Feed It Into The Chipper
HIGH A lush soundtrack.
LOW Falling into a deathtrap I couldn’t see.
WTF Is that lava? Why isn’t it giving off light during the dark segments?
Mable and the Wood, starring a little girl who can’t even lift her sword off of the ground, is obviously meant to be a disempowerment fantasy but Triplevision Games may have been a little too committed to that premise. It’s been a while since I’ve felt so helpless to make consistent progress in a game due to no fault of my own.
The titular protagonist is summoned by a mysterious cult that needs help vanquishing evil from their forest, but they expected their prophesied hero to have a little more muscle. Mable has a sword but she can’t directly attack with it, and in fact must drag it through the dirt, slowing her movement to a crawl.
Fortunately, she has a few tricks at her disposal. The first is that she can morph into a fairy, dropping her weapon and flying for a few seconds. When she reverts back to her human state, her sword zips back into her hand, Mjölnir-style, cutting through any enemies that happen to be in the way.
Notice that attacking and maneuvering are essentially handled in the same motion, and that’s the running theme in what is essentially a one-button game. As Mable gains more transformations by defeating bosses and absorbing their powers, the trend continues – we select our desired form with the right analog stick, and then a single button calls all of the shots. As a spider, Mable can fire webs at enemies, and also use them to swing about. A golem boss yields a stone form that crushes foes and also propels Mable forward, and so on.
It’s an ambitious idea, and with a more measured pace it could have amounted to something special. However, in Mable and the Wood it’s endlessly, aggressively frustrating. Each transformation has massive limitations, which is obviously the point – no single ability is ideal for every situation. That’s fine on paper, but nothing here feels balanced with this restriction in mind.
Instead of challenges that let players make tactical choices and execute on them, we get a parade of insta-death platforming segments full of spike traps and lava pits, which are sometimes off-screen until it’s too late to course correct. Enemies inflict a lot of knockback on our barely-mobile forms, and bosses tend to be both huge and fast, putting Mable in situations where taking damage can literally be impossible to avoid if she’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Mable will ultimately earn eight different playstyles, and making all of them functional within the same space seems to have strained the programming chops of what must have been a pretty small dev team — the controls are inconsistent at best and broken at worst. The webslinging ability is the strongest offender because its rules are so ill-defined. Sometimes it seems to work no matter what, but other times the web needs to physically attach to something, possibly off-screen.
Even simple movement, on a tactile level, is frustrating to grapple with. Mable is controlled with the left analog stick because some of her abilities require 360-degree aiming, but playing a 2D side-scroller with an analog stick is always going to feel weird, particularly when a character’s speed and direction are as unpredictable as they are here.
Removing all of the gimmicks relating to the way Mable moves and attacks, the adventure is remarkably no-frills – essentially it’s a sequence of rudimentary platforming challenges dotted with enemies exhibiting basic behavior, and there’s not even a popping art style to give us any means of distinguishing one level from another beyond color schemes, though the soundtrack is quite nice. The transformations are Mable’s defining feature, yet they clash with how it plays at every turn.
Mable and the Wood isn’t a big game, but a person could spend a few hours on it and walk away feeling like they’d spent fifty. Drab, ugly, and at turns borderline unplayable, Mable demonstrates how quickly a good idea can become a bad one when it’s so thoroughly misapplied.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Triplevision Games and published by Graffiti Games.It is currently available on XBO and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately four hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E and contains Mild Fantasy Violence. There’s nothing here to be worried about.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is text-based and the subtitles are not resizable. Sound cues play no vital role. It’s fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.
He was born and raised in Amish country and has yet to escape, despite a brief stint in Philadelphia, where he attended Temple University. He took a one-credit course there called "Career Opportunities for English Majors," which painted a bleak picture for prospective writers. Mike remains steadfast in his ongoing role as a video game critic, however, and has recently written for GamesRadar. Most of his work can be found on HonestGamers, where he has contributed over 200 reviews to date.
When not playing games or writing about them, Mike is a rabid indie music fan and ardent concertgoer. He doesn't read as much as he probably should, but his current favorite author is Alastair Reynolds.