Indie Wonderland: Wandersong

I’ve been tracking Wandersong, by ‘Greg’ Lobanov, ‘Em’ Halberstadt, and ‘Gord’, or A Shell In The Pit, in that casual way that I do: Infrequently and with no real plan, but with a strong resolution to play it once it actually came out — assuming I didn’t miss it entirely, due to the deluge of cool games that comes out every single day.

And hey, look at this! I didn’t miss it! A good third of my timeline was all Wandersong all the time in the week after it launched, last month, and that was enough impetus for me to buy it, install it, and occasionally look at the desktop icon, hoping to find some time to actually play.

And hey, look at this! Again! I did find some time to actually play it!

(Spoiler levels: Narrative, medium, high-ish if you read the secret comment. Mechanical, medium-high.)

(Game source: Patreon funds.)


So, here’s a fun thing. I normally start these reviews by talking about a game’s opening screens, as I experience them. I believe that onboarding and accessibility are important aspects of any game experience, so it’s worth pointing out which games do these things well and looking into how games that do it poorly could improve. Not every game needs a staggeringly comprehensive front end, but even in games that provide the bare minimum it can be informative and fun to look into why they do what they do.

But Wandersong just starts.

I don’t even think there’s a splash screen between launch and this — if there is, it’s a very non-memorable one.

From looking-back-from-the-future-experience I can tell that this isn’t just a first-play conceit: Wandersong always directly deposits you into the scene of your last auto-save, which is the only way it saves. That does mean it only has one concurrent play (per account/user), and it doesn’t offer a lot of control over saving and flow, both of which might turn some people off. I’m okay with it in games like these: The less time that passes between launch and me actually being in-game, the better. Wandersong is probably as close to the ideal of ‘literally no time at all’ as we’re likely to get, at least until quantum computing takes off in a big way.

There are options, of course. They’re just hidden in the menus that hide off-side, waiting for your menu button of choice. There’s one menu for (limited) visual and aural controls, which includes such beauties as ‘screen shake’ and ‘flashing effects’ next to the expected resolution and audio sliders, and one menu for controls, which subtly through not forcefully suggests that you use a controller to play this PC version — but mouse and keyboard are also fine, honestly.

They eagerly rush in from the side, as if waiting to see if they could help you with anything.

The subtle suggestion lies in the fact that the ‘controller’ list is significantly shorter than the ‘keyboard’ list.

Alright, apologies for that non-linear introduction section. We now return you to our regularly-scheduled ‘Jarenth describes the game while he’s first experiencing it’, already in progress.

Initial impressions

Wandersong starts off looking at a happy-looking man with big black eyes and a fancy colourful outfit, who I think to recognize from promo materials as the protagonist. He’s standing on an arced purple underground of some unclear description. In the pink background, stars rain down from the sky. I wait for a few seconds, confident that the game will start telling me things any time now.

The last five to ten years of gaming has conditioned me to expect in-game tutorials.

No help is forthcoming.

‘Maybe the help is over *there*?…’

Ah. I’m just going to have to… figure things out myself? I’m not necessarily opposed to this approach, but I would have expected some kind of direction. Any suggestion what button to press, or even to press a button. Am I supposed to press buttons? In the background, stars continue to fall, not giving any indication that I’m waiting for anything other than a big pile of stars someone is going to have to clean up later.

I hit the right stick, causing my character to break out in a gingerly jog. I check the left side of the screen, but there’s nothing there except a camera that refuses to scroll along, so I go right instead. Soon, I hit my first obstacle: A steep elevation!

Luckily, having checked the controls before, I know that this character can JUMP.

Soon after, I hit my second obstacle: A sword!

Looks heavy.

My character runs up to the sword, which proceeds to majestically float over his head, then lower itself into his hands. And then further down, as my character struggles to hold it up.

Yeah, I guess I was right.

My first actual control prompt fades into view: Use the right analog stick. Doing so causes me to swing the sword around, poorly. A ring of eight coloured segments shows up as I do so, each with a smaller sword on them. This… doesn’t seem to do anything except make my character grimace in several interesting ways.

You know you can put that sword *down*, right?

Suddenly, a terrifying humanoid shadow figure shows up!

Aah! It’s kind of rainbow-y but otherwise still terrifying!

Bravely, I run up to the figure and swing the sword at them! This does… nothing, as the sword bounces harmlessly off. And out of my hands, and off the screen, and away. This seems unfortunate. The gloomy figures looms at me ominously, but does not take any other action.

Alright, second course of action: Running away. That doesn’t help either, as the camera refuses to let me exit stage left. The ominous figure doesn’t move, but I swear for a second it looks confused.

What else, what else? Out of curiosity more than anything else, I use the right analog stick again. The eight-coloured wheel appears again, sans sword icons this time. But an interesting thing happens when I pull the stick in one of the eight directions, something that probably understand I already knew about given that I’ve paid literally any attention to Wandersong promo materials, or the name Wandersong:

My character starts singing.

Huh, this is pretty cool. The eight colours of the wheel correspond to different sounds — the eight notes of a standard Do Re Mi scale, if I’m correct. My character sings the accompanying note, and I can switch between them effortlessly at any time. It actually sounds like there are different vocalizations for each note, randomly chosen each time I sing it: ‘Do’ or ‘A’ or…

As I sing, the shadowy figure starts shaking, shrinking, and casting of coloured outlines of themselves. Then there’s a big flash of white light, and…


What happens next is probably the most confusing conversation I’ve been party to all week. The white rainbow-haired remnant of the original giant shadow figure apologizes for scaring me. She’s a ‘messenger of the goddess Eya’, and she was testing to see if I’m a hero, which I’m not.

I’m going to call this character Bard, because I’m tired of writing ‘my character’.

Interestingly, while Bard sang English tones and words in a clearly human voice, he and the messenger talk in Simlish-style grunts and expressions. Wonder why that distinction was made. Though, in fairness, saying that Bard ‘sings in English’ might be giving it a little too much credit. He sings recognizably, but maybe that’s just a statement to the universal power of music.

The messenger casually drops that the goddess Eya is looking to restart the universe. So this universe is doomed. That’s kind of a bummer! Then she wishes me the best and fades into the background as red curtains fall.

And then act one starts.

And then I wake up.

Well, that was definitely a weird dream. The world may or may not be ending? I’m still mulling over the implications of everything, but Bard gets over things fairly quickly; he hops out of bed, and just like that, is ready to face a new day.


Before I leave the house, I make sure to practice my singing. Do I still know how to sing? Yes, I do. In fact, I know how to sing *so well* that the plants in immediate earshot change colours based on the notes I’m singing.

Compare this screenshot with the above ones.

Outside, everything looks and feels great. The sun is shining, the flowers are swaying, and the world seems alive with the sound of music. Almost literally, in fact: The background music is so nice and so present that I can’t help but try and sing along with it. The flowers bend and colour-change around me as I run and sing, and a nearby squirrel is so enraptured that they keep running up to me, bouncing in excitement every time I hit a new note.

I meet a strange masked person who asks me about my dreams last night, which Bard doesn’t remember. They then tell me that the nearby town of Langtree is being haunted by ghosts. That sounds bad! Or possibly interesting! Either way, it’s the clearest plot hook I’ve received since I started this game.

‘Would take some kind of *hero* to address that, wouldn’t it?’

Problem: The path to the town is behind an excessively high ledge, that Bard can’t clear. Solution: There’s a bird nearby, singing a single note over and over again in tune with the background music. If I repeat that note, the bird comes fly around me. And if I then jump, the bird’s friendship power boosts my jump height!

The language of music really *does* transcend all boundaries.

I use the bird’s assistance to go… left, where a grumpy cat tells me to return only ‘after I’ve seen the end of the universe’. Rather hoping that doesn’t happen, mind you. Then I go right, and with the assistance of several more birds and their increasingly-complex songs, make my way to Langtree.

Surprise! The town is haunted by ghosts! They’re just, streaming out of the woodwork. A grumpy woman on the edge of town doesn’t seem to be interested in this at all, commenting that she needs some sort of special song to prevent the world from ending — wait, so that is happening? That does seem like the more pressing issue right now, then, honestly. But all the same, she looks cool and competent and I’m sure she’s got that situation under control.

She doesn’t seem to mind the endless stream of background ghosts at all.

In town, I briefly talk to a stressed-out man with a spiky red moustache. There’s a g-g-GHOST in his house! For real! And the mayor just went in, and hasn’t come out yet! CERTAINLY THIS MEANS EVERYTHING IS DOOMED!

A real ghost, though? This I gotta see.

Well I’ll be.

The mayor, to her credit, is doing an admirable job holding back the ghost with her broom. She yells at it to stay away, and at me to stay back and let her deal with it, while the ghost…

…bounces to different corners of the room. Almost as if it’s restricted to eight cardinal directions. And it makes coloured noises when it does so.

It’s Bard time now.

I sing to the ghost: It bounces in a pattern and I replicate it. It shrinks and sings a different pattern, and I follow it again. And again. By the end it’s shrunken to the size of a small child, and calmed down enough to finally talk to me.

Too bad I don’t speak a word of ghost.

With the ghost dispelled and the mayor satisfied, I’m free to explore Langtree. And by ‘explore’ I mean sing. But also run around, talk to people, and take in the scenery. While singing. There’s basically never a moment where I don’t feel like I ought to be singing. And since I can sing and do pretty much anything else at the same time…

Most conversations I have are simple back-and-forth, but sometimes I have choices to make. These choices involve singing the answer, because of course they do.

Things are good in Langtree. The birds are singing, the flowers are blooming, and people are happy someone’s doing something about the ghosts. I discover halfway by accident that there are multiple ‘layers’ of the world I can walk on, each one its own 2D layer that doesn’t interact with elements on other layers: In effect, Wandersong is a 3D game posing as a 2D game. Following one of these paths to the graveyard, the masked stranger from before shows up again and teaches me to dance!

The 2D/3D effect is a little hard to explain, but imagine it as multiple layers of paper pasted behind each other. Now that I’m on this middle layer, I can walk behind the trees, which are functionally on the ‘foreground’.

Okay, explaining time over, dance time now.

But things aren’t perfect! One small but also huge thing is that there are more ghosts, haunting around. The woodcutter and his son are locked out their house by one of them, and poor old grumpy Ruby is being haunted by one right now. Luckily, Bard is one the case, and two songs later, the town is mostly entirely ghost-free.

Ruby is not a fan of singing.

Having seen how well I dealt with three ghosts, the mayor comes to me with a suggestion: I should go talk to the Overseer. Which is not a person, but some sort of spirit, residing in some sort of spirit world. I can only enter that world with the Overseer’s Song — hey, isn’t that the song that grumpy woman on the edge of town was looking for? Ruby is the only person alive who still knows that song, but she’ll be happy to teach it to me.

Ruby has no time for nonsense.

Haha! That Ruby, what a joker. For real though, it’s important, so I’m sure she’ll get right on it.

Ha, it’s even funnier the second time around.

After some persuading, Ruby relents and teaches me the Overseer’s song. I then run to the edge of town, to a specified spiritual place, and sing the song that transports me to the spirit world.

I’m definitely rushing over there alright.

And then…

It’s at this point I look back on my nearly-3000-word review and notice there’s not really a throughline. Certainly a lot of things have happened, and so far I’ve enjoyed talking to people and singing to ghosts and exploring Langtree. But I wouldn’t really say I have an idea of ‘what Wandersong is actually about’. It’s a game about spirits and music and the world ending, but beyond that?

Let me dive into this a little deeper. Maybe meeting the Overseer will shake things up a bit. Or maybe that blue-haired woman knows more about what’s going on. Or maybe something else entirely will happen! Maybe it’s yet another dream, and I’ll wake up again, jump out of bed again, and start a different adventure where I, I don’t know, hum at cauliflowers to make them grow better or somesuch.

There’s only one way to find out!

Onto page 2. >>

One comment

  1. Comment addition about Audrey starts here. Last chance to back out!

    Okay, so, Audrey. Audrey Redheart is the hero, which is to say, she’s The Hero: The one chosen by the Goddess Eya to slay the seven corrupted Overseers, allowing this world to pass so Eya can start working on the next one. You might recognize this as pretty opposed to Bard’s plan to learn the Earthsong from the Overseers and use it to save the world.

    You first meet Audrey at her shocking entrance at the end of Act 3, and between Acts 3 and 4 there’s a brief segment where you play as her, visiting and killing an Overseer Bard had visited earlier. Wandersong shifts into classic action-adventure here, the joke combat mechanics from the tutorial dream are played straight as you kill scores of monsters and fight an evil boss. And if you play the Steam version, like I did, at this point you’ll suddenly start earning achievements. Dozens of them, just to make sure you see them: Kill enemies, use special abilities, chain attacks, everything.

    From then on out, when the story shifts back to Bard, achievements will pop up every time you run into evidence of Audrey’s activities. Hear about how The Hero saved a caravan from giant monsters? Achievement. People gush about how The Hero saved an entire city? Achievement. Audrey kicks Bard across the screen? Achievement. Even the earliest achievement in the game, before you even meet Audrey, was earned by her: You might have thought that achievement was given for singing the one troll to calm them down, but it actually refers to the other troll that Audrey incapacitated.

    There are, in fact, no achievements for Bard. Not the one. Because Bard isn’t The Hero, Audrey is.

    I can’t overstate how much I love this as a example of ludonarrative confluence. Wandersong at this point reveals as a game about Audrey — Audrey is The Hero, the traditional fantasy archetype Chosen One who fights a holy mission with powers given by God, and this is baked directly into the ludic concept of Steam achievements. The game universe itself is telling you that Bard is not the hero. It’s harsh enough when Audrey tells Bard “you don’t belong in this story,” but harsher still when the game itself agrees.

    And then Wandersong shunts you right back into Bard’s tale. And lets you play on what it has just now established as the sidelines — not directly in opposition to The Hero, because that would matter, but more in a parallel ‘quest’ that everyone keeps telling you is unimportant and doomed to fail.

    And yet you do it anyway. The Hero and the universe and Eya herself are telling you that your quest is in vain and your actions don’t matter, and you still keep going. Why is that? Just because it’s the right thing to do?

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