as with as many metal and ceramic materials I could load into the truck before it reached capacity. As I delivered packages, I’d replace them with more deliveries and more materials from each waystation. Eventually, I’d find myself at a point where a road was not built yet and would then build that road.
Community stands as the strongest component of Death Stranding .
In contrast to a game like Dark Souls, actions in the world such as providing notes on the ground or helping another player with a boss battle is helping them cheat death. The community that is being built is not one that has any lasting effect on the world in the game. No Man’s Sky may let players interact with each other and further their knowledge of the universe within the game, but often that help is relegated to an isolated planet. It’s a more contained impact. Hideo Kojima created a game where players don’t just build infrastructures for themselves, they can intentionally or inadvertently assist other players throughout their games. This leads to players like myself creating strand contracts with other players who have built things I liked in the game. A strand contract is a powerful feature because it means more of that players’ roads or other items built for the world will show up more frequently in my game.
Every Action in Death Stranding Creates Hope
One of the perks of building so many roads is you also get a lot of likes, whether passively given because someone used the road or actively provided by a player because they not only used the road but were appreciative that someone built it. It’s hard not to feel important in someone else’s life when you’ve made their experience less cumbersome because they no longer have to drive over rocky terrain or through enemy territory but instead can take a highway to their destination. What’s better is that more substantial developments like bridges and roads can be repaired by other players and even upgraded. So while I laid the initial roads down, I actually haven’t spent any materials repairing them. Instead, notifications come in and tell me players have repaired roads I’ve built. There’s no real reason to do that unless the infrastructure built was necessary to their journey through the game – making it easier but also providing the same feeling of helping out a larger community.
Community stands as the strongest component of Death Stranding – a game that doesn’t even try to be subtle in its intentions. Traversing Kojima’s version of post-apocalyptic America is harrowing on your own. With just your two feet and a package to deliver when the entire world itself is trying to stop you from doing so, America isn’t just divided – it’s hostile. Where Death Stranding shines brightest is when it offers a helping hand. Players aid one another to achieve the same unified goal: save the country. All of this is under the assumption that the country can be saved, but there is no denying that seeing someone else’s rope hanging off a steep cliff, or a Timefall shelter where it rains Timefall on a constant basis, is one of the most satisfying feelings. In Death Stranding, it isn’t enough to know that you’re making progress, but that everyone is willing to assist others to reach the same end goal. It’s a game where every action creates hope and is built upon the idea that we are at our best when we work together.
‘Woven’ Review: Comfortably Soft and Lumpy
Despite those blurry visuals and stilted gameplay, there’s something endearing about this innocent elephant’s adventure.
With a sincere warmth and fuzziness that conjures up dreamy recollections of 3D games gone by, Alterego Games‘Woven mostly overcomes its blurry visuals and technical jankery to somehow create a pleasant, old-fashioned experience. Those excited by modern gaming probably won’t give this lovable hand-me-down a second look, and perhaps they shouldn’t; extremely simple actions and soothing narration support a fairy tale quality that’s probably best suited to younger players. However, anyone willing to look past the well-worn exterior in search of a relaxing break from stressful button pushing may squeeze more fun out of this familiar stuffed toy than they might originally expect.
Woven tasks players with taking control of a meandering patchwork elephant named Stuffy, and guiding him through a sparsely populated knitted world that seems to have met an untimely demise. Because Stuffy has cotton for brains, he is assisted on this journey by a much smarter metal firefly named Glitch (a reference to his role in this story?), who floats alongside the curious-but-clumsy plush toy and provides hints as to how he can use his various abilities. Together, this odd couple will traverse open plains blanketed with colorful yarn grass, maneuver around impassable felt trees and plants, and hopefully discover the secret of where Stuffy’s clueless kin have all gone.
Along the way, the duo will walk great distances (often without much event), solve the occasional environmental puzzle, and generally just keep on keepin’ on.Woven is mostly straightforward in its campaign, merely about getting from point A to B by whatever means the path requires. Most often this involves finding new blueprints that allow players to change Stuffy’s design from an elephant into a wide variety of other animal shapes, each with a set of abilities that come with a new set of arms, legs, and a head. For instance, while the stocky (and adorable) bear can push plush boulders and perform a mighty stomp, the goat and frog can both use their legs to hop, while the kitty cat is able to push buttons on rusted consoles that activate dormant machinery.
However, these abilities are usually only able to activate when context-sensitive prompts from Glitch appear, so don’t expect some sort of platforming freedom. Woven handles a bit clumsily in that regard and others; strolling is definitely the order of the day, as long as Stuffy doesn’t get hung up on the geometry.
But these actions do help provide variety; a tropical bird of some sort (toucan, maybe?) can sing certain notes, while a pelican-thing can fly (sort of) over land and shallow water with great speed. And so, it often becomes necessary in Woven to alter Stuffy’s look with a total reweave. These designs can be applied at various sewing machine-like stations scattered about, which go a step further than just swapping Stuffy the deer for Stuffy the ape. Each blueprint is comprised of five parts, allowing for players to create a Frankenstein Stuffy made up of all the best abilities the player has on hand (or cushioned paw). By mixing certain sets, Stuffy will soon be able to scale mountainside crags, cross piranha-filled rivers, and pick up industrial cogs without the need to make a pit stop and bust out new needle and thread.
Some truly hilarious (or horrifying, depending on your sensibilities) aberrations can be created; seeing Stuffy hobble on hooves as he flaps a wing on one side and swings a muscular gorilla arm on the other, all with the head of a squirrel, is freakishly entertaining. In addition, for those who like to wander off the beaten path, there are a plethora of knitting patterns to discover, tucked away in both obvious and devious locations (and denizens). These cosmetic enhancements can also be applied at the sewing stations, essentially giving players seemingly endless amounts of customization. And these aesthetic changes even get in on the puzzle act every once in a while, especially when a pesky cobra shows up.
But outside the odd ‘connect the power line’ or ‘raise and lower platforms’ objectives, Woven doesn’t throw much at players that even young children shouldn’t be able to handle — and that seems to be the aim. Stuffy’s adventure lives or dies on its wholesome and serene vibe, which players either buy into or they don’t. There’s no combat here, very little to actually do outside hunting down those patterns, illuminating some painted caves, and activating some of Glitch’s ‘memories’ contained by machines hidden in the soft folds. Ongoing narration is pleasant to the ears, often conveying old-fashioned morals and cutesy jokes, but there’s no more story than in a classic fable.
And make no mistake — though the world is certainly bright and cheerful, it’s also quite fuzzy around the edges. The tactile nature of the cloth textures is lessened greatly by the low definition (at least on the Switch version), eliciting memories of the Wii-era. An increased crispness would have really made the world of Woven pop off the screen, perhaps luring in a larger audience who have become accustomed to such. There is still plenty of charm, but it feels like a missed chance at that true magical feeling the game seems to be shooting for.
Other stumbles come when certain worlds try to open up a bit more, which might lead a younger audience to get frustrated by the lack of direction (especially when they keep getting hung up on that geometry!); Woven definitely works better when it’s casually guiding players along, letting gamers of all ages envelop themselves in the easygoing atmosphere instead of requiring tedious backtracking. There’s just something nice about sitting back and relaxing to hummable music, watching the roly-poly amble of a stuffed kangaroo.
Woven will not be for everyone; those who play for challenge or eye candy won’t find either here. And yet, despite those blurry visuals and stilted gameplay, there’s something endearing about this innocent elephant’s adventure. Woven certainly has its share of lumpiness, but somehow remains cozy regardless.
‘Woven’ is available on PC, Xbox One, PS4, and Switch (Reviewed on Switch).
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