You won’t realize it at first, but Wandersong’s opening moments are symbolic of not only the game itself, but also the fantastic story you’re about to embark on. You’re shown a classic idea of a hero and a monster to be overcome with force, and then immediately shown how force isn’t the best way to solve your problems.
Wandersong is a masterpiece of storytelling, using an unlikely hero full of naivety and enthusiasm to tell the funniest and most emotionally satisfying apocalypse story I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience.
SPOILER WARNING: This review is going to attempt to keep the spoilers under wraps, but OH BOY do I want to talk about so many fantastic moments in this game. Some minor spoilers might slip out, but I won’t reveal any twists (like when [REDACTED] shows up!) or give away major plot points (like how [REDACTED] is [REDACTED])
In the beginning, the universe was set into motion by the music of the goddess Eya. Now, as she does every epoch or so, she’s going to sing a new song and reset existence. One lowly bard sets off on a journey to preserve the world by collecting pieces of a mysterious melody called the Earthsong.
The protagonist of this tale is a bard (who I named Goli in my playthrough). This Bard is in the unenviable position of having to save the world from a coming apocalypse by wandering the land and learning the Earthsong (Thus; Wandersong), which is prophesied to stop the impending disaster. While some might quake in fear or be consumed by anxiety by this,The Bard simply adjusts his jaunty cap, strikes up a song and attacks the quest with unbridled optimism and enthusiasm.
This character is the heart and soul of Wandersong, and is such a wonderfully refreshing change of pace from the heroes we’re used to. He’s naive, sure, but charming because of it. He’s almost bull-headed in his sense of determination and his desire to spread happiness to others and to just keep trying. It becomes clear that his kindness and ability to spread joy, not his skill or his strength, are what makes the Bard truly heroic as you progress through the game, and I found it, quite frankly, inspiring.
The way that you accomplish all this is through song, and the mechanic by which you sing jaunty tunes as you adventure across the land is one of the most simple and yet also one of the most complex game mechanics I’ve ever run into.
The mechanic itself is profoundly simple: at any time you can bring up a color wheel of eight tones controlled by the right joystick (if you’re playing on controller, which you should be: feels WAY better than a mouse & keyboard). Moving your joystick will sing a different tone as you scroll it around to the different sections. The complexity of this mechanic is how many different things it has been used for. It’s used for conversations, controlling plants and animals, opening doors, moving the wind, piloting boats, turning cranks, talking with the dead, and…well, singing.
It’s very easy to understand what you need to do in all these different situations, even if the particulars change. Occasionally, you’ll have to experiment a bit to get a feel for a specific puzzle element or rhythm section, but it never took me too long to successfully carry a tune. (Quick Note: Every puzzle I ran into in the game also had a directional indication of tone you might need to play. Hooray for color blindness accessibility).This could be due to my one major complaint about Wandersong: there is no real fail state. You can fumble your way through the entirety of the rhythm sections, and should fall to your death in a puzzle room, there’s no real drawback, and you’ll simply respawn at the last safe platform. Wandersong is very clearly not aiming to be an intensely difficult game, focusing more on the narrative experience and journey, but I would have loved to see a little bit more difficulty or penalty to failure myself, even just to increase the tension and drama a little bit.
However, even this issue ties into another way in which Wandersong subverts the classic trope of the adventurer: its focus on nonviolent solutions. Part of the reason you cannot fail so often is because of the fact that so many of the situations you’re put in are solved non-violently. The Bard will even force you to try to solve things non-violently should you be a little quick to reach for a sword.
Later on in the game, at about the half-way point, this desire for a non-violent solution is thrown into even greater light by contrasting the Bard’s approach with a parallel solution that’s far less focused on being kind and spreading joy. It is an absolutely brilliant moment, both in the sense of the narrative and mechanically, and does a fantastic job of questioning a lot of things we take for granted in adventure games, from achievements to boss battles, in a very tongue-in-cheek, very humorous way.
Speaking of humor, we have to discuss just how funny Wandersong is. Sure, it’s always a bad idea to try to explain why something is funny, but I have to try. As mentioned above, the Bard is naive and optimistic to a fault, which is a hilarious foil to many of the jaded and pessimistic people he meets along the way. Really, it’s these characters that bring the humor to Wandersong’s narrative, and bring variety to a fairly standard narrative formula.
Each act in Wandersong plays out in much the same way: Arrive in location, talk to people to find out problem, solve problem to learn the Overseer’s Song, Travel to Spirit World, Solve Puzzles, Perform Overseer’s Song. And yet, for as similar as each act is, the people you encounter are VASTLY different and create a diverse cast of characters I fell in love with. There’s the beleaguered towns folk of Langtree, the music-staved citizens of Delphi, the coffee-drinking pirates of The Lady Arabica, mermaids, adventurers, devilish industrial barons, and that’s not even mentioning the cast of characters you meet in the Spirit World!
These characters are what make so many amazing and memorable moments in Wandersong: Advertising for a candy store, getting the band together, your first cup of coffee, getting held hostage by an insecure pirate, your second cup of coffee, meeting Audrey, the Happy Kids sales pitch, your first shift at the factory.. the list goes on and on and on. Wandersong is the kind of game that you’ll remember forever because of this colorful cast of characters and the incredible moments they help to make memorable.
But there’s a flip side to this. These characters are kooky and funny, and the moments are hilarious and ridiculous, but the real reason they’re memorable is that they are filled with genuine emotion. Sure, these emotions might be a bit exaggerated and over-the-top, but they’re made to feel so real, which gives Wandersong so much more weight than you’d imagine at first. There’s real emotional change and growth in the Bard, and a stunningly poignant depiction of depression that caught me by surprise. Wandersong has incredible heart, and uses that as the game progresses to create some stunningly punchy emotional moments for a game that pretty much began with you singing to birds as you skip through a forest.
All of this, the emotion, the humor, the sense of adventure, are empowered by the AMAZING soundtrack by A Shell in the Pit. In a game so focused on the power of music, the soundtrack steps up and proves itself, evoking heroism, struggle, sadness and surprise. Here’s A Shell in the Pit’s Bandcamp page were you can get the two volumes of the game’s music, plus a remix album that is stupid good.
Wandersong is an amazing game, and it’s currently in a three way tie with Ghost of a Tale and LUCAH at the top of my Game of The Year list right now. Wandersong is quirky, hilarious, full of heart and an adventure you’re not going to forget anytime soon.
If you’d like to learn more about the development and design philosophy of Wandersong, check out our interview with developer Greg Lobanov on our YouTube Channel: