Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Will I ever get home? - a review of Wandering Willows

What do you get when a casual game developer combines roleplaying with adventure and simulation? You get Wandering Willows!

What I liked

  • Cute, colorful graphics
  • Good game length
  • Odd and witty cast of characters
  • Great music
  • Task-driven gameplay

What I didn't like

  • Too many unused items
  • Scarcity of some important items
  • Repetitive and potentially tedious gameplay
  • Short, unsatisfying ending



Quick Plot

Gather items, make things, and train animals to fulfill all of your friends' requests, so that you can escape the mysterious island.


Mechanics

Items: You spend most of the game wandering around the land gathering items, with the help of a pet. You also collect recipes and patterns. Once you know a recipe or pattern, you can use the items you've collected to make something, such as an item of clothing, foods and drinks, or flower bouquets. These items are the driving mechanic in the game. Everything you do involves gathering, making, and delivering items to the other inhabitants of the area.

Animals: Animals roam all over the landscape, and you always have one animal tagging along with you. Each animal has 3 stats:

  • Toughness: the ability to dig up holes
  • Climb: the ability to climb trees
  • Charm: the ability to get other animals to give you stuff
Additionally, each animal has some particular skill that helps you. For example, a Zeepzop is more likely to dig up metals for you.

There is an animal storage building where you keep the animals you've collected. Here you can incubate eggs to acquire new animals, and you can change which animal will walk around with you.

Every time your pet climbs, digs, or charms, his relevant stat will go up. This continues until his skill levels reach a maximum limit. You can also make collars to equip on your animals. These collars give skill boosts to the animal.

Animals are an important part of the game because they do all the work for you. Once they've retrieved some item for you, all you have to do is pick it up off the ground. As they work, their energy bar runs low and you need to give them food to restore their energy.

Tasks: This is a task-driven game. You will complete more than 120 tasks before the end of the game. These tasks are assigned by the other people living on the island. Whenever one of these people has a question mark above his or her head, it means they want to talk to you. Once you talk to them, they'll give you a task. Once the task is completed, you'll receive something from them, and your friendship level with the requesting characters will increase. The friendship level doesn't seem to be anything more than a statistic. It doesn't affect gameplay, from what I can tell, other than earning medals.

Goals and Medals: As you reach certain benchmarks in the game, you will receive medals. These are rewarded for things like training an animal until his stats are maxed, and gaining a friendship status of "Best Friend" with another character.

Additionally, you have a set of long-term goals laid out for you at the beginning of the game, which must be fulfilled to complete your main goal of escaping the island. These goals are completed simply by playing through the game and finishing certain tasks.




Highlights

Controls: Walking around the island is simple. Click your mouse (or hold the mouse button down), and your character will go to that location.

Another feature I loved is that, when picking up items, there is no limit to how many you can click in a row. So you can click on 8 pieces of wool on the ground in quick succession, and the little hand icon will remain on all of them until your character picks them up.

While you do earn the ability to warp to specific locations later in the game, I wish the developers had included some kind of Fast Forward feature, allowing you to travel more quickly from place to place. Sometimes, I just didn't want to wait for my guy to walk.

I also wished they would have built in keyboard controls for scrolling the camera or moving the character.

But basically, if you want to do anything in the game, just click on it - whether it's a tree, a person, a digging pile, or a shop. So, the game is easy to control.

Interface: The developers were kind enough to offer a small overhead map in the corner. Clicking any spot on this map will make your character walk to that location. Stars on the map indicate the locations of the other characters. Mousing over a star will tell you which character it is. A gold flashing star means that character wants to talk to you. These little indicators are very helpful.

Your animal has a spot for himself in the upper left corner, where you can see his picture and his stats. Mousing over his picture will show you his abilities and description.

Mousing over a character or animals will show you what they like and don't like. This is helpful when giving gifts to people or food to animals.

Another helpful feature is the bar at the top of the screen. It constantly cycles through your currently assigned tasks, reminding you what needs to be done. There are arrows on the bar that allow you to manually scroll through your tasks if you prefer. And if you want a detailed view of all your tasks, there's a button in the lower left corner that brings up all your task information.

Music: Because there are a host of fair composers out there, and only a handful of really good ones, I always have to highlight any score by Sean Beeson. This friendly fellow has composed another great soundtrack this time. While I wish there was more music in the game, the few tracks that repeat are very nice and fit the mood of the game perfectly.


Game length: You're going to get plenty of play out of this game. If you wanted to, you could choose to postpone your tasks and just go around collecting items, leveling up your animals, and working for those hard-to-earn medals.

Humor: The characters in this game are just.....weird (or quirky, if you prefer). I did laugh out loud a few times at the comments made by the characters. Each character seems to be a witty caricature of a very specific type of person you might meet in our world - strange old man, health freak, or geek for example. But, the humor might not appeal to everyone. It seems to be written primarily for folks in their 30s or late 20s.


Issues

Repetition: If you don't like wandering around collecting things, this game might get tedious for you. And your frustration might be amplified by the fact that
  • the items you get from digging or charming are somewhat random (an animal might drop 3 or 4 different items, but you never know which one it will be), and
  • some items that you really need are scarce, while items you don't need show up in abundance.
Is this enough of an issue to ruin the game? No. It wasn't for me. It irks a bit, but that's all.

Too many useless recipes: You will frequently collect new recipes and patterns for making things. This opens up all kinds of options for the kinds of objects you can make as gifts, or cook up for your animals to eat. Unfortunately, I rarely found use for any of these recipes or patterns. For the fun of it, I did make a pirate hat, pirate coat, and ruffed shirt to give my guy a pirate outfit (at my son's request). I also made a kung fu outfit for my guy. And hey, you can even choose what colors the clothes are. But still, all those things you collect just waste space if you don't do anything with them. That was a letdown. Your character is likely to end up a pack rat like mine did. But, you don't have to look at your recipes if you don't want to. It's the concept that bothers me. It just feels like wasted space, time, and energy.

That said, you will actually need a handful of recipes and patterns for you assigned tasks.


You get to customize how your character looks!



Suitable for the family?

My wife wasn't interested in playing the game, just from watching me play. Then she sat down and tried it herself, and now she's well into her own game. She's enjoying the task-driven play.

The kids loved watching this one because the characters are cute, and even more importantly, there are furry little fantastic creatures walking around everywhere. They were always eagerly requesting that I switch to a different pet to take around with me.

While nothing in the game is visually offensive, I made sure not to read all the character dialogue out loud for my kids to hear. Some of the conversations would be inappropriate for kids, both in terms of language, and some insinuated themes (homosexuality and cross-dressing included). But these themes are subtle and pass by very quickly. And in case it is likely to offend you, there is also one character who frequently says (out loud), "God! Don't sneak up on me like that!".



The family man's final ruling

This game stands out in my mind as unique. There is nothing else like it on the market as of now. It has a way of keeping you playing. There's a sense of development that is often found in roleplaying games. There is always another new item to find, a new person to befriend, a new animal to train, a new area of the map to unlock, and a new task to work on. Add in cute, colorful graphics, top-notch music, and humorous characters - and you've got yourself a very good game. Sure, I had my complaints, but that didn't seem to damper my eagerness to play. The only other thing that would have made the experience more rewarding is a longer, more robust ending. But I always say that.

I recommend this game, even if the humor goes over the head of some people younger than 20 and older than 40. You might get more hours of play out of this game than any other casual game in your collection.



You'll like the game if...

  • You like task-oriented gameplay
  • You like gathering and collecting stuff
  • You like cute, colorful graphics
  • You like witty, subtle humor
  • You like roleplaying/simulation elements

You won't like the game if...

  • You get burned out by constantly exploring for random items
  • You're hoping for some fast-paced action or time management


My rating:

If you want to play Wandering Willows, click below:

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