Like the CRPG, the classic point-and-click adventure is going through a revival. Story-driven and humorous, these games are often dismissed as casual and lacking in compelling gameplay or innovation. Some developers tried to give it a modern treatment to compete with successful action-adventures, such as KING Art's Black Mirror. The result was less than optimal. Still, as a genre, the P&C has come a long way, maturing alongside its aging but faithful audience from the 80s and 90s. The Lion’s Song, by Vienna-based studio Mi'pu'mi Games, is at once a love letter to those classic 16-bit adventures, and a beautiful, brave experiment in its own right.
In four episodes interconnected by an overarching narrative, it’s a rather short and simple game packed with replay value. Taking place in Vienna in the early 20th century, each episode focuses on a single main character. The first one, Silence, where you play as the composer Wilma Dörfl as she writes music in a secluded cabin in the Alps. In Anthology, you play as the painter Franz Markert as he paints portraits and wrestles with his inner demons. In Derivation, you play as the mathematician Emma Recniczek as she works on a theory while struggling against sexism. And finally Closure, which presents secondary characters telling stories about those three characters.
With a balmy sepia palette, the art direction is both minimalistic and intricate, with some surprisingly nuanced facial expressions. You don’t have to be a pixel art aficionado to appreciate the beauty of this game. It juxtaposes perspectives such as a city map and up-close vignettes with object inspection. It’s also a great example of using the video game medium to tell stories in ways that only video games can. It’s particularly unique in employing undulating or quivering text in dialogue to convey tone or emotion.
In that sense, it reminds me of David Mazzucchelli’s graphic novel, Asterios Polyp. Just like Mazzucchelli used the sequential art medium in unique ways that wouldn’t be possible in film or traditional novels, The Lion’s Song tries to tell its stories in a way that other media cannot. Not just through interaction, which is the usual distinctive trait, but also a convergence of art, sound, and story. And though it is an entirely different game, it also reminds me of Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please, which also used the medium in original and unique ways.
It can be cute in that pixelated way, but it’s also a very mature game. Not unlike an art film, it takes some indulgence or an interest in intellectual and artistic pursuits to appreciate it. It makes several references to Vienna, and Viennese art and history. The painter Klimt, the psychoanalyst Freud and the philosopher Wittgenstein feature as actual characters to interact with. There’s also a sly reference to the writer Kafka in the fourth episode. You can play and enjoy it without understanding these references, but it's nice if you're familiar with the names.
There are some pleasant surprises as you start connecting the dots of the overarching narrative. Each episode has references to the characters of other episodes, and some even have actual appearances. The connection between the second and the third episodes is particularly brilliant, as the two main characters meet and interact. As the player, you’re not aware of what’s going on at first, but later you understand, and the pieces fit. It’s possible to play the episodes in no particular order, which makes for a smart nonlinear narrative.
It could use some improvements in the overall design. There is some variation of outcomes to your dialogue choices or interactions with objects. However, the best outcomes, in the form of achievements, can be very hard to get right. The real problem is that there is little context to help inform those choices, especially in the first two episodes. There is some clever use of the player’s memory to put the choices in perspective, but not always. The definition of the correct sequences seems rather arbitrary, and it feels like a tedious guessing game.
There’s almost no keyboard input involved, and that’s a major technical shortcoming. Well, this is a point-and-click adventure, but that doesn’t mean keyboard input isn’t important. A skip key for certain cutscenes or dialogue sequences would be a lot of help when working on the achievements. There is an option to replay a segment in order to change your choices in retrospect, but it could use some improvement.
The third episode, Derivation, is arguably the best. Not only because of its subject matter but also because it’s the most narratively ambitious. It departs somewhat from the guessing games of the first two episodes, giving the player more context and information to make choices. It also sports improved animation, with some segments that make a fascinating use of pixelated art to give the characters nuanced facial expressions.
Considering their resources and lack of affiliation with publishers, Mi'pu'mi Games’ first game is just as good as DONTNOD’s episodic adventures. This is an impressive debut title that deserves more attention than it received, probably related to the fact that the first episode is free. The Lion’s Song is a bold, inventive point-and-click adventure, drawing from the best the genre has to offer, but also something else that is harder to define. I hope to hear more from Mi'pu'mi Games in the future.
Our The Lion's Song review was conducted on Steam with a code provided by the developer. It’s available on Nintendo Switch as of this week as well as GOG, Android, and iOS.
- Excellent Use of the Medium
- Beautiful Pixel Art
- Great Overarching Narrative
- Outcomes Require Guessing Games
- Limited Keyboard Input