The Shape of Bugs
Earlier this year, I took a
quick look brief glance at an early build of Mable and The Wood, a new game from Andrew Stewart at Triplevision Games. I found the core mechanics of the game fascinating, and I had high hopes for what the Metroidvania could eventually become. After all, you play as a young girl who can turn into a fairy, spider, or ghost. What could go wrong? Well, unfortunately, parts of the final product leave something to be desired. Ultimately, this is a flawed adventure with bits of fun strewn throughout.
Mable and The Wood Review | Movement is Combat
Mable and The Wood starts with a fantastic idea. You play as Mable, a mystical young girl who’s somehow summoned by a spooky, forest-dwelling cult. The cultists ask her to slay the great beasts that roam the land, and she uses a sword to get that done. “Uses” would be putting it generously. Mable can barely swing the sword, and she drags it on the ground behind her.
She can, however, shapeshift into different creatures, starting with a fairy. This gives her free movement in any direction for about a second, and then she turns back into a human. Players can press the button again to recall the sword to her in a straight line, which hurts anything in the way. She can earn more forms by slaying the major beasts in the world. Many of these forms added a new dimension to how you traverse the land.
Spider form, for example, has Mable throw her sword out in a straight line, hurting any enemy along the way. When the sword hits terrain, a spindle of web forms between her and the weapon, allowing her to swing or reel in herself. Ghost form turns her into a wisp that propels in any direction at high speed but takes damage after hitting an enemy. Stone form turns her into stone as she hurls herself in any direction, turning her into a destructive, tackling force of nature.
I worried that eventually, you’d accrue so many forms that some would feel useless. Even after acquiring all seven abilities, I found multiple situations that fit all of them. Essentially, no matter what you’re facing, you’ll likely find more than one solution to it. By marrying platforming and combat, Mable & The Wood forces your brain to think differently. To dodge an attack, you might need to go on the offensive. To hit an enemy, you’ll need to think one step ahead and consider where your attack will leave you. It’s in these intense moments that this game leaves its best impression.
Mable and The Wood Review | The Problems with Pacifism
Developer Triplevision wants to leave more than an impression on players of Mable and The Wood. While this mysterious cult tells you to kill the beasts in the world, you don’t necessarily have any motivation beyond that. For the average game, simply being told to kill creatures is enough to get people to do so. The developer wants to challenge players to think about Metroidvanias differently.
The game comes with multiple endings that play depending on your actions in the narrative. According to the Steam page, you can get through the game without killing anything, even the bosses. It’s a unique approach to a genre that defines itself by the new abilities you get from killing enemies. You could explore this part of the world by killing the Spider Queen, who gives you the power to reach that area. Alternatively, if you look around enough, you can find ways to bypass the Spider Queen completely.
I beat Mable and The Wood by killing everything, and I had a lot of fun with it, for the most part. I tried a second playthrough without killing anything, and it was infinitely more frustrating. Not killing basic enemies seems next to impossible, considering how easy it is to kill just by moving. I conceded to killing the small fry, but I didn’t want to hurt the big bosses. I was able to avoid a few of the early ones, but I reached a point where I couldn’t find a way around the last boss of Act 1.
Exploring every nook and cranny of the underground caverns before that boss yielded nothing. Additionally, it quickly gets to a point where the novelty of the platforming mechanics wears off. Weaving through lava-laden caves and eventually learning their designs backward and forward makes for an unfortunately dull experience. While I still believe the unique approach to combat makes Mable and The Wood special, too many enemies at every level turn fighting into a stale chore. Things get especially worse when you’re in search of a secret passage that just might not exist.
Maybe I’m fulfilling the quintessential stereotype of a gamer who doesn’t want to think too much about their video games. Yet the pacifist route seems so obtuse in Mable and The Wood, beyond the point of fairly asking you to re-consider your violent actions. The difficulty of the route isn’t the sort that’s gratifying. It doesn’t test your skill as much as your patience, and every time you die, you don’t learn about what to do better next time. Instead, you die feeling like you still haven’t found whatever possibly nonexistent thing you’re looking for.
Mable and The Wood Review | I'm My Own Worst Enemy
The blind wandering in search of a pacifist route in Mable and The Wood would be a little more tolerable if your own abilities weren’t trying to kill you. I don’t have an exact count, but I’ve got a feeling that I killed myself more than bosses did. The ghost form might be the worst offender, which is a shame considering how useful it can be. When you hold down a button, time freezes, allowing you to aim in any direction around you. After letting go, you fly straight and fast in the direction you aimed at. It’s a nifty skill that helps your traverse long distances quickly, and if used properly, it can help you clear nearly any room. After all, if you need to do a tight turn, you can stop time and do so.
If only it were that useful. Every now and then—at least enough times to make it worth mentioning—the ability would make me clip into the terrain. Other times, it would set me back a few feet instead of propelling me forward. Sometimes it would do both at the same time. When stuck in the geometry, there’s a fifty-fifty chance you'll die on the spot. If you don’t, you’ll have to flail around with your abilities until you pop out.
Something similar tends to happen with the mole form, which lets you dig through walls, grounds, and ceilings. After your stamina runs out, you (allegedly) end up back at where you entered the terrain. No harm, no foul, right? Well, that’s assuming you pop out where the game intends to put you. The system can be temperamental. You might find yourself stuck in the geometry again or back at the beginning of the screen. Or, you could appear over a pit of lava with no stamina left to save yourself. In some cases, these abilities do more harm than good, which isn’t ideal in a game that’s all about movement.
Mable and The Wood Review | Passable Presentation
On the whole, the best part of Mable and The Wood is the platforming, despite its flaws. The way it presents itself can sometimes feel passable at best. The 16-bit graphics, while charming enough, don’t stand out in the sea of infinite Metroidvanias. They at least portray the story well enough. The cutscenes feature sprites and talking bubbles above their heads, with writing best described as cheeky. None of the characters stand out, necessarily, but the dialogue can make you chuckle every now and then.
The way cutscenes start or end can be jarring though. For example, sometimes the screen that kicks off the next act abruptly appears, without any sort of warning. This was especially evident after the final boss, where Mable and The Wood just cuts to black and… ends. It felt like a lackluster reward for journeying through this quest.
It’s surprising that there's little to no build-up toward major narrative moments like this, especially when you consider the overly redundant UI. Every time you change into a new form, a window will linger, reminding you how the form works. That element stays up, even if you didn’t change forms. By the time I reached the final boss, Mable and The Wood spared no moment to make sure I knew our protagonist’s powers. In all, these issues contributed to an overall unpolished feeling, which is a shame to say.
Mable and The Wood Review | Fun with Bugs
Looking at Mable and The Wood on a holistic level, I really want to like it. The core mechanic that blends movement and fighting gives the game a distinct flavor in the oversaturated indie Metroidvania scene. The retro-inspired 16-bit graphics may not impress anyone, but killing enemies in creative ways overshadows the pixels. If you play the game as a straightforward Metroidvania and fight all the bosses, it’s a mostly satisfying experience. The bugginess of some abilities may get in the way, but the overall package would outweigh those issues.
Unfortunately, when you consider that Mable and The Wood tries to offer players a choice-based narrative, things start to fall flat. The pacifist route is so disproportionately obtuse and difficult. Sure, it might flesh out the world that Mable lives in and provide a new way to play, but the challenge doesn't seem worth the effort.
TechRaptor reviewed Mable and The Wood on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the publisher.
- Core Mechanic Stands Out
- Power Progression is Satisfying
- Bugs Get in the Way
- Pacifism Path is too Obtuse
- Presentation Hurts the Game