Game Review

Wandersong (2018) [Switch]

Without music, life would be a mistake.

-Friedrich Nietzsche

 

cba1 “The following is a contributor post by the Middle-aged Horror Mage.”

In most video games, everybody wants to be a hero. Brandish a magical sword, rescue the princess, slay dragons, and save the world… it’s all pretty common, right? In Wandersong, you play as an average dude who only has the gift of a beautiful singing voice and the ability to be outwardly happy at all costs.

The world is coming to an end, though, and SOMEBODY has to save it! As the player-named bard, your job is to visit the game’s different kingdoms in order to obtain pieces of a song that is supposedly able to prevent such a catastrophe. This bit of the story was actually inspired by the game’s developer, Greg Lobanov, after his cross-country bike trip surprised him by way of the outpouring of generosity and kindness of strangers. He wanted to make a game that reflected this, so Wandersong centers itself on “meeting strangers and loving people.”

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Playing through Wandersong, these inspirations were clear as day. You enter new towns, meet new people, assist one another, listen to problems, sing songs, learn about new cultures, and move along. It’s absolutely wonderful… er, wanderful? That joke was terrible.

During a dream, the happy-go-lucky bard is told he has the power to sing the Earthsong, but, of course, it’s never that easy. As you explore, townsfolk need help with exterminating ghosts, making friends, forming a band, being accepted as a furry, and more. The story beats delve into all manner of things, like civil war, racism, depression, anxiety, and the abuse of the working class. It’s not just a simple, colorful jump-on-stuff game.

At its core, Wandersong is a narrative-heavy puzzle platformer that also stirs in a heaping cup of exploratory adventure and self-discovery. It takes the player on an adventure that answers the question of what it means to be a “hero,” and how we, as a civilization, can do with a hell of a lot more positivity, civility, and love. It’s a super positive game full of rainbows and butterflies but isn’t afraid to challenge the player by putting them at the bard’s emotional bedrock. Nobody likes being lied to, belittled, patronized or made to feel less than human. But the moral here is that anybody can be a hero.

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Most of the exploration bits reward as much with new dances and interesting side-quests. These are the moments when Wandersong became more of an adventure game than a puzzle platformer. It’s similar enough to the flow of Night in the Woods, where you’d spend each day chatting with everyone in the neighborhood before progressing the story. But where Night in the Woods often felt like those sections of Mass Effect 2, where you’d chat with your squad for a while between missions, Wandersong presents a whole new town to explore with fresh faces and a new set of problems.

As a bard, you have the ability to sing using the right analog stick. Tilting it in each direction offers a new note, which is used to solve musical puzzles, complete rhythm game scenarios, and fails to grow stale by being used in interesting new ways throughout the dozen hours I spent with it on the Nintendo Switch.

Initially, the music wheel was used to mimic bird sounds in order to jump higher and reach otherwise inaccessible ledges. Then it became a way to speak with the dead, change moods through song, control plant growth patterns and turn them into moveable platforms, provide light within dark environments, and much, much more. It’s even used during the game’s boss encounters, which mostly center around the bard’s peaceful nature and desire to communicate rather than fight. It’s quite wholesome.

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I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with Wandersong but came away riding high on the game’s delightful narrative, wonderfully vivid paper-cutout visuals, and emotionally beautiful and thematically perfect soundtrack (thanks to A Shell in the Pit).

Of course, it’s not without its flaws — much like any other game deserving equally high praise. Let’s dig a little deeper below in the 8-bit Review!

 

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narrative Narrative: 10/10

Most puzzle platformers don’t offer much in the way of narrative. Their stories merely exist as a way to progress from beginning to end.

Wandersong may start off with light-hearted dialogue and sickeningly happy chatter, but quickly evolves into a game that explores plenty of darker themes. It was never beyond the game to successfully tackle subjects like depression and anxiety (of which I suffer both, making Wandersong particularly important), self-doubt, and racism. It’s as much about muscling through the desire to give up when the going gets tough as it is finding the power within ourselves to overcome the odds, even when they appear stacked against us. It’s about finding common ground and seeing the good in people, which is much, much needed today.

This is a game about a simple bard who loves to sing and wants to show everyone the power of positivity (shout out to The New Day) and the strength of music. The world is coming to an end but he still wants to find time to help a stranger, meet new people, mediate a civil war, and sing the world back to life.

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I was entirely gripped by the story, which seemed to understand mental health and positive reinforcement rather than coming off as artificial. It’s a game like Celeste or Undertale, where it made me feel like I’m not alone in my struggles; that someone out there that I don’t personally know has experienced the same thing at a point in their lives. I felt the ups and downs along with the bard, along with his growing friendship with the abrasive witch Miriam, and rooted for them the entire way.

Then the finale happened and I somehow grew to love the game even more. Wandersong is just incredibly special and deeply personal, filling its world with delightful characters and admirable altruism.

audio Audio: 9/10

As the name implies, Wandersong is pretty heavy on musical themes. The “hero” is a bard that communicates with spirits, animals, and people through song, after all.

The soundtrack comes by way of A Shell in the Pit, who absolutely nails the emotional ups and downs and matches the vivid imagery throughout. “The Bard” captures the protagonist’s happy-go-lucky, positive outlook perfectly while “It’s a Ghost” presents a modernized take on something straight out of Fantasia. Then you have the pure sense of heroism behind “Lightning Strike” and the track that never ceases to get me misty-eyed, “Message from Mom.”

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There are two full albums of original tracks and another dedicated to remixes (featuring Celeste composer Lena Raine), all of which are rad.

The only issue I had with the audio was during the rhythm game segments since swinging around the right analog stick (especially with the loose-feeling JoyCon) would seldom cause words to skip or cut out. It made some of those moments sound a tad bit off, but it was mostly few and far between and isolated to the rhythm games.

gameplay Gameplay: 7/10

Gameplay in Wandersong is split into four categories: exploration, platforming, boss fights, and rhythm games. It’s enough to keep things fresh, but not all of them felt particularly tight.

Exploring towns and chatting with citizens is as you’d expect — move with the left analog stick and press a button to interact — but everything else requires more finesse.

Platforming is mostly experienced within the game’s dungeon-like castles that housed that area’s supreme being. Instead of merely jumping on ledges and avoiding spikes, you’re asked to use the bard’s singing powers in order to progress. I admit I was a bit concerned about this aspect going in, as I wasn’t quite sure how the game was going to keep things interesting. I’m happy to report I was wrong.

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With the bard’s booming voice, you can manipulate plant-life that act as elevators, sing to bugs and ask them to move boulders, create gravity-defying zones in mid-air, and manipulate time to speed up or slow down moving platforms. This plays into the boss battles as well, with each having their own approach to taking them down — like singing in a specific note to shield an ally from projectile blasts or even swinging a giant sword around after charging it with lightning.

Gameplay is consistently interesting, just not consistently executed. Some of the platforming felt a little off, mostly because the bard’s jumping didn’t always feel precise. Wandersong isn’t a “precision” platformer and it’s mostly low on the Challenge-O-Meter, but there was a time or two when I felt like what was being asked of me was only more difficult because of how the platforming was executed. It’s far from bad and rarely occurred, though still noteworthy.

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Rhythm games are fun little events that require timed tilts of the right analog stick in order to belt out meaningful, longer songs as a way to sway conversations or emphasize the bard’s perspective. Wandersong is all about doing your absolute best. It’s not about being bad at something or feeling like a failure — you just do your best and have fun. Games are fun. So the rhythm sections don’t have a scoring system and there’s barely any penalty for failing a platforming section. You’re a bard who just wants to do good; not be good at games.

For those of you eyeing up the Switch version over PC, you’ll be happy to know that Wandersong runs just fine in handheld mode.

visuals Visuals: 7/10

Wandersong has a neat visual flair, blending blasts of color with characters modeled after paper cut-outs. To me, it was like looking at a less detailed, more colorful and happy Night in the Woods, which I don’t mean in a pejorative sense. It certainly has its own look and feel, and in an age where most platformers revisit the pixel eras of the 8- and 16-bit consoles, it’s a breath of fresh air to see something so unique.

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Although admirable, I did experience some weird graphical hiccups during my 12-hour playthrough. For instance, certain screens changed my bard into an all-black silhouette. It’s worth noting here that I’ve spoken to the developer and this is a known issue that’s being patched soon. As of today, though, the issue is still ongoing.

Later in the game (and never once until then), entire platforms failed to zone in, turning Wandersong into a weird guessing game as I tried to find my way out of a screen. Sometimes exiting and reentering, or singing, would fix the issue, but not always.

UPDATE: As of December 19, 2018, both the character silhouette graphical hiccup and missing platform issues have been patched and should no longer be a concern for future consumers.

There were also times when the outlines of characters would flicker while moving, which was a little distracting. You could see the outline of each individual part sometimes, particularly the head and neck, but this is just a noteworthy nitpick on my part.

uniqueness Uniqueness: 9/10

Puzzle platformers are nothing new, so it takes a lot to stand out in this subgenre. However, Wandersong manages to do so with gravitas.

As I’ve mentioned above, it’s not just about platforming or solving puzzles to progress, but having meaningful conversations with strangers, mediating problems, singing, taking part in rhythm games, sailing a ship full of overly-caffeinated pirates, joining bands, speaking with ghosts, being knocked down and getting back up, and being there for others when they’re at their absolute worst.

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I’ve played very few platformers with such an emphasis on storytelling and, as it turns out, a well-told narrative is a great way to break up the jumpy bits! Wandersong pulls a lot of ideas together into a neat package that continued to evolve all the way to the end credits. Formulaic it is not!

replayability Replayability: 5/10

Easily the lowest score here, Wandersong doesn’t offer much in the way of replay value unless you enjoy revisiting games solely because they’re good.

There is a chapter select after finishing the game, though I wasn’t sure why I’d want to jump back in unless I missed a side-quest or something. I didn’t notice anything while playing that hinted at collectibles or branching narratives, but if I’m wrong here then feel free to sound off down in the comments.

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Personally, I’m the type of person who enjoys revisiting their favorite games down the road, but rarely over experiencing something new and exciting. I know Wandersong won’t have the same, fresh impact it did the first time around, but it’s one I certainly see myself coming back to during a dry spell.

accessibility Accessibility: 8/10

Wandersong’s platforming segments aren’t overly taxing and have a generous checkpoint system, but there are a couple of areas later in the game that require a bit of skill. Load times are super quick, though, so if you find yourself falling down an endless pit of doom you won’t be staring at your watch for long, if at all. It’s nice.

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The game also features visual cues for those that are colorblind or have hearing difficulties, which should make it totally feasible for anyone to make their way through the rhythm games and singing portions. As I said earlier, there’s no scoring system or penalty for being bad at literally anything in Wandersong. Do your best, have fun, and enjoy the game.

mypersonalgrade My Personal Grade: 9/10

Wandersong is a game that I never knew existed until recently, following its mention in a few “best games of 2018” lists. Watching the trailer didn’t do much for me, but after reading up on it and watching a few gameplay clips, I decided that I needed to give it a shot. I’m definitely glad I did.

Somehow a video game in a genre I don’t particularly (pardon the pun) jump on, that includes aspects like rhythm games and an emotional narrative where there usually isn’t much emphasis, ended up stealing my heart. Sometimes taking a gamble pays off.

While Wandersong has faults that lie in its technical execution and graphical hiccups, it’s the most memorable game I’ve played throughout 2018. And in a year that saw such major indie releases like Celeste, Into the Breach, and The Messenger, not to mention Switch ports of Hyper Light Drifter, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, and Hollow Knight, that’s saying a lot.

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Honestly, I haven’t been this moved by a game since Undertale. Similar to Toby Fox’s masterpiece, the way Wandersong’s writing blends positivity, humor, and nihilism is genuinely amusing without coming off as one giant meme, which is refreshing.

The small group of people who crafted this game deserve all the applause in the world and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next. If you need some positivity, encouragement, and color in your life, then give Wandersong a shot. Hopefully, it’ll capture you like it did me.

Aggregate Score: 8.0

 

Trash is the Middle-aged Horror Mage here at TWRM, an irregular co-host on The Unlikely Herocast podcast for CA! Radio, and sole contributor for his own games-related website, Cheap Boss Attack. Follow him on Twitter @Trashlevania!

 

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17 replies »

  1. This game sounds really delightful. It’s nice to read about something that’s positive without being merely sappy. It seems to me that a lot of the indie sphere emphasizes largely negative emotions, like sadness, without redeeming factors to cope with those things. Of course that’s a general statement. It sounds like Wandersong gets it right.

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