By Nick Whitcroft
Every day there’s another triple-A title to get on the hype train for, but there’s nothing quite like the feeling of stumbling across a surprise gem, especially in such a burgeoning indie scene. Swing Swing Submarine’s understated platformer is one such diamond - simple but beautiful, I came away from it absolutely taken by its charm and atmosphere.
From the offset, one of the first things that will grab you about Seasons After Fall is the beautiful soundtrack. Performed by a live string quartet, as soon as the brief intro kicked in, I fell in love with the delicate trills and flurries of what is, at its core, a relatively minimalist accompaniment to the handpainted visuals. In fact, much of the game is kept clean and simple - from the lack of UI to the gameplay itself. And it actually serves as a defining characteristic of the title. This isn’t a frantic action side-scroller; it’s a game you can relax your way through feeling warm and fuzzy inside.
After a brief intro you find yourself in the role of a ‘seed’, emerging from the depths into a mysterious, secluded forest, under the guidance of disembodied voice, directing you in your quest to unite the spirits of the four seasons; a quest that sees you take control of the body of a wild fox. Perhaps it’s just the The Animals Of Farthing Wood fan in me from my youth, but there was something enchanting about simply watching the little fella scrabbling up ledges, turning on the spot or stopping for a bit of preening - all animations that, whilst a little slow compared to many platformers, are beautifully captured.
The environments themselves are, simply put, beautiful. The areas and creatures alike are all handpainted and the broad, raw brushstrokes make this all the more apparent - it takes pride in its aesthetic, and rightly so. Anyone who’s played Ori And The Blind Forest will see the parallels immediately. It was a runaway success last year and I for one am happy to see another artistic 2D title give us another chance to fall in love with so much of what captured audiences in Moon Studios’ release. Unlike Ori And The Blind Forest, however, this isn’t an action-led Metroidvania title. Seasons After Fall includes no combat; in fact, it provides few ways to die at all (and when you do take a tumble down a bottomless pit you’ll be met with an instant respawn). No, it’s a game about losing yourself in the joys of nature and a quaint, touching world, straight off the pages of a children’s book of old. Even the voice-acting is heartwarming to hear - the soft-spoken Guardian of Winter has a voice like warm velvet.
As you play, you’ll one by one recover the spirits of each of the four seasons, granting you the power to switch between them at will, shaping the world around you. It’s a simple concept, but one that’s implemented very nicely. Not only do the creatures and obstacles in the world around you change with each switch - lakes freeze over in winter, geysers spout higher into the sky in autumn (sorry, Fall), creatures come out of hibernation in the spring - but the colour palette shifts, the music alters and crepuscular rays through the forest canopy punctuate the artwork.
The control scheme is minimal too: you can run, jump, switch seasons and bark to interact with your surroundings. With each season introduced to you one by one, the gameplay itself is immediately intuitive, never needing to bury you in length tutorials. It can feel a little directionless at first (there are points when you can indeed enter zones in your own chosen order) but, generally speaking, you’ll find new areas opening up to you organically as your powers grow. It actually has the odd effect of making regions feel less linear than they are - it’s a sign of great level design that they are so neatly crafted as to allow you to get a fresh experience re-exploring an area you’ve already visited or that you can typically rush back through obstacles when going back the way you came. Once all four seasons are within your control, it’s genuinely satisfying to navigate the entire map, as you sink into a flow.
The platforming itself is also well honed. It suffers from none of the sliding that frequently serves as a gripe in many similar games I play and it’s clear the developer has taken some time to nail this key aspect of gameplay. It’s little touches that I noticed, such as how the fox automatically slows at the tip of an extended vine that could be potentially misleading in terms of its exact end point. The puzzles too are nicely balanced. Whilst you’ll rarely find yourself running into stumbling blocks that will cause you to significantly lose pace, you’ll be forced to think, especially once you’re combining sequential seasonal interactions. It suffers from a couple of minor bugbears, such as the controller sometimes struggling with the season switcher and jumping me into a season other than the one I’d specified but it’s swift enough to remedy and, with the threat of death never looming close at hand, never caused me any major frustrations.
It’s a short game, clocking in at around 8 hours, depending on how fast you journey through the bewitching forest, but managed to captivate me throughout a full playthrough in just one sitting. It takes a special kind of platformer to do that, and in a world where we’re seeing some refreshingly brilliant side-scrollers coming to the fore - the likes of Cuphead and Shovel Knight - it’s wonderful to see the product of another tiny indie studio standing proud amongst such hot competition bringing its own flavour to the genre. If you found yourself wooed by Ori And The Blind Forest but would happily trade the frenetic combat for a relaxing but nuanced journey through nature then pick this up now. It truly is a thing of beauty.
Stay tuned to The Midnight Gamer for all the latest and greatest from the video gaming world. Seasons After Fall is developed by Swing Swing Submarine for Windows, OS X and Linux, and published by Focus Home Interactive. It was released onto Steam on 2nd September 2016 and is, at the time of writing, currently available for 15% off the already competitive launch price.