Following the initial batch of ten cartridges for the Evercade retro gaming platform, one of the releases that people were most excited for was cartridge number 11: a double pack featuring arena shooter Xeno Crisis and platformer Tanglewood.
We’ll get to Xeno Crisis in due course, but I wanted to make a point of looking at Tanglewood first. Because while Tanglewood was, like Xeno Crisis, a successful Kickstarter project that ended up being released on both Mega Drive and modern platforms, it’s Xeno Crisis that has had the lion’s share of attention to date. And you know how much I love an underdog. Or an underfox, in this case.
Fortunately, Tanglewood is a lovely game in its own right, so I’m glad I decided to give it a look first. Let’s explore together!
In Tanglewood, you take on the role of a young fox named Nymn. Nymn has found himself stranded far away from home, and night is rolling in. And it seems that the Tanglewood is not a safe place to be after dark; terrifying beasts lurk in the shadows, just waiting to devour unwitting forest creatures that haven’t found a suitably sheltered place to nap. Consequently, it’s your job to guide Nymn through a series of perilous nights as he attempts to find his way home.
Tanglewood is, at heart, a puzzle platformer based around exploration and making use of various special abilities that allow you to traverse the levels safely. The wonderful thing about it is that it is designed in such a way that it naturally teaches you everything you need to know about its mechanics without a single piece of tutorial text ever appearing on the screen. It’s all done through context, level design and a structure that encourages experimentation by providing the player with opportunities to try things out, and providing only very gentle punishment for mistakes.
Initially, the game is simply about negotiating the terrain and avoiding the enemies that occasionally show up. Tanglewood uses its enemy characters very sparingly in its opening hours and there is no combat, so an encounter with a foe ends up feeling simply like another traversal puzzle rather than anything fast-action. This is good, because the actual exploration side of things — the majority of the game — has a pleasingly gentle pace to it. To suddenly be confronted with button-hammering combat sequences would break the flow that the game works so hard to create.
A big part of this sense of flow comes about through the atmosphere the game creates. Music is used minimally, usually only to complement sections of level where the “time” changes from midday to evening or evening to night, or where one of the game’s particularly large “Djakk” enemies is chasing Nymn. In sections where music is not playing, environmental sound effects punctuate the action, accompanied by the subtle sounds Nymn makes while moving around or taking actions. The overall atmosphere is by turns calming and deeply unsettling — particularly when you’re not quite sure what is making some of those noises, and if said thing actually wants to eat you.
As the game progresses, you need to start taking advantage of the special abilities that small fluffy creatures known as Fuzzls provide. But before a Fuzzl will power up Nymn, you need to get them back to their nest. This is always a puzzle in itself, and usually involves making use of the various environmental features the game has taught you up until this point while pushing the Fuzzl along and eventually plonking them back in their nest.
The nice thing about any puzzles that involve pushing things is that the developers have clearly thought ahead and designed the levels in such a way that it’s impossible to push the moveable objects anywhere stupid — usually by blocking off certain paths with small rocks that stop objects from passing, but which Nymn can freely skip past. This also has the helpful side-effect of subtly indicating to the player which direction they’re supposed to be pushing the object in; this can be very helpful when there’s a long distance to travel and it might not be immediately apparent which way is the “right” way.
Upon bringing a Fuzzl back to a nest, you can acquire an ability from it according to its colour. Yellow Fuzzls allow you to glide through the air; green Fuzzls allow you to stop time (and be temporarily invincible while time is stopped); blue Fuzzls placate large creatures that are chasing you and allow you to ride them so you can make use of their high running speed or jumping ability. These abilities last for quite a while, but they are temporary; once again, the game is nicely designed so that you can always get back to the Fuzzl to “refresh” the ability before moving on, so there are no times when you will ever really find yourself “stuck”. Plummeting to your death in a pit of spikes? Sure. Stuck? Never!
There are other things you can push around, too. Most notably, large rocks can be moved to act as platforms, or pushed onto the heads of large beasts to defeat them. Once again, the levels are designed in such a way that you can’t do this “wrong”; even if you accidentally break the rock by pushing it off a platform a little too early to land on a Djakk’s noggin, if you simply wander a short distance away and then come back, it’ll be right back at its starting point, ready for you to try again.
Tanglewood is challenging, but this sort of player-friendly design can be found throughout the whole experience, and it makes it thoroughly pleasant to play. Rather than constraining enjoyment through arbitrary restrictions such as time limits or lives, it embraces the fact that this sort of game is one where players will want to explore and experiment. There’s a time and place for such arbitrary restrictions, of course, but an exploratory platform puzzle adventure like Tanglewood is not that place.
To say too much more would be to spoil some of the sense of discovery inherent in Tanglewood, so I’ll leave that there for now. Suffice to say that its chilled-out vibe makes an excellent complement to the manic action of Xeno Crisis on Evercade cartridge 11 — so when blasting those aliens gets a bit much for you, take some time to hang out with your furry friends in the forest. You’ll be glad you did.
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