Posted at 23:22 on 23rd May 2008 - permalink

WiiWare finally launched earlier this week. Good news for me, as I’d been looking for something to buy with the Wii Points I’d been sent by Nintendo Europe by way of apology after they accidentally offered the “Star Points to Wii Points” service before it was meant to go live. (It turns out they were offering a fair exchange rate and allowing people to buy enough points at a time to actually buy games with – luckily they closed the loophole before it could tarnish their image as lovable bumbling incompetents. If anyone from Nintendo Europe is reading this, would you kindly go and order more stock of Mario Kart Wii? All the other publishers seem able to keep popular games on UK retail shelves for more than five minutes.)

Back to the point.

As you’ll have gathered, the game I plumped for was Frontier Developments’ LostWinds, a platform adventure designed around the Wii Remote’s cursor control. As every review and preview of the game has already mentioned, it’s immediately apparent that Frontier haven’t skimped on the presentation compared to a full-price release. The game’s visuals are pleasingly rich and detailed, with most things on screen reacting in some way to the wind generated by the movement of the cursor.

It’s also immediately apparent from the primitivist back story cutscene, squiggly particles and non-verbal child protagonist that UK developers should never have been allowed anywhere near Zelda: Wind Waker, as they seem unable to resist shamelessly ripping off its style at every opportunity. (In fairness, LostWinds does have a distinctive style of its own, even if the hero, Toku, does look like Pocoyo cosplaying Link.)

The player controls Toku with the analogue stick and Enril the Wind Spirit with the cursor, which can be used to push objects around by drawing short lines, and later to draw ‘slipstreams’ which water, flames and eventually Toku himself can be directed along. The game boils down to toddling around the world solving physical puzzles to allow you to open doors and reach new areas. The puzzles are tricky enough to figure out and execute to be satisfying (the game commendably avoids hand-holding, only interrupting gameplay to explain the key controls of new abilities), but not so hard as to stump the player at any point.

There is an extremely minimal amount of branching (in fact, there’s only one instance in the game when there’s more than one objective open), and while there’s quite a lot of backtracking, there’s often something new to try in previously visited areas. (In any case, backtracking in a 2D world is an entire dimension less irksome than in a 3D one.) Aside from getting lost (as I did for about half an hour at one point) due to the lack of a map or any kind of signposting in the world, it should be possible for most players to breeze through the game in 3-4 hours.

The game’s main shortcoming is it’s length. Many will probably be quick to cite Portal as proof that games don’t have to offer extended playing time to offer something worthwhile, but even Portal offered additional gameplay modes and challenges beyond the main game. LostWinds is being offered through an online store that includes N64 games for the same price, and many key 8-bit and 16-bit arcade adventures (all many times larger than LostWinds) for even less. They may not be as pretty or use the Wii controls, but WiiWare games should offer these benefits in addition to offering a decent amount of longevity – it shouldn’t have to be a trade-off.

For a game that is clearly the product of close study of previous cute puzzle and platform games, LostWinds seems uninterested in the concept of playing with the environment and the control scheme for it’s own sake. There are some secret treasure items to collect (the game doesn’t even bother to explain what these are beyond telling you there are 24 of them), and putting the wind up NPCs will make them perform a humourous precanned animation, but that’s your lot.

The few enemies have little personality and aren’t fun to kill or tense to avoid (death and injury are pretty much meaningless, echoing the system used by the Traveller’s Tales Lego games). The game environment does not operate on multiple levels, it’s purely a functional backdrop. By way of comparison (and it’s quite a leap, but bear with me), when you enter a new area in Resident Evil 4, you might be presented with half a dozen smaller gameplay threads to follow:

  • How can I get that pocket watch?
  • Are there any of those blue medallions here?
  • I need to look out for trip mines and bear traps.
  • How can I open this gate?
  • Are there any story clues in this building?
  • What happens if I shoot down that bird’s nest?
  • …and so on.

LostWinds never does this. Each new gameplay element that is introduced is applied in a handful of puzzles, barely going beyond a tutorial before moving on to the next thing. As such there is zero replayability. It seems odd that Frontier would go to the trouble of building all these elements and then hardly using them, unless they plan to spread out the levels they’ve built very thinly over several episodes. A company headed by a man who coaxed an entire universe out of 32k on the BBC Micro should be the last people who need to be lectured about under-utilising assets.

LostWinds is the gaming equivalent of a toy poodle, ornamental to a fault. The developers seem to have been so preoccupied with making this polished, self-contained, inclusive, elegant artifact that they’ve focussed on these characteristics to the detriment of depth and interactivity. As limited as it is, it seems a bit churlish to quibble when it only costs about £7, and sets such a high bar for future WiiWare titles. It would be disappointing however if the next installment wasn’t bigger, or cheaper, or preferably both. Offering a bit of depth can turn curious impulse buyers into hardcore fans of a franchise.

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