Mable and the Wood, a new side-scrolling action adventure metroidvania from developer Triplevision Games, seemed to have checked all of the boxes for a retro-game-loving freak such as myself. Adoringly pixelated backgrounds and sets, puzzle platforming, and interesting abilities and skills are amongst my favorite game elements. Combine these with an open world full of secrets, twisting pathways, and challenging bosses and combat mechanics, and I can no longer contain my excitement. Many of my favorite games in recent years (Celeste and Shovel Knight, to name a few) have hearkened to themes and visual styles of my childhood years while successfully updating the formula enough to make the game feel modern, intuitive, and, most importantly, reduce the frustrating aspects of video games popular in my youth. This can’t be an easy feat to accomplish, and Mable and the Wood makes an honest attempt to conform to these standard, but ultimately, despite its charming exterior, it feels like a bargain bin game that I would’ve had difficulty appreciating 25 years ago.
Title: Mable and the Wood
Publisher: Graffiti Games
Developer: Triplevision Games
Available On: PC
Reviewed On: PC
Release Date: August 23, 2019
Game Acquired Through Twitch Prime for the Purpose of This Review
In Mable and the Wood, you take control of the eponymous protagonist on a quest to save your world from a murderous cult. Platforming and movement are the advertised highlights of the game, and you will gain new and interesting forms of travel throughout your journey — powers from bosses you defeat along the way, similar to Mega Man. Your movement also serves as your main form of combat, with each transportational power also giving some form of attack, as Mable is too weak to lift her sword in her human form. Summaries for the game also boast an open-ended storyline with endings, sequences, and dialogue dependent upon your propensity for killing. More skills allow more options for travel, whether that includes flying like a fairy, swinging from spiderwebs, or digging through earth with sharp mole-like claws. Using these various skills will allow you to travel to areas previously inaccessible to gain items and face foes you otherwise would not.
At least, that’s the idea. I’ve had the opportunity to put multiple hours over multiple save files into Mable and the Wood, and applaud the developers for a lofty and leniently original idea, but also have difficulty believing that the final product accurately reflects the original vision. The story itself is sparse and relies on a lot of assumption from the player to fill in the blanks. Even the notion of an open-ended conclusion based on previous actions isn’t well conveyed (or even communicated at all) in game, and you don’t discover the fate of your tale until it is far to late to alter your decisions.
Movement styles and powers are the focus of this game, and a lot of big ideas are explored as you obtain the powers of the enemies you slay. Starting with a short flight distance and a magic meter that depletes the further you go, you start to reach heights and platforms otherwise beyond your limits of movement. Before long, you’ll be turning into stone and flying through the air as a ghost. Each of these abilities takes a little getting used to before you master its movement, but glitches and bugs will constantly hinder your progression and efficient use of spells. The spider web slinging can take multiple attempts to get across a single gap as you try to convince your otherwise suicidal character not to punch her final ticket. The fast-flying spirit form is supposed to rocket away at high speed in a straight line, but much too frequently, you either crash into invisible walls, clip into terrain, or simply appear a few inches behind your original location. Other times, attacks don’t kill a character as much as they cause the sprite to speed off of the stage in a comical, though clearly unintended, exit. The most difficult platforming sections were too often difficult because of unreliable game mechanics rather than clever level design.
Level design does leave a lot to be desired in Mabel and the Wood, and though the environments are a treat to look at, they don’t offer a lot of variation in activity. Immediately upon starting the game, you enter a town full of endearing buildings and scenery, but this town serves (as far as I can tell) no purpose besides a large screen for you to traverse. In fact, a lot of the map is like that. Screens seem placed merely as interim sections between two larger, more important rooms, and really don’t serve much purpose at all. Most of my use of magical movement abilities was to get through tedious map screens instead of actually moving through clever platforming, since your character walks painfully slow while not using magic. If it’s clever platforming you’re looking for after all, you’ll find a dearth of that as well. Most stages are just a set of stones going higher and higher until you reach the inevitable door, overly populated by a painfully small variety of enemies. The biggest offender of poor level design comes in the dungeons scattered throughout this open (but mostly linear) game world. More than once, I dove deep into a dungeon to retrieve an item from a distant room. These rooms, opened by keys and guaranteed to have treasure in them, often wielded only another key, rendering the entire gauntlet pointless. Rarely did I feel that dungeon design challenged me in a way that felt rewarding, and those few instances were too late in the game and too infrequent to note.
In the wake of all of these complaints, there are still shining spots of accolade worthy of mention. The soundtrack is charming and simple, reminiscent of a time that this game feels a fitting nod too. (Unfortunately, I frequently experienced sounds playing at odd times and continuing through different environments and deaths, and most sounds were too loud with no ability to lower them to an appropriate volume, but when they worked, they sounded great.) The UI was simple to grasp and helpful when necessary (though there is a tutorial that takes an overwhelming proportion of screen space every single time you switch abilities, and remain on the screen for upwards of 15 seconds, which is MUCH too long for an ability you’ve used literally hundreds of times within a few hours of play). The graphics, as previously remarked, are cute and felt inspired by Celeste, and to this point I have no complaint. The ideas and inspirations were admirable, and I truthfully love the vision that the developers sought to create.
It is painfully unfortunate that this vision couldn’t be accurately realized, or at least wasn’t to my knowledge. I was unable to finish the story of the game, but not for lack of trying. Three save files were devoted to finishing Mabel and the Wood. Two of these saves ended in my passing through a door, locking myself on the other side, and being unable to return to where I was. If there was another entrance into my destination, it eluded my extensive search. The third and final save file, having avoided the trap I’d succumbed to twice and being allowed to proceed much deeper into the story, somehow became corrupted and crashed the game every time I left that room. (Note: crashing happened frequently throughout the game, and I was always able to move past it. I wasn’t so lucky in this final instance). I was nearing the end of the game, and I wanted to complete it, but, to no fault of my own, this feat proved impossible.
Playing video games should always be a fun experience, and if I find myself not enjoying time spent in a game, I begin to seriously question my use of said time. There were moments of Mabel and the Wood that I genuinely enjoyed, but bugs, glitches, poor design, and frustrating mechanics created an affair of disappointment. Considering I was actually unable to finish the campaign to completion, as well as the multitude of quality metroidvania adventures available on nearly every gaming platform, I can not in good conscious recommend a game that is, at its core, broken.