Spring Thing 2011 is now on, with six entries. Today’s review is for Wetlands, by Clara Raubertas.
Short summary: a wistful, atmospheric puzzle game with pleasant NPCs and an attractive setting, but suffering from a major lack of direction. The protagonist’s goal is loosely defined from the outset and it is often unclear which of the various apparent puzzles need to be worked on next. The story also doesn’t give the protagonist a very strong motivation beyond curiosity to get started.
Consequently, I kept getting lost or distracted and setting the game aside, and there wasn’t a walkthrough to jumpstart me. So, after several abortive play sessions, I eventually gave up. [Edit: a walkthrough came out after I had given up, so I went back and saw the rest of the game with that. Further remarks after the spoiler space.]
Now that I’ve been through this with a walkthrough, I… still essentially hold with my original impressions.
There is some neat imagery in this game, but in general it feels narratively washed out. The main character has no very compelling reason to be doing what she (I think?) is doing, and part of the point of her involvement is that she’s a mostly-disinterested party; and at the same time, she is getting into this situation out of raw curiosity, not because anyone has asked for her help. Throughout the game, the stakes are kept artificially low, with no one letting you know until the very end why it matters that you’re doing what you’re doing.
The puzzles are similarly problematic. The walkthrough shows that the thing I got stuck on in my last play session is something that is supposed to have worked — I was typing the right number into the keypad — so apparently either this was buggy, or I did something wrong with the syntax of typing the code in. (I may have been trying to punch in the digits one at a time, now that I think back. But the game didn’t give me any feedback to suggest that that wasn’t the way to go about it.)
More broadly, the design doesn’t give the player much direction. A lot of things are available at once, a lot of objects that are accessible from the outset (like the chimes) aren’t useful until the end, and some the things that look like puzzles can’t be directly solved (you get the keychain for doing something apparently unconnected). There’s a lot of back and forth business with the train, too, which is fun the first time or two but soon becomes less so, especially if the player is lost for what she’s supposed to be trying to achieve.