System: Switch, PS4, PC
The roguelike or roguelite is a subgenre that has eluded me over the years. It seems to be a fan favorite as almost every indie darling these days is a product of this trend. Maybe it’s due the speedrunner and highscore culture that has been perpetuated by the advent of social media and videogame youtube space. Maybe it’s the fact that they don’t require investing hundreds of hours of time to get into – a playthrough lasts as long as you can survive – and instead only require that amount of time if you want to truly master them. Either way, it has borne a new gaming phenomenon.
Tumbleseed is the latest entry to join the race in an increasingly oversaturated market. Hoping to be more thoroughbred than one-trick pony, the game is a wholly original take on the subgenre having all of the makings of something special, except it is ironically failed by its own genres conventions.
Let’s start with the good.
If you haven’t already realized, Tumbleseed is a very pretty game. It features some of the most gorgeous 2D work of this or any other generation and it truly pops off the screen. Whether it be viewed on your 4K monitor or Switch’s 720P 6″, the game is mesmerizing to look at and is very reminiscent of classic PSP games like Patapon and Loco Roco. It’s colourful, cheerful and perfectly juxtaposes against its background of satanic levels of difficulty. Don’t let its saccharine sweet designs convince you otherwise, this game will destroy you, your soul, your very meaning of existence – ie: it’s hard as fuck.
Why is Tumbleseed so hard? Well first off it’s a roguelite, encompassing everything that makes roguelites challenging, such as permadeath, procedurally generated maps and item resource management, while being pummeled on screen with enemies – oh ya, you also only get 3 lives. It is essentially an old-fashioned ball labyrinth puzzle, if the labyrinth was filled with death and suffering at every corner.
The game pits you as a seed trying to reach the top of a mountain. The goal is to get said seed to the top of the mountain using your finesse in the art of rolling. Sounds simple enough right? Well it isn’t.
See, unlike most games in the genre – and in general – you don’t actually get direct control of your protagonist. Instead moving your seed up yonder requires you to use the left and right analog sticks to adjust the angle and pitch of the platform that balances your little devil. From there it is your job to get the lil’ fucker up the mountain while avoiding pits, traps, and swaths of enemies ranging from maggots and flies that pose as minor inconveniences to spiders and giant snakes that will home in on your position and chase you relentlessly. It’s manic and overwhelming at first and the controls will take a while to get used to, but once you start getting the hang of it, it is pretty satisfying darting and dodging hazards while narrowly escaping death.
The mountain is made up of 4 sections and each is broken up by a hub. Each one house different denizens of the mountain and sport different designs and wacky personalities that are just as infectious as the world they inhabit. They also give you the chance to purchase new upgrades or participate in mini games for additional resources. Most importantly they offer a brief moment of respite during the arduous travels you’ve undertaken.
While travelling up the mountain on a surface level would make even Sir Edmund Hillary shit his pants, you will not be travelling without some very necessary provisions to help you combat such obstacles, which are granted to you in the form of myriad abilities. You will start off basics such as Flagseed, which will grant you checkpoints upon reaching an activation pad, or Thornvine, which surrounds your little seedling with spear-like weapons, or most importantly Heartseed, which grants the player an extra life upon jumping on 4 pads. Over the course of your sojourn, you will come across dozens of others, which run the gamut of projectiles, to shields, to the ability to call down monsoons that can fill up otherwise deadly pits. Each of these abilities sounds pretty rad and give the player many options to play with, but there’s one catch: they all have a cost.
This cost comes in the form of crystals, which are littered sparsely among hard to reach places on the map or otherwise can be obtained by killing enemies or using your Crystalseed ability on pads to farm more. Yes, as cool as it was to see what kind of new toy I would receive upon a new run, I ultimately knew it always was going to be more of a novelty than an actual main staple in my arsenal, due to the ludicrous costs some of them carry. It made them more of a hindrance than a boon and sometimes an actual hindrance in the literal sense.
This ties into my biggest fault lies with this game: the difficulty. Now, I know what you are thinking: “Just because a game is hard doesn’t make it bad, get gud scrub.” I agree with you wholeheartedly there. In fact when a game presents you with all the tools and trusts in the player’s ability to adapt and improve over the course of time, it can lead to some fantastic experiences; just take the Souls series for example – or the immaculate Nioh from this year. The problem here is that the game’s difficulty is a product of all of it weird and unique systems working against it’s genre’s conventions.
Remember how I said this game is hard. Let me restate: it’s super fucking hard; melt your face off with searing rage hard. This comes from numerous disparate elements. First off, you are always at a disadvantage while playing. What do I mean by this? Aren’t games meant to offer up some resistance? Well most of the difficulty stems from the fact that you don’t have any direct control of your seed. This means anytime you want to move you must anticipate where your seed will move. This is a huge problem when all enemies don’t face the same constraints as you because they ain’t stopping to wait for you to feel things out. Tilt the sticks too much and your seed will go flying haphazardly to most likely its doom, Tilt the sticks too little, you are open to the quick and cutthroat advances of enemies wasting no time on tracking you down.
There were many times I played this game slow and careful, trying to maximize my resources and play my cards right only to come across an unwinnable situation where all of my lives were wiped in an instant. Conversely there were times I played reckless and got farther than when I actually tried, just because luck fell my way with a favorable map layout. Sure you definitely see an improvement in your abilities the more you play, but you never shake the feeling that luck plays a huge factor because let’s be honest, there is a random element to what abilities you will get and just what the map will turn out to be.
This is where procedural generation fails this game. Whereas playing a Souls game, you feel like you are making some sort of progress because the playing field will always be a constant while your skills improve, the random nature of the map layout makes learning the ropes that much harder and improving your skills more situational than universal because you will never be given the same tools nor tasked with the same canvas multiple times.
It feels incredibly unfair and disingenuous because the way this game is set up – with its ability and resource management gameplay set among a backdrop of traps – calls for a much more deliberate pacing, like its deliberate controls suggest. This really doesn’t work when you get to later stages where enemies are moving faster than you can move your sticks, allowing you no time to plan and instead forcing you to go completely by feel or in some cases, hope and a prayer. The game should have been built around the old adage “slow and steady wins the race”, instead we are left with “slowest one up the mountain is a…”.
If the game wasn’t already out to get you, lets look at abilities again shall we? Remember how I was saying that abilities could be a literal hindrance? That’s because a great majority of abilities hurt not only the enemy but you as well. Take for example the Bounce Friend ability, which gives you a sentry who – you guessed it – bounces around the screen hitting everyone in its way. You would think that this would be an effective powerup to clean up unwanted pests, but in my 6-8 hours of playing Tumbleseed I did not kill a single enemy with this ability – many enemies have to be hit by it more than once by the way. You know how many times my bullshit “friend” hit me? Over a dozen times. Or how about the power-up that drops claymores every 5 seconds, how many times did I hit a trailing enemy with it? Same exact results: bubkiss. When the game’s abilities and power-ups are working against you instead of empowering you, it becomes a huge issue and just adds insult to injury, diminishing any excitement in the prospects of going one more round.
I would be remised if I didn’t at least give this game a shout out for one thing it does particularly well – that is if you happen to be playing on a Switch – and that is its implementation of HD Rumble. Not only is it incredibly satisfying, the sheer detail in haptic feedback design is astonishing, with each of the different seeds feeling completely unique to each other. Every roll feels distinct and matches up perfectly with their intended design. You can feel the bumps of the Heartseed or the ridges of the Crystalseed; its pretty mindblowing and it’s the first game I’ve played to showcase this technology properly.
2.5 out of 5
I really wish I could love Tumbleseed. It’s unique, beautiful to look at and dripping with so much personality that it should be an easy recommendation, but alas we are doomed to not have nice things.
Tumbleseed’s sheer difficulty will be too much for many to handle even if you can master its idiosyncratic control scheme and while there is fun to be had in short bursts, the frustration that creeps in due to cheap deaths or the unfair random nature of the game will have people questioning whether taking the time to get good at it will even be worth the hassle when there are so many outliers preventing you from succeeding. Only sadists need apply.