Imagine being born into a world where the bodies of those who came before you lay broken, decorating the remnants of a civilization that once was. Now, imagine being completely alone, with no one and nothing to guide you on your way. This is how your journey in Wanda: A Beautiful Apocalypse begins, emerging from a shattered shell into a silent wasteland that no longer responds to your voice.
Wanda is one of the more unique gaming experiences available, even among other indie games. Calling it a video game seems insufficient; the term “game” suggesting some form of “play” that's largely absent. Wanda is, instead, a very interactive story, set apart from visual novels by a few puzzles and a near complete lack of writing, save for some occasional and incoherent alien speech. Described as “show, don't tell," the entire game is read through player interaction with the hand-drawn environment as a lone robot making their way through fragmented memories of the past. Even desolate, the game is beautiful, the children's book aesthetic cultivating an almost parental relationship with the player for his or her naive, robotic charges.
Eventually, the solo robot gains a friend, an even more adorable companion to suffer through the loneliness with. That loneliness remains a core component of the Wanda experience, however, surrounded by corpses and a wasteland that's nearly dead silent. Even together, the robots are served constant reminders that they are alone, particularly as they stumble across holograms of the past and find themselves only momentarily surrounded by a once-bustling world. They struggle together, the player bearing witness to incredibly intimate moments of loss, fear, and anxiety. Occasional glimmers of humor and hope seem bittersweet, tinged by the circumstances from which they were born.
The subtle choreography of every scene is intensely engaging, lack of comprehensible dialogue making every movement and interaction between the two companions feel that much more important. The scenes of the story are further paced by music, but not as a constant; instead, music is used to highlight particular moments, violins and piano joined by soft but powerful vocals that wring emotion from the player. At times, the heart of the music seems at odds with the excited clicks and clatters of the robots, creating a clear distinction between the player and the characters while maintaining the former as an element of the unfolding story. You become a distinct observer, informed by the music and persistent, weighty feeling of solitude even as the characters are distracted by a moment of play and joy, scratching pictures of themselves into rocks or clearing their way through puzzles.
The puzzles themselves are fairly few in number, but are well-crafted and diverse, requiring a careful mix of memory and quick reflexes. Each puzzle is unforgiving of failure, restarting from the beginning if more than a few mistakes are made. This is especially difficult where puzzles extend over a considerable length of time, requiring one to remember the steps made to advance should they fail and need to restart. In addition to the puzzle itself, both robots have a limited amount of energy—the smaller of the two having an even shorter supply than his larger companion. Players will have to switch between both robots, working in tandem to remove barriers, take down force-fields, and make it to the finish line intact, the goal being to remain together throughout their journey.
Those less inclined to fidget with puzzles can skip them upon repeated failure, opting to forego the more active component of Wanda and focus on the story instead. However, doing so shortens an already unfortunately brief game. It might be fitting that the story is so short given its poetic narrative, but there's more that could have been explored if only to extend the time we had with these two lovable, robotic creatures. A fallen asteroid, hints of a war over a power source, and more are relayed through holograms and left-over bits of memory buried in the scorched sand, all of which were equally interesting and could have been fleshed out further.
There lies the only real problem with Wanda. Perhaps it's even a good problem for a developer to have, for a player to wish they'd been given more time to spend with characters so easy to love. Far too soon, the story ends, but that voice inside us hoping and praying for the survival of these two robots remains. We never learn their names or their language, but that's part of the magic of their story, a carefully weaved spell that transcends all human barriers of empathy to create a beautifully human experience.
TechRaptor was given Wanda: A Beautiful Apocalypse for the purposes of review. It was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.
While the linear experience harms replayability, Wanda is overall one of the most beautiful, poetic, compelling, and masterful examples of the narrative potential of video games.