By Bex Peterson, Editor-in-Chief
Some minor spoilers in this review… but very minor, I promise.
“My whole life no one’s noticed or expected much from me / they think a silly singer is all I’m meant to be…”
These are the opening lines to “I Wanna Be The Hero,” a tune sung by the Bard of Greg Lobanov’s adventure puzzle game Wandersong as he accepts and sets out on a quest to save the universe. At this point in the game I was already charmed by the incredible visuals and smooth gameplay, as well as the quirky dialogue and memorable character designs. The puzzles are impeccably crafted, giving you just enough information to work things out for yourself and feel clever when you solve them without spelling things out for you. All of this was enough to sell me on the title.
By the end of the Bard’s song however, I was fully ride-or-die for him and his adventure. Up to that point, the Bard presented a cheery kind of blank slate—a happy-go-lucky sweetheart who seems oblivious to the point of imperviousness to the cynicism and hopelessness around him. It was only after the last few chords of “I Wanna Be The Hero” played out that I realized, truly, what kind of game I was about to play—and that the Bard is far less one-dimensional than he appears on first blush.
Wandersong falls into the category of indie games that I feel to an extent was popularized and defined by 2015’s Undertale—that is, a celebration (and mourning) of nostalgia for an ’80s and ’90s childhood. Wandersong is rife with analogues and oblique references to popular titles, as well as some more obscure ones that might take a keen eye and knowledge of some truly bizarre bits of internet pop culture to pick up on.
Wandersong is divided into acts, with no two acts being alike in gameplay. One level plays out like a typical Legend of Zelda dungeon, with similar sound cues for solving puzzles and discovering items. Another echoes Majora’s Mask as you play through a town where the citizens all follow daily timed schedules that you learn to keep up with and manipulate to solve problems and progress the story. It plays like a tour of some of our favourite childhood stories, games, and shows, which perfectly captures the essential dissonance of the story. For all that the Bard is an optimistic protagonist in a cartoon world of vibrant colours and whimsical soundscapes, there is an exhaustion and a sadness pervasive throughout the narrative. The world is dying, and while not every NPC you encounter knows this, it seems apparent that everyone is feeling it. The areas you explore and people you encounter become more and more hopeless and jaded as the story progresses, until you encounter a group of people quietly waiting for the end with calm acceptance.
The Bard swiftly realizes that he is not the intended hero of the story—that honour goes to Audrey Redheart, the “true” hero, whose entry onto the screen is always heralded by a slammin’ electric guitar cover of the Bard’s “I Wanna Be The Hero” song. Even so, our determined protagonist always moves forward, pushing past hopelessness and always willing to help whenever he sees people in need. As his companion (and best witch) Miriam points out, he has no skill for fighting, and his optimism sometimes makes him a bit ignorant to larger and less pleasant realities. Even so, he’s the hero I feel like we all wish we were, pushing back against the tides of nihilism around us in a world that feels like it’s slowly slipping away from what we hoped we’d grow into.
I highly, highly recommend this game, though I recommend you purchase it for console rather than PC. The developers specifically designed the main mechanic to transform your controller into a musical instrument of sorts; while still fun, the effect isn’t quite the same when dealing with a mouse or a track pad. In the case of puzzles that require quick timing, playing on PC dials up the difficulty of the game significantly.
Wandersong pairs great design paired with an incredible narrative, and I guarantee it will leave you wanting to hum and sing to yourself for days after you’ve stopped playing.
Wandersong is available on Steam for $21.99, as well as eShop and Humble.