Wow, time sure does fly. It feels like only yesterday when I covered Tanglewood‘s demo when its Kickstarter campaign was just beginning. In reality, it’s actually been about two years. If that wasn’t crazy enough, Tanglewood itself is a title that toys with gaming technology of the ’90s. Yes, this game is actually a brand new SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive release developed by Matt Phillips (aka “Big Evil Corp.”). It’s been put onto cartridges and for owners of SEGA’s classic console to keep in their libraries.
This Steam release is interesting in itself. Not only are there versions for PC, Mac, and Linux you could run on their respective computers, but it even comes with a ROM file you can use on your favorite SEGA Genesis emulator! While the executables run the game with cool background art bordering the screen, I decided to play through Tanglewood on my good ol’ Nintendo Wii.
Tanglewood focuses on a red fox named Nymn, who seeks the safety of its family’s underground home. Nature has a nasty habit of being filled with dangers during the night and Nymn certainly wouldn’t want to be caught up in the monstrous affairs that go on. That’s the gist of the game’s premise, but Tanglewood continues to convey a narrative through the world itself. Not a word is ever spoken.
What separates Tanglewood from all the other games on the SEGA Genesis is that it carries a modern mentality that a lot of story-driven indie games embody. I can’t envision this game selling in the ’90s because that kind of thing simply wasn’t a way to engage kids; it’s not as active and physically engaging as the hyperactive and in-your-face Sonic the Hedgehog. However, because this subgenre of indie titles is popular now, Tanglewood gives us this side of the Genesis we haven’t ever really explored before. It’s quite refreshing in that regard.
However, I feel like the ending was kind of weak. Without spoiling anything, it’s not as if there wasn’t any closure, but it felt lopsided compared to the cutscenes that led up to this point. There was even a scene halfway through the game that made me think “Whoa…..Did that just happen?” Trust me, when you play the game you’ll know exactly which one I’m talking about. I thought there would be another moment like that by the end, but the ending instead consisted of several seconds that basically indicated the adventure’s over. For a game reliant on its story, I just expected more.
But you know, I don’t think I would have been so immersed if it weren’t for the graphics in this game. Tanglewood is, in a word, breathtaking. The world in the game is mainly made up of forests and the like, but the way the colors and objects play into the atmosphere is a sight to behold. I especially loved when the time of day transitions when going to a new part of a level. Come to think of it, I also adored the way one chapter had levels featuring a sunset and black silhouettes reminiscent of similarly envisioned levels in Donkey Kong Country Returns. And these color patterns and details are all done on 16-Bit hardware!
The characters are very well-defined, too. Nymn and the Fuzzls make for cute little animal creatures, making the bigger ones like Djakks all the more positively nightmarish in comparison thanks to the dark environments they show up in and the dim lighting on their bodies (with their bloodied mouths being one of the highlighted portions). There aren’t usually a lot of enemies onscreen, but encountering one tends to be an event. The intensity cranks up until you manage to find a way out of that situation.
If you’ve ever played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, you’d be familiar with how the sound design plays out in Tanglewood. Music is surprisingly absent for a good majority of the game’s duration. Only in certain events would there be jingles signifying what’s going on, adding to the intensity of instances like a Djakk chasing Nymn through the woods. There are also parts of the soundtrack that, inversely, are calm and serene – usually played when entering a new part of the forest for the first time.
At its core, Tanglewood is a platformer inspired by games like The Lion King and Limbo. As Nymn, you’ll be traversing the forest and other areas surrounding it in order to make it back home. Spanning eight chapters and featuring a secondary goal of collecting all the dragonflies in each, there is a healthy amount of game to play through here. A password system is built in the game, but since it can be played on emulators, I used save states to keep my progress in check.
Enemies take a backseat for puzzle-solving in Tanglewood. Running and jumping around the trees is easy enough to get the hang of. The way the levels are arranged can make for some challenges that will, at the very least, get you to think about how to plan your way through. Some puzzles involve pushing around objects to activate others, and other puzzles involve using Fuzzls – these multicolored puffballs provide the player with special powers when they are rolled back into their nests, depending on the color they are. While situational, they work well with the puzzles Tanglewood has in mind.
That said, I do have a couple of gripes, mainly revolving around enemy placements when they do happen to be roaming. Maybe the “camera” is too close to tell, but every now and then an enemy would come out of nowhere with hardly any way to react in time. It’s somewhat downplayed by the player having infinite lives and checkpoints being fairly common, but it can still get annoying and cut into the otherwise consistent pacing. There are a few notable instances much later in the game where obstacles like moving boulders add to this annoyance.
Nevertheless, I think Tanglewood is a pretty good game. There is a fantastic atmosphere conveyed by the graphics and sounds alike, and the puzzle-platforming gameplay wrapped within is solid stuff. The fact that it’s built with the same exact hardware and materials used to make SEGA Genesis games back in the day is extra impressive. I just feel there are a few things that could be ironed out so nothing gets in the way of the game’s impact.
Review copy provided by Matt Phillips