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Wandersong and Difficulty

Wandersong can broadly be split into two types of gameplay:

  1. Exploration: Reach a new area, wander around meeting people, and help them with their problems by solving some low-pressure puzzles. This gets you access to the next type:
  2. Dungeon: Progress through a series of more-intense puzzles featuring and building on the dungeon’s particular theme. At the end is a story scene with the area’s climactic encounter. Once you’ve done this, move on to the next chapter and a new area.

This is oversimplified and not every chapter follows it exactly, but that’s the basic structure.

The exploration gameplay is relaxed and generally lacks failure conditions. If you just go everywhere and talk to everyone and try things you’ll get through. Instead of challenge, it provides atmosphere, worldbuilding, and character development.

The dungeon gameplay flips that balance. Until the story scene at the end, it generally has much less world/character content and much higher challenge. Each dungeon has its own themed mechanics and exactly what challenges you need to deal with vary, but in addition to increasingly-complex low-pressure puzzles this is where you’ll find precision jumping puzzles, bottomless pits, time limits, and even a stealth segment. In short - this is where the failure modes are.

Thankfully, Wandersong is very forgiving - ‘dying’ generally means getting quickly teleported back to a nearby checkpoint, costing very little time or progress. But bizarrely, I found myself more frustrated by these failures than I have been by more challenging and more punishing games. And I think it’s because I feel like they don’t belong in this game.

For one thing, it’s a bizarre tonal shift. In the story of the game, there’s no particular reason that only the dungeons should have real danger. Yet the exploration segments play more or less like a point-and-click adventure where you can’t die, and the dungeon segments play like a puzzle platformer where suddenly you can. (It reminds me of the few out-of-place moments where you can die in Legend of Kyrandia: The Hand of Fate.) It comes out of nowhere - unlike, say, Super Mario Bros. where dying is part of the premise from the beginning, it’s a couple hours into Wandersong when you first fall into a pit and then find yourself back on solid ground with no explanation. It’s abrupt and it breaks the expectations the game has so far been building.

But the worse problem is that it makes the game’s strengths subservient to its weaknesses. I’m most of the way through Wandersong and even the toughest challenges haven’t taken me more than a couple of tries - but I’m an able-bodied adult in good health who is experienced with platformers. It’s easy to imagine another player who doesn’t tick all those boxes picking up Wandersong because they heard it was easy and had a fun story. It’s easy to imagine this player enjoying the exploration gameplay segments, getting to know the world and characters, getting invested in the journey and story, and enjoying the antics and dialog. It’s easy to imagine this player appreciating the low-pressure puzzles and the way they contextualize and pace the game’s events. And it’s easy to imagine this player struggling more and more to get through each dungeon until they hit a wall they can’t get past. Like my experience with Catherine, they are now blocked from the content they signed up for by gameplay that’s essentially disconnected.

This feels absurd to me. To me it’s obvious that the game’s soul is in the exploration. The dungeons ratchet up the tension for pacing reasons, to make each chapter’s climax feel properly earned - the difficulty is in service of the story. And that totally fails if the difficulty blocks off the story.

It’s kind of amusing to read reviews written by people who seem to want a more active and challenging game. The Dualshockers review outright celebrates the dungeon difficulty spikes, with the pull quote “Wandersong is a generally easy game, but each successive dungeon gets progressively harder, luckily.” And I can see where the tougher dungeons would be a refreshing change of pace if you’re bored by the exploration segments. But if you are, I’m not sure why you’d choose to play Wandersong at all?

If it were up to me, I’d tweak the dungeon puzzles to make them less of a barrier. I’d remove any failure mode that results in death and respawning. I’d increase the margin of error on any precision jumps or time limits. And I’d strongly consider making them skippable.