Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Review: Tumbleseed

Tumbleseed's core gameplay should be somewhat familiar to people who've spent some time playing a classic physical game like Labyrinth. The idea of balancing or controlling a ball along a path to avoid holes is a simple one, it's in the execution that the challenge arises. What looks easy and is conceptually straight-forward isn't always quite that way when gravity, your reflexes, and your patience get pulled into the picture. For me, perhaps it is this belief that beating a game like Labyrinth should absolutely be something I can do that typically makes me return to it over and over no matter how many times I may lose at it. While Tumbleseed adds a wide variety of elements that ramp up complexity, at its core its principles are very similar, as is the addictive "I can do it if I just try one more time" mentality when it continues to get the best of you.

The point of the game isn't a grand narrative with insights into the human psyche or somehow a re-telling of the classic hero's journey. You're a seed, you want to get to the top of the mountain, the game will throw a wide variety of challenges and decisions at you that you'll often get the short end of the stick on, and you'll die a whole lot. If you're a fan of old-school arcade challenges where your only reward is the accomplishment and hopefully a decent placement on the online leaderboards I'll enthusiastically say that Tumbleseed is likely a great match for you! If you want a deep story and meaning, or even a solid chance you may ever finish the game you may want to pass. If you've heard about these "rogue-likes" and are willing to front the very reasonable price of entry this is a pretty mainstream-friendly, though quirky, representation of that game style, though very distinct from any one that I've ever played.

Getting down to the basics the premise of the game is that you'll start each adventure with the capability to shift between 4 basic types of seeds: one for setting checkpoints, one for adding thorns for basic offensive capabilities, one for generating crystals you'll use as currency, and one for healing yourself. Your goal is to move through a variety of distinct zones, with all sorts of challenges and surprises at every turn, and get to the summit to fulfill your seedly purpose. Along the way you'll have standard rogue-like decisions to make: Which random power-up will you choose? Will you indulge in a challenge that could help you if you succeed but will hurt you if you fail? Are you willing to trade in 2 seed types you're unlikely to use in the hopes the one seed you get in return will be helpful? If the RNG (random number generator) gods are showing you favor perhaps you'll temporarily get a perfect combination of things going your way, but often those gods are fickle and your plans will quickly collapse with the wrong combination of enemies, a stumble or two in your execution, or often a lack of full understanding of how things that you thought were there to help you can also be lethal under certain circumstances. Every time you start it's a crapshoot, and this is where the game will either appeal to you or where it will fall apart, the same as it is for any rogue-like. 

Depending on how far you progress in a given run you'll begin to be given random choices of additional seed types to help you along the way. In general they'd fall under the categories of offensive, defensive, and "helpers" of various kinds. In general your offensive choices have their appeal, as you go along there are a variety of enemies who'll try to get you and it would be nice to both kill them to no longer be pressured by them (often leading to a fall down a hole) or to reap the benefit of crystals they leave behind when they die. The downside to using the offensive powers is that most of them will also harm you if you're not careful or if you don't get pretty far away. Your defensive choices include cloaking and some shield types but what you'll find is that their usefulness tends to be very specific. For example, a shield that will temporarily protect you from something shooting at you won't help against a pouncing spider. Add on the fact that defensive seeds tend to carry a pretty high resource cost and while they're an option, you need to consider them carefully. In the last category there are various type including seeds that will help you by springing you into the air (for a relatively short distance unfortunately), slow down time, or fill in (some) holes with water but again these powers have their limits, in this case mostly tied to proximity to a planting spot. Just to really make things crazy there's even a seed that is completely random, the great benefit of it, though, is that it is free to use, and it is quite possible to get a solid run going with it even if it is a bit crazy.

As you get a little further into the run you'll also be able to make use of a single aura chosen by the game at random. These also carry a risk/reward to their use. You have a bouncing buddy ball that will kill enemies... but look out, he'll hurt you too! There's a ghost variant that does the same except it will slowly chase you instead of bouncing around randomly. If you don't stop it can be useful, but considering this is a game where you sometimes need to wait on things it can be absolutely more lethal to you than your enemies. There are also power-ups like one that will increase the size of any projectiles you fire, but unfortunately you'll need to keep in mind this property also does the same with enemy projectiles. The message here is that there is no magic combination of seeds and abilities, the more effective types tend to either have a high cost or risk, and from run to run you'll need to be able to take a set of options in front of you and make the most of it.

The Switch has been blessed very early on with what is now beginning to take shape as a diverse collection of rogue-likes. While it opened with the well-known Isaac, bringing the rogue shooter to the table, it then veered off into the strategic lane-based challenge of Has-Been Heroes. Tumbleseed goes completely off the board and brings its own unique vision to what a rogue-like can be with an adventure game of sorts, though in general the game feels very much like its own thing and is difficult to put in any known box. I was enthusiastic about the possibilities it could have from the moment it was first shown and having sunk many hours into the game now I have to say I'm thoroughly impressed with the result and, especially at its very reasonable price point, would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a challenge for their mind and reflexes.

Score: 9


  • A game unlike any you've likely played before
  • A fresh look with vibrant colors
  • "Just one more try" style gameplay that keeps pulling you back in
  • Online leaderboards and daily challenges to encourage people who like seeing how they measure up
  • For some the challenge will be frustrating instead of encouraging
  • It's possible some people may struggle to become fully comfortable with the nuances of control
  • Par for the course as a rogue-like you'll spend time early on dying in order to learn your lessons rather than having things explained to you

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