Indie Wonderland: TumbleSeed

A few hours in

Important, though very likely entirely expected update: It was not fine.

RIP Tumbly. They died as they lived: Tumbling.

Or rather, it wasn’t immediately fine. For all my bragging, there’s no denying that TumbleSeed was a tricky experience; in general, but also very specifically at the start. So much about its control scheme, operational goals, and gameplay metaphors is unique, it’d have been strange if it didn’t take some time to adjust. And the jump from the controlled tutorial environment to the actual hustle of real gameplay is pretty sizeable: Suddenly you’re expected to contend not just with static holes and target dummies, but with moving monsters, shifting terrains, and let’s say a variety of additional stuff.

This looks safe.

That said, I did actually beat…

Well, it’s odd. I rolled all the way up through a forest. Then there was another basecamp. Then more forest. That ended in an underground diamond door, where I fought in what looked like an arena: One button activated a wave of enemies, and two more buttons, which I both had to press firmly to activate a spring vine. Hitting that vine catapulted me up out of the screen, at which point TumbleSeed happily announced that I’d beaten the Forest area!

It was only a matter of time, really. Look at my *knives*!

I’d beaten the Forest area, which is apparently one area of four. After the Forest comes the Jungle, and then the Desert, and then the Snow. All still mountains, yeah, I don’t know how that works for a desert either. Each area has its own challenges, and enemies, and obstacles, and quests, and each only unlocks after you’ve reached the previous’ summit — which is invariably located underground, again, I don’t 100% claim to understand this. Beating the Snow mountain unlocks a new ‘Adventure’ area, ‘an ever-changing mountain of death’, and that’s not even counting the daily and weekly challenges…

But back up for a moment. Did I just say ‘quests’?

Certainly seems like.

TumbleSeed is an interesting game.

I’ve mentioned at the start of this review that I was drawn to TumbleSeed in large part because I couldn’t find an easy mental model for it. It seemed unique, in gameplay and in aesthetic. What I couldn’t have expected was how true that would end up being. I have no basis of comparison for TumbleSeed. I’ve seen other reviews liken it to roguelikes and roguelites, and a clever one or two invoke other marble-rolling games. But I just… don’t know if that’s accurate. I love making comparisons like these, because it makes the gaming cultural sphere seem larger and more interconnected, and also because I’m a massive nerd who likes mapping out relations. But to say that TumbleSeed can be explained as ‘like this and that other game’ is doing it a disservice, I worry. TumbleSeed is like TumbleSeed.

It just is.

Obviously, the biggest thing that makes TumbleSeed such a unique experience is its control scheme. I could describe it in a single sentence: ‘You use a level bar to push a little ball up a vertical obstacle course’. And yet…

Actually, let me double back on that. The thing that makes TumbleSeed isn’t ‘just’ the control scheme, it’s the incredible ways the game uses that control scheme. You might not think there’s all that much to do with the mechanical idea of pushing a ball up a hill: I could’ve come up with ‘avoid things’, and ‘avoid things while also making sure you avoid other things’, and then that would’ve been that. And… in fairness, that is pretty much TumbleSeed‘s challenge core. But the game makes it work with clever design and polish.

The first area, the Forest area, is the simplest of the four, both of terms of challenge and in content variation. Even here, TumbleSeed does clever things with obstacle placement and enemies, but all the same it’s simple enough to get through — I managed on my second try or so. But the later areas quickly start introducing interesting challenge variations on the concept. The Jungle has much more holes than the Forest, large and small, as well as obstacles like tree trunks and mushrooms that block where you can even roll to begin with. Not to mention the spike pits, which you can roll over… if your timing is good. The Snow is veritably dotted with holes, but some of them have spider webs… again, passable for the quick roller. Expect the seed diamonds to be placed anywhere but convenient places, too. And the Desert…

To be honest, I don’t remember all that much about the Desert. I wonder if the disco town halfway up has anything to do with that.

What I’m clumsily trying to get across (maybe that’s fitting) is TumbleSeed is its balancing act. Everything in this game exists to serve and support that central mechanic. The challenges play into the unique nature of the controls: Testing you on your ability to carefully navigate small gaps, taunting you with crystals and seed spots that you might rather avoid, and posing tradeoffs between speed and control when enemies home in on you, or track your movement for killing shots. And it’s so important to the whole experience that the physics of it feel good. Your seed ball rolls like… well, like the way a little ball would roll. Carefully at first, if you slant the bar slightly, but picking up speed quickly if you turn harder, always more quickly than you actually want. Tumbly is really sensitive to initial balance changes and, if you’re not careful, picks up speed and inertia fast. Even in static situations this control scheme means you very rarely feel in control: Especially in later levels, every second of a TumbleSeed journey feels like a razor’s-edge balancing act, figuratively and literally.

It was honestly an interesting experience to realize how bad I am at this game, relatively speaking. In early university, for an essay, I once posited that all video games share a common skill set — I called it ‘gaming skill’, because I was in my late teens and also a dipshit. There’s merit to the idea, though: So many games share mechanical and methodological DNA that it’d be strange if there wasn’t any overlap. I’m not just talking about ‘all first-person shooters control the same’, though that’s part of it; rather, the more games you play, the more quickly you’ll be able to pick up and integrate unfamiliar control sets, systems, and metaphors. You get the basic idea. But TumbleSeedTumbleSeed is in mechanical operation so far removed from anything I commonly play that I have almost no prior experience to draw on. My muscle memory and engrained expectations are working against me, here. I found that in stressful situations, I was just as likely to make clutch moves that saved Tumbly from falling and death as I was to make clutch moves that sent them straight into the abyss.

Picture this scene: It’s a Monday on the Mountain. Snow. There’s about two dozen holes here. One of them is safe to fall into, and two of them can be safely traversed for a *second*. There’s a laser cannon at your back, firing away, and at any time a spider with a plasma gun could crawl out of any of the larger holes. There’s only one unclaimed upgrade space available, and you have enough crystals for any of them. But this *might* be the last upgrade before the final arena fight. The million-dollar question is: *What day is it?*

If TumbleSeed‘s control and movement mechanics determine its shape and the feel of the gameplay experience, its other mechanics give it flavor and spark. The most obvious of these is the mechanic of ‘planting seeds’ on the diamond eye fields, which was demonstrated on the previous page. Here, TumbleSeed dabbles in an interesting form of resource management. Each form you acquire gives you access to new and cool powerups, but there are only so many fields in each level to go around. And only so many crystals, too. They are plenty lying around on the ground, and killing enemies gives you crystal… but then, killing enemies often requires the use of those powers in the first place. And if you run out of crystals, you can always plant some using the Crystal form, but again, that drains some of your precious fields. Wouldn’t you rather use those fields to get more thorns? Or health? For each four fields you plant, the Heart form gives you one extra heart. Which might be more important than you think, since you only start with three, and enemies can be pretty relentless…

You start each game of TumbleSeed with the four default forms: Flagseed, Thornvine, Crystal, and Heart. Other forms are gained during play, most commonly by running across (and literally into) the underground ‘power shrines’. Here you can pick one of two powerups, which I’m pretty sure are semi-randomly generated. What’s pretty cool about these areas is that you can try out the powers in a special walled-off area, with infinite crystal and health and plenty of target dummies and/or enemies, as the situation calls for. What’s less cool is that once you pick one power, the other is forevermore out of your reach. And of course you will run into situations where that power could have made the difference.

Pro: The power I just picked up, on activation, gives me a limited time during which I can shoot energy attacks horizontally. Con: The *other* power, which requires five fields to charge, gives Mario-style temporary invincibility.

The range of powers is pretty impressive. I won’t go into detail here, so you have something to discover for yourself, but some of my favourite examples include: A power that fills all holes in a radius with water, making them passable (and throwing into serious question the idea that all these holes are supposed to be connected to an underground tunnel). A power that gives you a flail, which spins wider the faster you roll down the bar. A power that spawns shotgun cannons on the field, which you then activate by rolling into them, making them fire in the opposite direction. There’s a lot of creativity on display here.

Consequently, the choice of which powers to get, and which powers to use when, is TumbleSeed‘s main ongoing tactical consideration — related to, but also separate from, your constant struggle not to roll into any holes. I want to especially shout out the Flagvine power, which marries these two: If you fall into a hole, you don’t lose the game automatically, but instead roll down the mountain underground, losing hearts as you go until you reach a Flagvine and are returned topside. This makes placing flags an interesting trade-off, a rare example of lettings players choose their own checkpoints that I actually kind of like. On the one hand, flags are only ever valuable if you fall, so in theory skilled players should never have to sacrifice fields and crystals to plant them. On the other hand, there’s little more annoying in TumbleSeed that dropping into a hole near the end of the level and having to start all the way over. If you even survive the trip: You’re guaranteed to lose at least one heart in a fall, but longer falls drain hearts every so often.

Well, unless you have the right aura…

Falls are a bad time either way. But then I’m sure you’d *intuited* that already.

Where seed forms and powerups can be a little random, players are given some more control over the experience through auras. Think of these as run modifiers: You can pick one aura at the start, and all of them give you one permanent rule-breaking power. For instance, one aura lets you keep your accumulated thorns on taking damage (you lose them otherwise). Another aura gives you higher launch distance and slower fall speed, making flight movement more viable. A third aura turns you invisible to enemies as long as you move slowly enough. And so on, and so forth.

Auras are obtained through doing quests, which are… Basically, each of the four regions has three quests you can do, one after the other in a set order. Think of objectives like ‘have 30 crystals at once’, ‘kill 5 enemies in a single run’, ‘clear the secret race objective’, or ‘reach base camp without getting hit’. Complete a quest, and the next time you return to the starting hub there’ll be a new aura waiting for you.

I’ve got a few.

The auras are an interesting idea, and I can see a lot of variation in runs stem from them. That said, they’re definitely not as strong as TumbleSeed‘s other tricks. A big part of that is that the second-ever aura you get prevents you from taking damage when you fall in holes. Just, no damage at all, regardless of fall distance. You can probably see how this aura trivializes a lot of the challenge. I’m glad that it exists, because it and it alone is what allowed me to beat as many levels as I have. And obviously I don’t have to pick it. Still, there’s some… balance issues here, har har, where some auras only seem to exist to facilitate later quests. Like, I enjoy the aura that draws in gems from farther away. But apart from ‘get as many gems as possible’ quests, why would I ever not just roll over?

Let me close out talking about TumbleSeed‘s mechanics by mentioning that there’s a bundle more to this game than what I’ve already said. The combination of cool powers and auras, new enemies, and hidden quirks like the power shrines and particular ‘challenge’ levels — and just the odd mechanics — cause a real sense of innovative discovery, especially in early plays. Expect a lot of ‘ooh, what does this thing do?’ and ‘what’s this enemy’s dea- Oh, I guess they shot a super laser at me, I’m dead now’. As with many games ‘like this’, that discovery slowly runs out; however, as with many games ‘like this’, the thrill of uncertain discovery is slowly replaced by the thrill of incremental mastery, as you get better and better at manipulating your seed friend and your scores and times get better and better. I personally prefer discovery over mastery, which helps explain why I tend to quit so many games after that initial phase (a factor that no doubt also explains how I’ve been able to keep up a weekly long-form review column for as long as I have). But from what little I’ve experienced of it, TumbleSeed‘s mastery curve seems good. And there’s plenty to keep as aspiring master tumbler entertained: Daily challenges, weekly challenges, ‘Adventure Mode’, and a host of various leaderboards. In this more than anything else, TumbleSeed shows its game DNA: This is a game for people who really enjoy getting good at games that are difficult to get good at.

Though I hasten to add that the leaderboards don’t seem particularly *populated* as of right now: My slapdash attempt at this daily challenge should *in no universe* be visible on the first page.

Oh, and finally, it’s be remiss of me not to mention that TumbleSeed is just an aesthetic pleasure. It looks and sounds so good. The graphical style in particular is simple and straightforward, but incredibly polished within those constraints. It’s cool, colourful and evocative, nice enough to take in and enjoy but all the same straightforward enough to allow for immediate parsing of enemies and events. Which is important, in a reflex driven game like this.

Final thoughts

All in all, TumbleSeed is a really good… whatever is it. I’m still unsure what to call this game, genre-wise. Roguelike? Marble game? Ball roller? E-sports? On its website, TumbleSeed calls itself a ‘rolly roguelike’; I’d push the shorter and more less evocative ‘rolllike’, but that’s no way that’ll stick in public consciousness.

…Is there?

There is not.

TumbleSeed is interesting, challenging, innovative, and super bright, nice, and colourful. It’s easy to learn, but hard to even apprentice in, so if it’s mastery you’re looking for, I suggest buckling up and maybe clearing a weekend day. Best of all, the developers are clearly still invested in making this game a success: A brief look at the Steam page shows that plenty of the things I praise TumbleSeed for didn’t necessarily exist yet two weeks ago. Which may sound like a dicey proposition, but look at it this way: Who knows where this game might end up! Up a mountain? Down a pit? Somewhere in-between? Still in a pit?

For only one easy down payment of $14.99, you get to have a front-row seat on that journey. And you get a pretty nifty game, to boot.

<< Back to page 1.

Jarenth’s sense of calm balance isn’t necessarily his strongest suit. He flails sometimes, okay. And then there’s the adrenaline stress… Share how badly you beat his TumbleSeed scores on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *