It’s as true for gaming reviews as it is true for any field of critical analysis that you can’t engage in the activity for almost seven years and counting (give or take) without starting to think in patterns. Very little is ever as unique or as groundbreaking as it’d like you to believe, and it becomes both a useful shorthand and a method of thinking to categorize and compare games on similarities to past design. Oh, this game uses shooting mechanics based on Doom, but with a dash of Shadow Warrior. That game has a visual palette reminiscent of Limbo. Such-and-so game has a moral choice system that’s less Kotor and more Mass Effect. This game is like this, that game is like that; we all do it. It’s rare enough to find games that buck similarity expectations on any given area, let alone several.
And yet, it’s exactly that which drew me to TumbleSeed (by ‘Benedict Fritz, Greg Wohlwend, Joel Corelitz, David Laskey, and Jenna Blazevich’). Far as I can tell, in this game you play as a brightly-coloured… plant seed? With eyes? That rolls up a mountain, for various reasons, which involves dodging giant holes and fighting banana snakes and spiders with back-mounted turrets? And… you don’t move the seed directly, but instead, you move up some sort of plank from the bottom of the screen? And the seed balances and rolls on it?
Listen: I’m not saying TumbleSeed has no inspirations. The website itself claims that TumbleSeed is based on “the forgotten arcade classic Ice Cold Beer“. What I’m saying is that I don’t see any. TumbleSeed might be the first game in 2017 that I genuinely don’t have a frame of reference for. Might being the operative word: Could be that long-forgotten memories click into place once I start playing. My memory’s weird like that, it wouldn’t be the first time. I think.
But either way, wouldn’t that make for an interesting review?
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, not really a factor. Mechanical, medium-high-ish.)
(Game source: Patreon funds.)
You know how some games start with a title screen? Classic choice, that, can’t really go wrong. Splash art for the developers is also a popular choice, often leading into some sort of title screen. And while the practice has mostly fallen out of favor, I could always enjoy a good post-boot introduction cutscene, even if that was something you’d generally start skipping after the second time or so.
TumbleSeed makes the brave choice to just start. As soon as the loading screen clears, I’m dropped into what looks like cylindrical little house. There’s a closet, a painting, a small kitchen island. And a bed in the top center of the room, whereon a pink circle with green leaf ears and a brown band is clearly shown to be sleeping.
Oh, and there’s also a nondescript teal line near the bottom of the screen, adorned with branches and triangular eyeballs. I miss it at first, but my eyes are drawn when giant simulacra of keyboard buttons hop into existence above and below it.
I carefully press the W key…
Ah, okay, I see where this is going. I quickly grab my controller to test a theory, and… Sure enough, the left and right analogue sticks correspond to the left and right edges of the line. This seems like a much easier way of doing things, and I’m a little confused why TumbleSeed chooses to open with keyboard controls. All the same, I’m glad they’re both supported. It’s likely I’ll never touch these keyboard controls again for as long as I play, but then again, maybe I will.
I nudge the line upwards by degrees, until it finally bumps into the sleeping circle. It wakes up with a start, the brown band on its body opening into a comparatively massive eye. Also, three hearts appear on the right side of the line.
I move the line further up, and the now very awake and aware circle is carried up with it… all the way until I reach the edge of the house, where it bumps into a wall and blocks my progress. Then I move the line back down, past the bed, and the circle keeps moving with me. Also, whenever I move the line out of perfect horizontal alignment (which happens pretty much right away), the circle starts rolling down, in a very obeys-intuitive-rules-of-gravity kind of way. Between that, and the green leafy ears, I’m going to guess that this circle is in fact the titular TumbleSeed, main character of TumbleSeed.
…Okay, yeah, listen, that sounds dumb. But just roll with it, okay.
With a lot of nudging and a little help from gravity, I finally manage to get TumbleSeed down to the obvious backlit house entrance. It crosses the line and the screen fades over, ready — maybe? — to launch into the game proper.
Hey, this is a nice-looking village. Little upsetting that it’s populated by eternally staring terror seeds, but, you know.
I roll Tumbly around the village. Some other seeds and plants have little text balloons beneath them: They launch into short dialogues when I intersect with these balloons, except that Tumbly’s staunch silence makes them more like monologues. There are also other houses I can visit, with more seeds in them.
Boy, this sure is a pleasant location. It’s calm, and colourful, and atmospheric in a lovely way: From the relaxing background music to the implied clouds lazily drifting overhead, everything here is built to tell me that these seeds sure do have it good on their mountainside home. Most of them have it so good they don’t even have to worry about rolling down the mountain, even though that seems to be Tumbly’s entire defining characteristic. All in all, it’s just… a nice place.
Then, monsters happen.
Over the span of a few seconds, various larger and smaller spiked monsters — but all of them much larger than even the largest seed — bore up from the ground and then disappear again, leaving enormous perfectly round holes in place. The sun disappears behind black rain clouds, and the calm music is replaced with something much more dramatic as wind and rain start picking up. As far as drastic mood shifts go, it’s definitely thorough enough.
I briefly debate having Tumbly run back home to check, but no, a hero’s path goes always onward — and there’s nothing that happens there anyway, so I can save you fifteen uninteresting seconds. I navigate myself up, past the holes, through the gap in the fence that has a glowing diamond shape with an eyeball etched in the ground…
I pass the aforementioned eyeball diamond and without warning, a flag sprouts up.
A nearby seed takes notice. It tells me that a) planting flags like these will stop me from falling too far down the mountain, but b) this is not something that any Johnny Appleseed can do, which c) might mean I’m the Chosen One of Prophecy, so d) I should ‘meet it again’ further up the mountain, at the ‘basecamp above the prairie’. Then it simply… stays put, ignoring my questions about why we can’t just have this meeting right now.
Well, alright. I keep rolling up, avoiding holes as I go. That’s actually easier said than done: It sounds easy enough in theory to keep the line level and have Tumbly go straight up, but in practice, even the slightest bit of imbalance can send it rolling. And there’s a definite sense of weight and momentum to the seed: It can pick up quite some speed, which means stopping its horizontal momentum while keeping up vertical movement can be a real tricky balancing act. I still manage to avoid the holes, but with a fair share of near-misses and rapid overcorrections.
A little ways up, I find something strange: A big wall that blocks my passage, a strange-looking button, and another seed, trapped on the wall, asking for my help. As far as Button Tutorials go it’s a little silly, but it works as intended: I learn that I can activate buttons by rolling onto them and then staying there while a graphic on the ground slowly fills up. Which I guess means I’ll have to learn to stay still for extended periods of time. It helps that, around this time, I notice the small ‘level’ graphic right underneath Tumbly, which shows how far off-balance my pushing bar is. Still, it’s hardly simple to stay in one place, and again it involves a lot of last-second microcorrections. This game is tricky.
Finally, I reach my goal: Another eyeball diamond shape on the floor. But this one’s a door, not a flag site, as helpfully explained by a nearby seed. “They’re expecting you. Drop yourself right through that diamond door. It’s all up to you now, TS.” Which I guess confirms that this character’s name is actually ‘TumbleSeed’?
I drop through the door. Time for this adventure to begin proper?
In the odd underground basecamp, I talk to a ghost. This is not the weirdest thing I do here, but it’s definitely the most cause for concern.
No, the weirdest thing is when I roll into another seed, a grey circle with a green headband, which is positioned on a raised platform that lowers at my approach. Then I become that seed.
I’ll spare you the extended tutorial, but the long and the short of it goes like this: For reasons not really explained, Tumbly the TumbleSeed is not a single type of seed, but rather multitudes. By pressing the A button, I can at any time swap between the different seed forms I have access to. This changes my graphic, but more importantly, it changes how I interact with the glowing eye diamonds — the ones that up until this point I assumed were flag spots. In reality, they’re points of power, which every seed interacts with differently. My starting pink form, Flagseed, plants flags on these spots, which are supposed to stop me from falling too far. But this new form, Thornvine, instead plants little flowers on the spot — and then harvests a cool knife, which lazily rotates around my form.
And then there’s a third form I quickly get, Crystal. It turns out that there’s a whole resource of magical crystal fragments in TumbleSeed, that heretofore has gone unmentioned. Both Flagseed and Thornvine use up accumulated crystals when they plant their effects. But the Crystal form gets me crystals: If I plant this seed in three spots — for free — the flowers in the third spot will spew up some crystals I can collect and use. There are also just crystals lying around on the ground in this area, but obviously I don’t know how generous the real world is going to be.
Tutorial thus completed, I move onto…
Okay, okay. One final training, about how to deal with enemies, how to plant crystal seeds, and how to be careful when you cross bridges. Then I get to apply that in a brief trial area, and then finally I reach the aforementioned basecamp.
As far as I can tell, the game is now set to actually begin. I dutifully hand over all my crystals from the tutorial, before being directed to another springy vine leading out of the camp. This is it, then. Far as I can tell, my goal is to go up the Mountain, which is currently fraught with corruption and danger, and plant myself all the way at the very highest top. All I have is a basic understanding of movement and combat, and four cool seed forms (I apparently snagged a heart-shaped form when you weren’t looking), versus an entire ecosystem full of monsters, terrible predators, and death pits.
But whatever, right? It’s gonna be fine.