Author's note: Before writing this review, I was undecided between a piece that connected to the current state of the industry or dashing out a fun quickie. I couldn't decide, so here's both. Smarties, start at part 1. People who want to get to the point, skip to part 2.
1. With the next generation now a reality, smaller developers and publishers have been voicing concern about being priced out of the business by the rising costs of game production. When a home machine is capable of rendering ultra-detailed textures and has enough horsepower to fill a beach with individual grains of sand, it's going to take a lot of time and effort to satisfy consumers who expect to see this potential used. Publishers also take risks when they put up funding to back expensive games, so it's not exactly in their best interest to support unusual ideas or untried concepts. Obviously, one result is that originality seems to be waning while known quantities are waxing.
One answer to reviving the dilemma of dwindling freshness is games on handhelds. Development costs are lower, and the public's expectations are set on a different scale. The Sony PSP has seen success stories of unusual smaller-budget efforts like Infected and Exit, and the Nintendo DS has even more niche titles that probably wouldn't fly on a regular console. However, another possible answer for small studios and independent creators could be online. Why deal with nervous publishers and the cost of distribution and packaging when a creation could be downloaded directly to a consumer?
Independent games have been online for years, but now that home consoles are so Internet-friendly, a bridge now exists to reach a potentially huge game-playing audience that's never been there before. One example of an unknown micro-budget project that wouldn't be on the radar without this avenue is Wik: the Fable of Souls. Available for download on Microsoft's Live network at the low price of $10, it's a small game with small goals that wouldn't compare favorably side by side with the kind of software that sells hundreds of thousands of copies at retail. But, although it's clearly in a different league than the big boys, it still has a lot to offer.
2. Wik: the Fable of Souls is a crazy little project; it's got the music of Elfman, the aesthetics of Oddworld and the single-screen mechanics of an old-old-school platformer. The game's star, Wik, resembles nothing so much as a mix between a tropical tree frog and a Goth rocker. On a mission to clean glowing green grubs out of a magical forest and save the souls of his family, he jumps, swings, sucks and spits over the course of seventy missions in the main story mode. After completing his quest, there are also extra challenge missions and two bonus stages that are built mainly for fun.
I downloaded the demo when I was poking around on the Live Arcade menu, and I paid for the full version about three minutes later. It's such a bizarre little game, I was instantly drawn to it and couldn't put it down once I started. The formula itself is very simple: each 2D level is part of a forest populated with several different types of insects and the green grubs that Wik is after. Since he appears to be half frog, he uses his sticky tongue to snag things and spit them back out, or to latch onto objects in the environment and swing from place to place. He's also got some serious hops with those legs of his, and precision jumping also plays a role.
Understanding the gist of how the game is supposed to be played is easy, but mastering it takes a little bit more work. The developers have crafted all kinds of sticky situations that require a lot of excellent timing and manual dexterity to succeed. It's one thing to understand that a grub needs to be plucked from the middle of a pack of scorpions, it's another thing to do it and escape unstung. To Wik's credit, the controls are excellent and the physics of moving acrobatically couldn't be better.
It's been a long time since I played a game that required so much skill, and I definitely think a part of me missed the feeling of whiffing a jump by a fraction of an inch, and being driven to try and try again. I don't want to scare anyone off, though—the story mode is excellently balanced and has a very good difficulty curve. The challenge missions are (naturally) challenging, but can be selected separately for those who think their fingers can handle it.
It's weird, but familiar in all the right ways. I was addicted, but it did drive me batty. It feels like a forgotten classic, but it's running on the newest hardware. Wik: the Fable of Souls is a very unusual proposition, but one that I suggest 360 owners accept—and at $10 for the full version and a free trial available anytime, is there really any reason not to?
Disclaimer: This review is based on the XBOX360 version of the game.