Much like this review, Animal Gods started off promising. Still Games describes it as “a beautifully illustrated, 2D top-down game” that is all about the “zen-like journeying, light puzzling” and “precision platforming”. Also like this review, which I bet you thought was going to be entertaining and informative, Animal Gods fulfils only some of its potential.
When I first loaded it up, the minimalist-expressionist graphics were appealing. The stark lines and flat colours combined to paint soft pictures of a village, some temples, and the surrounding landscape. The buildings are striking, and the areas you can explore are scarred and pockmarked, doing a wonderful job of setting the stage for a history of violence and turmoil. If this were done by a classical painter, my money would be on Monet, who definitely painted Water Lilies and might have painted other things. Similar to the French, though, the art is a high point that is quickly let down by the way you have to interact with it.
Much like this review, Animal Gods started off promising
Thistle, the main character, moves slowly, inching around at the speed of sounds a sloth makes while trying to catch up to moss. At the start, this was merely ignorable, but like your grandma’s cooking as her tastebuds dry up, it quickly became unbearable. This game only features “zen-like journeying” if zen stopped meaning peaceful and started meaning frustrating, which might have happened when it was co-opted by hippies in California. Exploration, if you could call it that, yielded nothing more than frustratingly stilted writing and dead ends. I say exploration, but truthfully, it was a case of there being the path that moved the story forward and an immediate dead end that contained one tweet’s worth of background information. By the second temple, I had given up on walking down the short paths at all, because it meant spending more time watching Thistle waddle around the screen. That was more than I was willing to invest, as it was enough of a struggle to make it through the boring sections of actual gameplay.
Those sections of gameplay supposedly featured puzzles and platforming, and the description in Steam contains references to “maze-like rivers”. There is no maze to be found in the game, the platforming was marred by shoddy physics, and the only puzzle to speak of is the puzzle of a story. It’s more difficult to follow the barely-there plot than it would be to read Beowulf as translated from the original by a Korean fishmonger, and far less fun.
Combat, featuring a supposedly 17th century BCE bronze sword and a presumably ageless bow, is carried out against the same squares, copy-pasted and palette-swapped throughout the whole of the game. Sometimes the squares move on strictly predetermined paths. Sometimes the squares shoot out a weird tongue-like thing. Always, the squares present no challenge, just another chore to clear before continuing forward.
Platforming happens almost by accident, at times, as you can be on one of the platforms and moved by another, with almost two character-widths of space between you. It is frustrating, to say the least, to try and platform with instant death spaces and a character whose hitbox is presumably decided by an intoxicated code-gremlin living in the physics engine on a frame-by-frame basis.
By the second temple, I had given up on walking down side paths at all
This game is so far from containing anything resembling a maze that I was actually half convinced I’ve lived my whole life with the incorrect definition, and no one had the heart to tell me any different. Linearity is the dominant theme here, which belies the claim that this is a “nonlinear world”. You can definitely choose which order you tackle all three of the dungeons in, but the abilities you gain don’t work outside of the dungeon you gained them in, so it doesn’t matter. Your choices don’t matter, is what should be stated about the world.
Finally, we arrive at the story. It’s more than a little galling that “character driven story” is used to describe this mess of ideas. Although reference is made to three distinct characters, such little information is available and such little context is established that there are functionally no characters in this game. Even Thistle is barely a character, more the mannequin doll required to swing swords and wear cloaks than someone to be engaged with and interested in. I would be more interested in hearing about my dad’s high-school ex-girlfriend than trying to wade through this muddy pseudo-fable, and both ways I am guaranteed to hear more than I want about a bastardized notion of what infatuation looks like. The actual writing, with the monologues and the diary pages, is more pretentious than Dan Brown pretending to be an author. At no point was I made sufficiently aware of what was supposed to have gone on before Thistle and I arrived on scene, Thistle’s raison d’etre was not explained at all, and the whole concept of these animal gods was never even brought up.
So where does all of that leave Animal Gods and this review? Well, both contain some vitriol and both write cheques they can’t cash, for sure. The art is a beautiful outlier. The gameplay is on life-support. The story might as well be non-existent. The zen-like journey puts the lie to the idea it’s not about the destination, although truth be told neither the destination nor the journey is worth any time at all. In short, Animal Gods is a beautiful arthouse game with nothing else to offer, and I don’t think that’s the quote they’ll go with for the collector’s edition box set.
- The art
- Definitely the art
- It sounds pretty, too
- Combat is boring
- Puzzles don’t exist
- Story is laughably weak.
This article was written by a past writer, Daniel Giroday.