Indie Wonderland: Wandersong

A few hours in

So I went to the spirit world.

I want to address right away that when I made that cauliflowers remark, I had no idea I would *actually* be singing at flowers to make them grow.

And I talked to an apologetic cat.

Who’s also a king, which is relevant.

And I sang the true message of Langtree’s ghosts to the living citizens, using the language of spirits the aforementioned cat king taught me.

This is actually a really cool segment that uses the song controls, audio cues, and camera zooming to great effect.

And I almost became mayor.

Until cooler heads prevailed.

And I met that blue-haired woman again!

Turns out she’s a witch!

And, and, and…

And all of this happened in the first hour or so. Of eleven. And after it all happened I had the strong suspicion that I would try to play through all of Wandersong before writing this review, which I did, and that I would probably enjoy it a great deal, which I did.

You know how I sometimes put little warnings up for particular games, the ones that I think are best experienced with little critical review? Wandersong is one of those. I really appreciated being able to experience this game without any preconceptions, so if you liked what you saw on the first page, and you have twenty dollars to spare — or if you’re planning to get it whenever you have twenty dollars to spare, since I realize this kind of impulse buying isn’t open to everyone — I highly recommend you just get into it. It’s a great game, fun and colourful and emotional and full of life and light and music.

And if you’re still on the fence, or you just want to read a bit more…

You couldn’t have come to a better place.

Wandersong is an outstanding game. It has incredible storytelling focused on strong characterization and a message of optimism, bright inviting visuals that create a lovely varied world — several of them, in fact, given how different each act of play is — and as you’d expect, the use of audio both mechanically and for mood-setting is nothing short of extraordinary. It’s fairly fun to play, too, mechanically, though that mattered less to me than all the other elements. And while that might feel like a backhanded compliment, it really isn’t: Wandersong strengths lie so much more in what it is than what it does.

Let’s look at the gameplay first. At its core, if I had to summarize, I would say that Wandersong is a ‘puzzle platformer’. In seven narrative acts you travel around the world, meeting people and learning history and solving problems and learning fragments of the mythical Earthsong. It has two overarching sets of controls. First, there’s the platforming: The layered 3D-in-2D platforming I described on the last page is a mainstay of Wandersong‘s play (and of its graphical style, in which is does great work crafting intriguing set pieces). You run around, jump, and drop down platforms and layers (top to bottom, back to forth), either just to get places or as part of the platforming puzzles the game is fairly rich in. If that description sounds a little bland or pedestrian, that’s honestly because is it: Platforming movement and puzzling is a significant part of Wandersong, but it feels less like a main focus and more like a glue that holds the rest of the game together. You have to have something to do, basically. It’s also easily the weakest part, particularly because it has some issues: For instance, jumping feels sluggish to control, and the game occasionally has trouble recognizing platforms. Most annoyingly of all, sometimes screen transitions don’t work correctly, ending up with Bard in the wrong place — which can be behind another background layer, leading a fun few seconds of audio glitches and controller rumble while Wandersong tries to sort itself out.

Where is Bard in this scene, kid? Where is Bard? Do you think he might be… *behind the level geometry*?

On the upside, I finally found a good place to demonstrate the layered visuals effect!

See how this works?

The second overarching element is the music wheel, unsurprisingly. At almost any time, you can pull the right analogue stick (or whatever controls you’re using instead) to make Bard sing his eight notes. Really, at any time: You can sing while running, you can sing while jumping, during cutscenes, while talking to people. Whenever you want.

There’s no such time as a bad time for singing.

Important to note is this: Yes, this is used for progression and puzzle solving. But it’s not just that. More than just a mechanical tool, singing in Wandersong is primarily a means of expressing yourself. Which is why you can do it at any time! The world of Wandersong is vibrantly alive with sound and music, and Bard is your own active conduit into that. So if you want to sing, sing! Make up your own songs! Since while talking to people, sing while dancing, sing to give yourself courage. Sing because if you’re not singing, who else is?

Sing because it’ll make some butterflies happy.

It’s hard to overstate how lovingly well-crafted this entire singing mechanic is. It ties into everything, big things and small things, like: Every new act/area has a different soundscape, with different sound pitches and colour wheel colours, which Bard adapts to. You can dance and sing at the same time, for no other reason than why not? Bard’s loudness while singing is directly tied to the scene and his emotional state: A sad or dejected Bard sings softly, a happy Bard sings loudly, a scared Bard sings with a trilling cracked voice. There are so many song lines, and did I mention how well they all flow together? I found out by accident that if you bend down while singing (down arrow/left analogue stick), your voice lowers an octave while staying in the same note. This is never an element in any puzzle, it’s literally there just to be cool. Platforming and singing are the two mechanical axes on which Wandersong rests, but one is clearly more important than the other; to call singing the mechanical heart of Wandersong is probably still an understatement.

My favourite expression of this: Certain NPCs will ask you to compose songs for them, then repeat your songs back at you or play them for you. There are no pass/fail conditions for this, or mechanical restrictions apart from time and ‘has to be at least one note’. All it’s here for is to encourage you to express yourself.

I say these are the ‘overarching’ mechanics because each act has its own added mechanics, things that only show up and matter in that particular act. In essence, it turns each act into a ‘level’, or maybe more like a themed minigame you have to learn. These mini-mechanics range from singing to animals, to collecting ingredients, to learning musical magics, to a day-night cycle that NPCs live by. Wandersong studs its visual and aural diversity with diversity of gameplay, which makes the play experience that much stronger; even if you don’t really like any particular element, it’ll only be there for one act.

If you meet anyone who didn’t think this was a cool way of adding expression to rote mechanics, give that person the side-eye for me.

But what makes Wandersong special is the writing.

…okay, not *all* of it.

Greg Lobanov shared a review on Twitter early during Wandersong‘s release that describes it as ‘you fight enemies with music’, and lamented that ‘fighting’ is the only verb the games industry seems to be able to parse anything in. I would take this one step further and say that it’s just flat-out wrong: You don’t fight enemies with music in Wandersong because you don’t fight. Like, at all. There are only about two scenes in the entirety of Wandersong in which Bard is actively involved in a battle, and even then he doesn’t really fight. The only case where the player does actually fight is… a pretty big spoiler, actually, but let’s just say it’s an exception for a reason.

This might sound like pedantry, but it’s actually core to the game’s entire point. Wandersong isn’t a game in which you fight, it’s a game in which you help. In the larger sense, Bard’s (and Miriam’s) goal is to travel the world to learn the song that will save it from being ended. But more pertinently, in the smaller, Bard wants to help everyone with everything everywhere you go. Or if he can’t help, then at least make things better for people. Bard’s primary motivation is to make people happy, to make them feel better about life and about themselves, and this is a philosophy he’s absolutely devoted to. You don’t fight because Bard doesn’t fight; he opposed violent conflict any time it pops up, and strives to seek peaceful solutions that make the most people happy. The story that flows from this is rooted in that optimism, radiating a constant message of: You can make the world a better place.

Even if it’s as small as ‘don’t step on bugs if you can avoid it’.

That’s not to say the story is simple, or childish. Bad things happen in Wandersong. People hate each other, and fight each other, and go to war against each other. Good people try to make things better and fail, and bad people reap the rewards for their own gain. Wandersong is generally a gentle game, but the few times it does decide to throw punches, it doesn’t pull them either.

This is all technically true, but I didn’t like experiencing it all the same.

Wandersong‘s focus on character-driven writing really helps deliver both the ups and downs. While the larger story takes the form of (fairly interesting) mythological world-building in action — the world is ending, the principal goddess aims to remake it, overseers and spirits and destined heroes and legendary songs of renewal and whatnot — this story is told through the actions and reactions of characters. Real characters, that the game takes time setting up. The miserable people in Delphi, the cheerful coffee pirates, the factory crew in Chismet, the warring kingdoms with their prideful king and mourning queen. Things in Wandersong don’t happen ‘just because’, they happen by and large because people make them happen. Sometimes that’s bad. Sometimes it’s good, especially when Bard is involved.

This entire approach is exemplified by, and zoomed in on, the relationship between Bard and Miriam, the witch you meet in the first act. They start off as your typical comedic opposites: Miriam is cynical and focused on the larger quest, and only wants to do what’s strictly necessary to save the world, while Bard is happy and optimistic and wants to help everyone. You might expect that, after Bard’s approach has some unexpected successes, Miriam either ‘converts’ to Bard’s world view (‘happiness is good after all’) or remains a stodgy comedy cynic until the end (‘I’m never going to laugh and you can’t make me’). But what happens instead is… more complicated than that. I don’t want to spoil much more than I already have, but let’s just say that Wandersong puts in the effort to sell these characters as actual characters. Bard and Miriam both are real people with real histories and real drives and real flaws, and their journey together sees both of them adapt to the other’s presence and to the changing world around them.

This scene in particular did a lot of heavy lifting, and I know I’m not the only one who experienced it as such.

And then there’s Audrey, Audrey Redheart, who… Listen, literally everything I could say about Audrey is a spoiler of some kind. But there’s one really cool thing I really want to talk about. So I’m going to do something unprecedented: I’m going to write that thing in a comment below this review, so you can keep reading the review and remain as spoiler-free as you are now or choose to hear about something rad a little in advance. Either way is valid. I just really want to gush.

Again, this game can be mean sometimes.

Let me dial back a little here: While Wandersong does some pretty interesting things with changing gameplay mechanics and narrative direction and shifting soundscapes, it’s not a game about those things. The constant heart of Wandersong is a nice, optimistic story about making the world a better place — by listening to others, and helping those in need, and singing, always singing, singing to your heart’s content. Sing if you think it’ll help, because it just might; sing if it makes things better for you, because you matter; sing if you just want to sing, just because you choose to. There’s more than enough gloom in the world right now; maybe an upbeat game about solving problems with kindness and a song is just the thing you need.

I know that, in retrospect, it’s something I really needed.

Final thoughts

I finished Wandersong, and the entire end sequence was so perfect for what the rest of the game has been that I had tears in my eyes.

I have an established appreciation in this column for games that ‘are what they are’: Those games that are content sticking to those themes and mechanics and ideas and audiences that they want to reach, without concern for what other games might be doing different. Wandersong is unambiguously one of those games: It exists because one day, Greb Lobanov decided he wanted to make a bright optimistic game about singing your problems away, and that’s what he (and Em and Gord) made. It’s not the most polished game (though I can see in Steam logs that they’re still working on improving that), or the longest, or the most mechanically intense or interesting. But it’s the only game I can remember in recent memory that made me feel like singing.

Let me put it another way: I don’t generally replay games, especially smaller narrative-driven games. Bad memory notwithstanding, I remember the basic story beats of those games fairly well, and there are so many other games I could also be playing that retreading known ground just feels off to me. So far, the singular exception to that has been Night in the Woods, which I reviewed in March of 2017 and then played again in December. That game was exceptional enough for me that I didn’t mind revisiting the old haunt, and maybe seeing some of the things I’d missed or didn’t clearly remember.

I think I’d be more than happy to revisit Wandersong a year from now. Maybe see if I can come up with some different songs in the meantime.

Think I did a pretty good take here the first time around.

You can get Wandersong for $20 on Steam, Humble, and Nintendo Switch. I have a slight preference for the Steam version, for reasons related to stuff I couldn’t talk about in the main review, but any version will get you a good time, an optimistic adventure in a beautiful world, and more songs than your heart can contain. That sounds like it’s worth price of admission to me, don’t you think?

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Jarenth doesn’t have a great singing voice, but that’s never stopped him! Share a song with him 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?

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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