LostWinds – Nintendo Wii

Note:   As I wrote awhile back, I am currently on the staff of Adrenaline Vault, a game review website. I joined AVault in January and subsequently faced a drought of games. That said, the floodgates have started to open and over the last month I have had 3 reviews published with 2 waiting in the wings (I believe they’ll be up next week). As I am using this site to chronical anything I write, I’ve decided to reprint the reviews here as well. On slow news days, I’ll sprinkle them in. The following review is one of the ‘waiting in the wings’ items but I actually liked this game (I’ve played some real dogs of late – purely becuase they were assigned to me) so I decided to lead with this one.

One of the hallmarks of this current generation of consoles has been the increasing dominance of games available via digital distribution. The Xbox 360 has reaped a windfall through the assorted classic arcade titles and original garage games made available on their XBL Arcade service while the PS3 has opened their own storefront on PSN allowing gamers to choose from an original selection of smaller titles such as Echochrome and fLow. Up to this point, Nintendo has responded by opening their catalogs (as well as those of former competitors such as SEGA) and offered up emulations of classic gaming through their Virtual Console. While the VC releases have gone a long way towards scratching that nostalgic itch, there is something to be said (and money to be made) in providing a conduit for independent game developers to give gamers the types of experiences that don’t necessarily require $100 million dollar development budgets.

To fill that void and to increase the competition in this burgeoning market place, Nintendo has recently launched their WiiWare service which competes directly against the original content available via XBLA and PSN. Of the six launch titles that heralded WiiWare’s arrival on May 19th, LostWinds is easily the most ambitious title and the one most emblematic of the different game play experiences afforded by the Wii’s unique hardware.

LostWinds is a pseudo three dimensional 2D platformer/puzzler that shares a similar aesthetic as other recent throwback outings – such as the Castlevania: Dracula X remake that graced the PSP this past holiday season. While the action occupies the traditional two-dimensional plane that is this genre’s stomping grounds, the characters and environments are given three dimensional depth through the increased polygons afforded by today’s monster consoles. Developer Frontier deserves extra credit for applying some innovative controls to equal the eye candy on display in their freshman effort and their work easily makes LostWinds a no-brainer purchase.

LostWinds opens on a sleepy little hamlet that has lived under the shadow of a dire prophecy. At the outset of the game, the hero Toku is startled by the surprise appearance of a long lost Wind Spirit. This spirit and its instant bond with Toku bring to mind the similar camaraderie shared by Link and his assorted fairy familiars in the recent Zelda titles. Toku and the spirit are soon sent out on a quest by the village elder to seek out the source of some strange geological events and discover the whereabouts of the other lost Spirits that will aid in the brewing battle against a reawakened Evil Spirit.

That old saying “You can’t judge a book by it’s cover” has no bearing on this title. From the initial start-up screen, LostWinds’ eye candy is on full display with your character awakening in a dreamy cherry blossom orchard that opens up to the pastoral village you call home. With subtle bloom lighting, some excellent depth of field effects and just an all around fine execution of the developer’s artistic vision, LostWinds makes a great first impression. In fact, the title often comes across as a two-dimensional depiction of the inviting dreamscapes offered up in the amazing Okami adventure.

The Okami connection is felt in the game’s controls as well. Where that title offered up control of the Celestial Brush (where in the Wii re-release players controlled their brush strokes with Wii motions), LostWinds presents a similar device. Through your bond with the Wind Spirit, the player is granted control over Toku and the spirit concurrently. The game employs the Wiimote-Nunchuck connection, with the Nunchuck controlling Toku’s main actions and the Wiimote taking control of the Wind Spirit and its interactions with Toku and the world in general. Toku can’t jump high on his own so the player is called upon to augment the character’s mid-air leaps with a burst of wind by drawing draft lines across the screen. The catch to LostWinds is you rely upon this symbiotic connection with the Wind Spirit to accomplish everything – from jumping over gaps to igniting or blowing out flames to simply messing around with the game’s NPCs by applying a stiff breeze to their clotheslines.

The developers have wisely based a number of their environmental puzzles around the Wind Spirit’s abilities. Early on, you may be called upon to ignite a torch and then direct the flames (via a burst of wind) to burn down a thorn barrier that is blocking your progress. As you work through the game and uncover additional memory chests (which serve to provide the village elder with pieces of the prophecy and hence the player with portions of the plot) the Wind Spirit will gain new abilities. In classic Metroid fashion, these new abilities will often open new avenues for your continued exploration – so that ledge that seemed just a wee bit outside your grasp is suddenly able to be surmounted and thus a new area is opened for exploration.

Completing the package is a soothing soundtrack, composed entirely of woodwinds, that lends the proceedings a nice, ambling vibe. The music is completely enchanting and compliments the visuals nicely. Some may find the tunes a little laid back, but I think they really work to sell the fantasy. Besides, a little soothing mood music goes a long way when trying to work through the steps of some of the more intriguing conundrums that reveal themselves through the adventure.

I am a sucker for environmental puzzles (give me a new Tomb Raider once a year!!!) and this game offers up a moderate amount of brain-teasers. None of the challenges will keep an average player vexed for too long and as is the case with those great dungeon dilemmas in the Zelda series, a little observation of your surroundings will go a long way towards working your way through them. That said, the game makes creative use of the unique controls afforded by the Wii hardware, with the wind control gimmick employed to great use in solving some of these riddles. They are also employed in some brief combat sequences as well (enemies abound but often a quick flick of the wrist will generate enough wind to blow them out of your hair). All told, the game is easy to pick-up-and-play with the game throwing plenty of tutorials at the player to acclimate them to all of the various wind based actions at your disposal. Things grow a little more complex when you run across your first (and last) boss battle but as I said before, a little brain power and liberal application of the tools at your command will best this beastie for good.

It’s with that final boss battle that I have seen some complaints. This game ends much too soon. Literally 3 – 4 hours of gameplay and then you are done. Bear in mind, those are 3-4 solid hours of entertainment and when compared against other mainstream releases (running upwards of $50), at $10 for a LostWinds download, the dollar to gameplay ratio works out all right.

That said, I would like to see the narrative fleshed out a little more. The game ends on a cliffhanger and the developer has recently stated that they are fast at work on the follow-up. While the title doesn’t come affixed with an ‘Episode 1’ designation, it sure feels like this is merely prologue to a larger plot. For the sequel, I would like to see the story revelations integrated a little better. Throughout the course of this game, your character is sent on a series of fetch quests to restore the elder’s memories so he can determine what to do next. These memories are stored in hidden chests. Whenever you encounter one, the game hints that the memory chunk has been restored but the player is never privy to what that memory entailed. This leaves the player in the dark much of the time, a glorified gopher who doesn’t get a glimpse of the big picture until close to the end. That may be part of the intent but it would have been nice to see some elements of what the elder was relearning – even flashes of memory – to allow the player to try and piece the puzzle together themselves. Outside of an introductory cut scene that lays the ground rules and a closing sequence that sets the table for part II, there are not many story threads to tether the narrative together. This is a fascinating fantasy world, one that I would like to learn more of, similar to how I seemingly know Hyrule like the back of my hand.

Minor quibbles aside, LostWinds represents a stellar start for Nintendo’s WiiWare service. If they can attract talented developers like Frontier to offer up unique game play experiences that could only be played on the Wii, with the controls providing a fresh twist to established gameplay conventions, WiiWare will emerge as a vital part of Nintendo’s strategy. The game may be over as soon as it begins but what’s served is a tasty appetizer for more courses to follow. More importantly, Frontier’s top-notch execution of their own artistic design, while slightly derivative of other fantasy properties, is encouraging in a sea of cookie-cutter sequels that darken store shelves. If digital distribution is the only way to experience these new takes on old favorites, then I’m all for it.

LostWinds is truly a breath of fresh air.

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