As the title screen comes to rest on a picturesque pastel tinged Windmill house in a field with just the sound of the breeze though the grass and the creaking of the sail arms to introduce you to its world, it is evident that this game is not trying to show off, it’s a gentle introduction to a gorgeous and expansive world which compels you to explore.
This is adventure in its truest form, no obvious signposts, no overbearing handholding, the game gives you just enough information at the outset for you to stand on your own two feet and then pushes you off into the unknown to help bring peace to the residents of Exidus. I could almost hear Bilbo Baggins in my head as I ran headlong into Ufara Forest for the first time.
In the simplest of terms this is a 2D side-scrolling adventure game, reminiscent of 16-bit era RPGs. There are numerous dead-ends and secrets which remain unexplored until you possess the relevant item to enable you to overcome each obstacle blocking your path, which is evident from the very start as you soon see block outlines, expanses of water, mysterious ice patches, and out of reach items and ledges which you know you’ll be coming back to later once you’re kitted up to tackle everything. I’m a sucker for secrets and the joy of coming back with the right tool for the job never tired, and often led to even more secrets as the prize was often a bigger mystery than the path taken to reach it.
There’s a handy, simplistic map which gives you a layout of how each screen is connected and shows if there is still an action to be performed on a given screen, be it accessing a door or unlocking a treasure. Once the levels start unfolding and you’re going through doors and exploring underground caverns it becomes essential as your mental checklist of unexplored territory gets too much for your brain to handle. You can save at any time you like, but when you die, you start back at the beginning of whichever world or palace you were in when you died, with a hefty dent in your marble balance (which serves as the games currency), but the map takes the pain out of finding your way back to where you were. The backtracking actually becomes way more fun once you are familiar with the screens and start speed running back to that previously inaccessible door to find out where it leads, and boy do they lead you to some amazing places.
It is lovely to look at, each Graveyard, Forest, Palace, Mountain and Underground cavern ooze character. The pixelated 2D retro graphics are akin to a time machine, concentrated nostalgia. Instantly I’m taken back to my SNES playing The Legend of Zelda and Castlevania, both of which serve as good reference points but this is by no means a copy and paste adventure, it has a personality all of its own and continues to develop and grow as each hour passes, of which there will be quite a few, 30 and change if you’re going for full completion.
There are numerous graphical touches which enhance this aesthetic, in certain situations the viewpoint will purposefully zoom in or out, to enhance the claustrophobia of an underground tunnel or to fully capture the size of large enemy or inform the scale of the landscape you’ve just wandered into. The level scenery is also more than window dressing and can often conceal all but the top of an enemy’s head forcing you to think on your feet to dispatch.
The control and combat is both precise and fluid. At first I found myself tentatively approaching each screen and sizing up the enemies before edging up and striking at the perfect opportunity when their guard was down or weak point exposed, which in itself is quite rewarding as quite a few of the enemies are deceptively tricky to dispatch at first. Hacking and slashing simply will not fly in most situations. The real joy of this came later, once I’d had a while to explore and get to grips with the dash, downward strike and double-jump, before I knew it I was flying from one side of the screen to the next like I was in a fantasy world Matrix, leap-frogging from noggin to noggin with style.
A minor quibble is the double-tap to dash, handy for dodging attacks but when you have such a precise window to both hit the enemy, and be far enough away to avoid a hit yourself, you’ll likely need to edge forward once or twice at some point, which unless a long enough gap is left between inputs, will result in you getting a swift pat on the head by whichever spiked implement the enemy happens to be carrying at the time. What makes this even more vexing is that dash is also assigned to a button, rendering the need to double-tap completely redundant. This became less of an issue as the game went on, but was the fuel for an untold number of expletives in the first couple of worlds. You can also get caught in a game of stun tennis if you’re unlucky enough to get hit in between two enemies, which will decimate your health in the blink of an eye.
The plethora of pickups and equipment are stored in an inventory screen particularly reminiscent of Zelda, and displays all items, marbles, snowflakes, orbs, books and the rest of the items you’ll be stockpiling throughout the game. The screen itself is purely for your information, as once all of the inventory items have been gained they are permanently equipped so there is no need to interact with your inventory other than to keep tabs on collectables and equipment gained. The equipment you’ll come to rely on as you progress through the game, whilst performing fairly typical actions, (swim, double- jump and so on) have charming little touches of their own. The swim-enabling duck buoy made me smile, and some of them are so unexpected you wonder how on earth you’ll ever use them.
Of these, the Musicom is the one you’ll be seeing a great deal of. It’s little bewildering, until you figure out how to play it. It’s an instrument of sorts which allows you to interact with various objects and characters throughout the game, but initially when you find it all of the 12 Runes required to play it are missing, which are of course scattered throughout the worlds and require collecting before you can use them. The Musicom comes with a built in Lexicon, as you meet more of the characters you learn and translate whichever words they have said to you, each word corresponds a number of Runes played in a particular sequence, all of which are stored into a 5 page Lexicon which you will need to refer back to as you piece together what ever phrase you think you need to say to get the extra from The Neverending Story to stop hampering your progress, or to get that giant gold chest to open. You can bring this up with a button press and the transition between Lexicon and Musicom is nice and fluid, so you can go from looking up the phrase to playing it with little fuss.
This is not as dauntingly complex as it may seem though, and the phrases required are at most three words long and are signposted well enough to provide enough of a challenge without leaving you standing there like a plum for 5 minutes playing every note possible in the hope of finding the right combination, before realising an unexplored door held someone with the exact phrase needed to pass. Which certainly never happened to me. Not once.
At the risk of contradicting myself, whilst I fully endorse any game that strays from hand-holding too much, I did find a few of the Musicom interactions quite vague. Without giving anything away I will say, that much like the portion of this review needed to describe it, it takes up a much larger role within the game than initially expected…. I knew I’d contradict myself.
By the time the main quest is over, unless you’ve been super studious, there are still a plethora of loose ends to tie up if you’re going for full completion, and a New Game+ which in turn leads to previously locked equipment which of course you’ll be frantically saving up your marbles for.
Chronicles of Teddy has bags of character and charm to spare, a fun and gorgeous world to explore with secrets galore. A true retro delight which is challenging, but rarely unfair. Well worth your marbles.
Version tested: PlayStation 4 (also available for WiiU)