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Wavetale (XS)

By Lee Mehr 16th Jan 2023 | 3,123 views 

While Wavetale's elegant surfing/platforming foundation is engaging, choppy waters within its design & storytelling keep it from being a huge splash.

Like Submerged: Hidden DepthsWavetale is another Stadia refugee that’s found fertile soil on other platforms.  While both fit into different sub-genres, they’re both comfortable in sharing broad strokes with one another: utilizing the ocean as a core means of traversal, an ecologically-minded message, and a crucial companion assisting alongside the protagonist’s journey.  Beyond those connections, Thunderful wants to make a splash among the amorphous story-driven action-adventure/platformer as well.  The question is: how does it fare amongst that tidal wave of competition?

The archipelago of Strandville has been in dire straits since the great war everyone talks about.  Your character, the teenaged Sigrid, didn’t experience this conflict firsthand, but she’s heard all the stories from her cantankerous grandmother.  How the Dirty Paws ruined their once-great homeland.  Now, their world is surrounded by dark clouds called ‘gloom,’ and it’s dangerous for anyone to even go swimming.  But after an immense gloom flood flows over all of Strandville, Sigrid makes a strange discovery: she can now walk on water thanks to a shadowy figure beneath. 

It’s a touching & effective scene in two ways.  Firstly, it’s both the next narrative and literal step of her story; when she’s initially startled by this blackened figure, the shadow responds by breaking the plane and sticking her foot out like a synchronized swimmer.  Secondly, it communicates Sigrid’s core moveset for the rest of the game.  After a few hesitant steps matching this mysterious creature, you can walk or glide across the water.  After the gloom swept through and damaged your grandma’s lighthouse, it’s up to you to collect Sparks and restore power. 

From here, the tempo follows the expected action/adventure template.  Sigrid’s special energy net is effective for various combative and traversal tasks.  Since the gloom tidal wave covered up everyone else, it’s like they’re trapped in an oily, pillow-shaped body suit (complimented by a teeny sad face emoticon) until you give them a good smack.  Grandma is the first rescue and then everyone else either tied to the main quest or side quests comes after.  Aside from Asta’s fun time trials, diversions from the main plot are generic chores to net more currency.

Regardless of where a task may scale on the fun meter, going from place to place is consistently exciting.  While still important, it’s not simply the slick audio design, the gratifying sense of speed, Joel Bille’s breezy soundtrack in the background, or the level design inviting you to maintain momentum, traversal immediately clicks thanks to Thunderful’s invitation to experiment at the start; in fact, there aren’t really any learned moves past the prologue.  There can be a danger to a static moveset, but removing those artificial strictures was a worthy payoff here.  It’s nice to intuit and test Sigrid’s abilities before the inevitable tutorial pops up – though it'd be better to never appear if players have already done said action.  And since some of the subtler movement nuances aren’t deliberately spelled out, you’re encouraged to test the waters.

Countering the benefit of a static moveset is the haphazardly-managed combat, though.  Most bouts are simple cases of whack the enemies first and win.  Even with the basic list of a light hit, charged heavy attack, dodge, and ground pound, practically everything can be won by spamming the x button.  I may as well list out combat problems in bullet points:

  • Even the biggest, meanest-looking of these… otherwise cutesy oil-glob monsters can be peppered with light attacks, since it stun-locks them in perpetuity.
  • Normal add-ons have such a delayed wind-up for no good reason.  You just have to backpedal one step to avoid their hit, plus they’re down in 2 hits anyway.
  • Mediocre enemy variety, with 3 on-land variants and 1 War of the Worlds-style enemy that walks on water.
  • Poorly-executed final boss focusing on repetitive combat.

Considering how Sigrid’s energy net also doubles as a hookshot for special ledges and cannons, or yanking mini-sparks within its wide grasp, Thunderful missed a huge opportunity to treat this weapon like Kratos’ Blades of Chaos and craft the combat around that dynamic.  What’s here instead is bland and unsure of itself.

Basic as it is, at least the puzzle-platforming has personality.  Alongside the foundational jump/double-jump across convenient electro-punk platforms, Sigrid’s net is a core component.  So long as there’s an eligible thing to hookshot towards (indicated by the UI), she’s there in a flash.  It’s especially handy given how often verticality is emphasized; sometimes you’re (magically) surfing up oil-slicked halfpipes or roping towards grappable ledges.  The concept behind most puzzles is just "jump around and hit power switches" but there’s just enough difference, be it in level design or platforming gimmick, to really click.  Granted, certain fast-paced occasions make the camera unwieldy and the UI wonky on what you want Sigrid to grab, but at least it’s still something compared to combat.

Thunderful’s gamble comes with disparate results.  Throughout the 5-6 hour jaunt (100% achievements), I never grew tired of surfing and gleaning scattered journal entries; conversely, my interest in combat was sapped within 15 minutes.  There’s this overarching issue of not shoring up the ancillary & tertiary elements surrounding its fun foundation.  Why litter more fetch quests than time trial challenges?  Why so many frilly cosmetic extras (which aren’t even shown in cut scenes) without something interesting, like learning tricks?  From a small- or big-picture perspective, Wavetale’s gameplay is another useful "not quite there yet" example.

Sigrid’s story doesn’t really captivate as much as it should either.  Just a cursory glance at the impenetrable smog surrounding you can clue you in about its ecological themes.  Then, it’s blatantly obvious by the time a mechanical sea serpent is huffing smoke from chimney stacks.  In spite of being blunt – which can sometimes work well – the narrative is also strangely non-committal.  It builds up a tension between factions, which expectedly becomes more nuanced towards the end; one faction ought to collectively own up for past wrongs, but it mostly rests on just one convenient bad guy (who’s also hinted at being a pervert for good measure).  Aside from a couple of creative choices, Jessica Schiefauer & Alexandra Dahlberg’s script doesn’t make a real splash.

At least it’s supplemented by respectable presentation.  Most of the voice actors… earn their modest paychecks, but it’s actually McKenzie Atwood’s Sigrid that’s the most inconsistent of the bunch.  The art direction meshes a soft-texture look to the environs and characters, but with crayon-drawn facial animations.  It taps into the likes of Windwaker and Concrete Genie: someone’s tremulous face will have bigger eyes on the verge of tears while their mouth contorts to an odd shape.  The way Thunderful maps on their exaggerated expressions compliments the lighter tone.  Those types of details in its visual design make it Wavetale’s second-best quality.

When the credits rolled, Wavetale felt akin to some sand stuck in your shoes after leaving the beach.  You don’t know how it got there, but now you’re slightly irritated while driving the whole way home.  That lackluster finale eventually reminded me of other sour notes, making me reflexively weigh the pros and cons versus the experience itself.  I’m reminded of the freedom in the water, but also the constraints on land.  Sigrid’s odyssey has a fine overarching message, yet there’s so little creative spark within its storytelling compared to its better peers.  These waves of complaints and praises crashing from different directions never totally damage its solid bedrock: the traversal & platforming mechanics.  Because of that, it's closer to an easy sell for genre fans.

Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee's obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.

VGChartz Verdict


This review is based on a digital copy of Wavetale for the XS, provided by the publisher.

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