"Game design is surgery and music," reads the website for Still Games. "Both require time and patience." Curious, then, that the indie studio's recently-released Kickstarter success Animal Gods was launched a full year ahead of schedule. The project, which garnered just over $27,000 in crowdfunding support, promised a fleshed-out modern take on the magic of top-down 90s action-adventure games and JRPGS. Did it deliver?
Not quite. Given half the development time it was planned to have, it only delivered half the experience it planned to give us. Perhaps its developers disbursed their funds too soon—$27,000 is a measly amount for a video game, even for a four-man team like Still Games—but it's painfully evident that Animal Gods isn't the game its creators intended to make. Early screenshots and world art show various enemies, roleplaying elements, and a grand adventure across a fantasy version of ancient England. Early development updates tell of a cast of memorable characters to interact with. All of these ideas were to be wrapped up in an "ambitious" Legend of Zelda-inspired package. But the finished product is far from ambitious, and it cut out all of those ideas.
The resulting game puts the player in the shoes of Thistle, a hunter-priest on a mission to awaken the three titular animal gods for undisclosed motives. These gods slumber in their three respective temples, where the majority of Animal Gods' gameplay is confined to, along with a smaller, final dungeon. In contrast, the overworld is sparse, and traversing it is a painful chore. Often times the player will be left holding a single directional input for far too long, watching the sprite of Thistle ploddingly crawl her way across long, empty, straight paths.
The overworld features only a handful of interactive elements, mostly in the form of diary entries left behind by a curious young woman. These and what other text exists in the game are well-written and, at their best, even thought-provoking. Unfortunately, however, the only time Thistle actually interacts with another character is a brief back-and-forth with one of the gods that she awakens.
Animal Gods' three main dungeons can be completed in any order, and each follows a uniform formula. Thistle gains a new weapon or power in the beginning, halfway through it gets upgraded, and then the dungeon ends with a final test—not a boss battle, mind you—of the player's abilities in utilizing that item. Each of the three dungeon items can only be used in their respective temples. The only exception is the final, smallest dungeon, where Thistle gains back each item and their upgrades one-by-one, although all of the gameplay in this portion mirrors earlier dungeon trials rather than presenting new ways to use the items in tandem.
The gameplay value of these temples varies greatly. While avoiding the handful of different types of obstacles strewn about each level can be fun, combat is largely the opposite. The images displayed on Animal Gods' Kickstarter campaign show what could have been—various enemy types swarming upon Thistle and advanced weapon attacks that knock hit points off the enemies in action-RPG style. Instead, the game has a single enemy type, "husks."
Husks are little squares. Some move in four-directional patterns. Some shoot lasers in four-directional patterns. All of them have an invisible amount of hit points that players are tasked with whittling down by getting in range and mashing the proper attack button repeatedly. Thistle, on the other hand, has no hit points, and dies instantly on contact with any husk or other hazard, reverting players back to the most recent save point. This means chasing down those moving husks is too risky, and so the only reasonably option is to stand still, waiting for the cycle of movement to bring the enemy back into range so you can get another hit in. Some husks take quite a few hits before dying, meaning there's a lot of standing still, waiting, and button-mashing.
This wouldn't be a massive problem if avoiding combat was an option, but in the two temples that feature husks, opening the portal to the next room always requires players to completely clear out all enemies present. Fortunately, the remaining temple doesn't give Thistle a power-up but a fun short-distance teleporting ability that the player uses to cross pools of poison. The upgrade for this power allows you to hold the button after using the ability, charging up for a longer teleport. This makes for an interesting challenge, requiring players to space out their teleports correctly and know when or when not to keep the button held.
As a whole, the gameplay is passable, albeit heavily flawed in its combat aspects. While a slightly wonky collision box on Thistle's sprite can occasionally cause some frustrating deaths, players shouldn't feel particularly infuriated by poor design while playing through Animal Gods. And this is good, because—gameplay aside—the title has a lot to offer.
The visuals are spectacular. The art direction taps into an area often left untouched by video games, rendering the world of Animal Gods in a unique and beautiful abstract style. The sound design is barren, but the semi-ambient score is overall fitting and pleasing. As previously mentioned, the script is well-written. The narrative—revealed subtly by various clues hidden throughout the game's world—is delightfully painted on a canvas of mystery, utilizing contrasting shades of innocence and eeriness.
Most importantly, it leaves a lot open-ended. This actually serves the emptiness of the game well. Instead of sporting a fleshed-out world with a detailed history, Animal Gods gave us a scant one and an appropriately scant exposition. It gives plenty of room for the player's imagination and avoids creating a feeling of dissonance between the game's plot and the game's meager world.
The Verdict: A Wonderful Promise, a Mediocre Delivery
While most of the concept for Animal Gods was eventually abandoned by Still Games, the remaining skeleton of a game still sports some of the project's best selling points. While we mourn what could have been, what we did get amounts to a decently spent two and a half hours where lackluster gameplay takes a backseat to gorgeous visuals and a well-told underlying plot. It is a mildly enjoyable and somewhat ethereal gaming experience whose better elements allow some forgiveness for its deeper flaws.
In the end, Animal Gods isn't what Still Games intended. Rather, it's just a husk...
Still Games' Animal Gods released through Steam on October 12. The game is already being offered for a discounted $7.99 USD (20% off) until October 19. A representative of Still Games confirmed to Gamnesia that the studio is "awaiting for Nintendo to advise on release date etc of Wii U variation [sic]."
Editor's Note: A public relations representative from PR Hound provided Gamnesia with a review code for Animal Gods on Still Games' behalf. All the images featured in the body of this review are from the game's Kickstarter campaign and thus are not representative of the finished product.