Game Review: ‘Wandersong’ is a refreshingly optimistic story about the end of the world

If there is, at some point in human history, an awards category called “most colorful apocalypse,” Greg Lobanov‘s Wandersong ought to be an early favorite. It’s a crowdfunding success story, resulting from a successful Kickstarter in 2016, and was made by a three-person team in Vancouver, BC. Two of those people are the members of A Shell in the Pit, who’ve worked on soundtracks for games like Night in the Woods, Rogue Legacy, and Invisible Inc.

Wandersong is ostensibly about a single traveling musician, in well over his head, on a mission to prevent the imminent end of the world, but that doesn’t mean the game takes itself at all seriously. There are moments of pathos strewn throughout it, but above all else, Wandersong is a gentle, optimistic comedy, with an ending that I can already tell is going to stick with me for a while.

Wandersong is available for PC and Mac via Steam and on Nintendo Switch for $20.

You play Wandersong as an itinerant musician, who may actually be named Bard if you choose to do so, who wakes up one morning to find out the nearest town has suddenly become extremely haunted. When Bard helps out with that, he discovers that the world itself is scheduled to end in the very near future. Every eon or so, the goddess Eya decides to run a factory reset on the universe, starting everything over with a clean slate at the expense of anyone who happens to be alive at the time.

Bard’s told by a well-meaning spirit that if he can collect all seven parts of the ancient Earthsong  —held by old, corrupt spirits called Overseers that hang out in isolated fortresses around the globe, naturally — and perform it for Eya, she’ll spare the world. Despite the fact that no one around him thinks he’s got any chance of success, Bard decides to give it a shot anyway, because the people around him are worth saving.

Wandersong is a musical game, but not in the sense that you have to be good at music in order to play it. The central mechanic is Bard’s habit of constantly singing, which you can perform at any time using your mouse or right thumbstick, with a note corresponding to any of the eight main directions. When you sing, it almost always influences the world around you in a number of unpredictable ways. Sometimes, it just annoys the closest characters; other times, it befriends animals, activates machines, reshapes platforms, makes plants grow, or any of a dozen other effects. You use Bard’s music as a tool to help you navigate through the world, solving puzzles and getting past obstacles; it’s a little bit of an old-school adventure game, with a dash of old-school platformer and a few puzzles for flavor.

An interesting element of Wandersong’s design is that it constantly introduces new mechanics and gimmicks without pausing to explain them. It just trusts you to experiment and figure it out on your own. In one area, you may navigate primarily by using your music to guide the growth of a vine; in another, you get around by activating odd little space fields that allow you to fly while you’re standing in them; in yet a third, you’re playing a tune on a giant piano by jumping up and down on the keys. A lot of games like this would introduce specific abilities and obstacles one at a time as you moved through the early areas, in order to assemble them into a series of vicious gauntlet-style challenges. Wandersong throws everything out and starts over every time you get to a new chapter of the story.

Surprisingly, it’s still an intuitive experience. You can pick up what you’re supposed to be doing in a given area almost immediately, via trial, error, and context. If you do screw up, it usually just knocks Bard over or sends you back to a nearby platform. The penalty for death or failure in Wandersong is so slight as to be nearly irrelevant, which means it’s one of the least frustrating games I’ve played in recent memory. It does throw a lot at you, and it always asks you to figure it out on the fly without so much as a word balloon’s worth of tutorial, but you’re never penalized for needing a few seconds to work things out.

I will admit that I’m not sure who this is meant for. Wandersong is just challenging enough that it took me some effort to get through it, which had mostly to do with the trickier jumping puzzles throughout the game. If you’ve got a lot of experience with platform games, then Wandersong will present you no particular difficulty.

That makes me think that it’s designed as an entry-level game for new or casual players, or for parents to share with their older kids. At the same time, though, the story depends heavily on the player’s familiarity with a lot of old hoary tropes of both fantasy literature and this sort of video game. I wonder how much sense it’d make, or how funny it’d be, to a kid or a newbie.

(There’s a joke about halfway through where the punchline is a bunch of achievements firing at once. It’s probably the best use of an achievement system for humor since Portal 2. Of course, part of that is because very few other developers have ever tried to do anything like it, but it’s still good company to be in.)

At the risk of exposing myself as a giant lit nerd, Wandersong‘s plot reminds me of nothing quite so much as Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. (Or, if you prefer, “The Zeppo” in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”) It’s a story about being the ineffective comic relief character who’s off in the background somewhere. Bard is constantly told throughout the game’s run that he’s not “supposed” to be the hero of the piece; his quest is a waste of time, parts of it were actively impossible before he even started, and things only get more complicated as you hit the game’s midway point. This story is already being told without you, Wandersong says, and you were never meant to be involved.

That’s where the optimism comes in. Bard just keeps going throughout the game, basically motivated by nothing more than a fundamental sense of decency, and he’s never exactly punished for it. In a lot of media, particularly Western media, Bard is the kind of character who’d be getting set up for a fall; he’d have his optimism challenged, tarnished, or outright destroyed by the end of the story, because gritty cynicism is somehow more mature or realistic. Wandersong defies that right from the start of the game, because no one around Bard is trying to convince him he’s wrong. Some of them think he’s a little touched or ridiculous–because he is–but this isn’t a story where Bard’s cheerful outlook is considered a character flaw. It’s a story about hope, and right now, that kind of story is as punk as it gets.