Tanglewood

Factfile
Developed by: Big Evil Corporation Ltd
Published by: Big Evil Corporation Ltd
Released: 2018
Format played: Sega Megadrive / PC

Ruminations

When is a retro game not a retro game? When it’s released in 2018, I guess.

Tanglewood is is a labour of love for programmer Matt Phillips, a designer and programmer involved in AAA titles for the likes of Traveller’s Tales and Crytek, brought to life via Kickstarter. Tanglewood walks an altogether different path from these established titles. For you see whilst the game is available for us PC gamers via Steam, it is also a full blown, cartridge-based release for the Sega Megadrive. Yes, in 2018.

Homebrew is nothing new of course but it is rare to see such titles in the hands of established developers. Tanglewood was been created using the original Megadrive development tools, meaning that it is subject to all the bells and whistles, not to mention limitations, that the 16-bit juggernaut is blessed with.

So, what is it? A platform-puzzler, you control a little fox-like creature called Nymn, tasked with guiding him safely back home. For whilst the world of Tanglewood appears pleasant and serene during the day, at night is when all sorts of nasties come out to play, each with a different recipe for disembowled Nymn. Luckily, this is no defenceless fox…

Gameplay

As a Megadrive-based platformer, comparisons are natural to that Sega stalwart, Sonic. Indeed just like the little blue fellow, Nymn is light on his feet, able to cover the ground in nimble bounds and even has a spinning jump, just like Sonic. But that is where the similarity ends for this is an altogether different animal, both literally and figuratively.

The developer themselves have likened the game to a cross between Another World and The Lion King and those comparisons resonate. Like Simba, Nymn moves nimbly across the screen, breaking into a sprint whenever the opportunity presents itself, bounding between trees and leaping away from enemies. At the same time, this is no mere platformer; traversal of the world requires manipulation of the environment, often involving backtracking or movement of objects from one location to another, such puzzles evoking the comparison to Eric Chahi’s seminal title.

As the game opens, you are offered no clear direction on where to go or how to get there. No HUD is visible, Nymn does not have a health gauge or persistent score total. Indeed running around in the early stages it is all too easy to become lost with what to do. Climbing up trees appears a fools errand as you soon run out of scalable branches, your many tumbles to the floor fortunately causing no injury. You soon come across a blue squirrel who appears to be waiting for you and so you obediently follow, eager to see where the cute little guy is taking you. Only to hit a dead end at which point the cute little squirrel goes all Invasion of the Body Snatchers and promptly ends your quest. Dang.

Lesson learned, we set out again, this time ignoring the squirrel, only the absence of any attacking moves in Nymn’s arsenal preventing me from making him roadkill. This time I stumble across a whacking great boulder and after fumbling around with the controls (manuals are for wimps) I manage to push it along the pathway, which helps me gain access to a previously inaccessible area. Confidence restored I bound along at pace, skipping through the wood, hopping on and off tree trunks, slowing down only as I splash through a pool of water. But wait! What’s that coming over the hill? Is it a monster? Er, yes actually. And it promptly kills me instantly. Back to the start we go.

Finally I have learnt my lesson. This time I progress more carefully. I still come across the beast but instead of becoming worm food I turn on my heel and run, the beast in hot pursuit, chasing me across the wood in an unrelenting pursuit, the culmination of the chase coming by way of a bouncy mushroom, a dirty great boulder and a distinctly beast sized headache.

If the solution is a little crude it is certainly effective and the entire piece evokes further echoes of Another World. The chase is punctuated by a thrilling score that serves to ramp up the tension, the pursuit reminiscent of something from an Attenborough documentary as our furry little friend scurries for survival.

Other puzzles are rather less visceral but no less satisfying to implement. Many revolve around a set of colourful blob creatures that need some help getting home. A stab of the relevant button (okay I admit it, I caved and read the manual) let’s you push them along the floor or down branches until they are safely ensconced in their nest. Once there, they imbue you with a set of time-limited powers. These give you the ability to glide extended distances, freeze time and even control those pesky beasts, riding them through the wood to reach new areas.

An element of the puzzles themselves is often involved in actually getting the furballs home, often involving a set of chutes embedded in the floor that either fling you huge distances up or transport you to another part of the level. And then once you do unlock the power, the trick is in knowing what to do with it. With the clock ticking before the power runs out, the onus is on you to quickly figure out where to go and what to do when you get there, otherwise it’s back you go to the nest for a top up.

If You Go Down To The (Tangle)Wood Today…

Having completed the first act, there are some standout moments but this is a game that is not without its flaws and drawbacks.

Graphically this is of course limited by the original hardware but it still looks impressive. Nymn is an engaging central character and the world about him is brought to life around you, the scene changing from bright blue skies to ominuous dark night as you progress. This is helped in no small part by the sound, incidental effects kicking in at appropriate moments whilst background music serves to underline and heighten the emotion of the scene, not least in the aforementioned chase.

Puzzles are simplistic in nature yet with an undercurrent of complexity. Once you find it, the solution so often seems obvious but the journey to discovering it is usually satisfying. This is helped along by well placed rocks, which help when you have to push another item along a path by stopping you from pushing it too far in the wrong direction. Should you find yourself grinding to a halt on one of these rocks, it is a clear signal to change path and try another way, easing some of the frustration that may otherwise present itself.

Unfortunately frustration does rear itself in other ways, often due to the structure of the levels themselves. Long time readers will know of my disdain for the Rick Dangerous-esque level design that seems to take glee in punishing the player for exploring the level, positively delighting in killing you over and over. Whilst Tanglewood is far from this gaming terror, it does fall foul of some familiar traps.

Too often I found myself at the edge of a platform or tree branch with no visibility of my next destination. Whilst long drops mercifully don’t result in insta-death, they can drop you in the lair of one of the night time inhabitants, who promptly run straight into you, killing you instantly. Similarly you may find yourself sprinting gleefully through the level, almost Sonic-esque, only to run headlong into a beastie that you had no hope of seeing until you ran into it and dying instantly. Instead therefore levels turn into a game of creep and peep, negating the speed of the game.

The lack of the HUD offers a refreshing, clear display but this again throws up some challenges. As a cutesy looking platformer, I thought this would be perfect fair for the kids. Indeed having watched the trailer, they asked me if they could play ‘the fox game’ and I happily obliged. The trouble is, they didn’t have a clue what to do. It is refreshing in this modern age of gaming to go back to a period in time where games didn’t feel the need to handhold you through the entire experience or bloat the level count with tutorials. At the same time, at 4 and 7, my kids couldn’t figure out what to do or where to go and so quickly got bored.

As an adult, the lack of a clearly defined destination is also offputting, although my 30+ years of gaming at least gives me the nous to try stuff whilst a side scroller inherently informs me that my destination must lay somewhere to the right of my starting point. On the other hand the concessions to modern gaming are welcome, the in-level checkpoint system generous without being overly so whilst auto save (and Steam cloud sharing) is a gaming development too easily taken for granted.

Bottom Line

There is a lot to enjoy about Tanglewood. Setting aside the nostalgia kick of the 16-bit visuals and sound, what lies beneath is an inventive and challenging platform puzzler, set within a rich world and headlined by a charming protagonist. There are some stumbles, and despite appearances, this may be a tough game for youngsters to get to grips with. Based on my time with it to date it remains to be seen if the puzzles and gaming mechanics have the diversity to ensure longevity.

This isn’t Sonic but then it isn’t trying to be. If you’re looking for a nostalgia kick with a modern spin, this might be a wood to go a wandering in.

You can find out more about Tanglewood, including details of how to buy either through Steam or on cartridge as well as trying the demo, at https://tanglewoodgame.com/index.html

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