Narrative tone is a very difficult thing to get right when you’re working on a story. Candle, for example, started as a rather sweet little storybook adventure game, mechanically reminiscent of Valiant Hearts but more thematically attuned to the cutesy bits of a Studio Ghibli film, or perhaps that scene in Wind Waker where Link finds the tree with the awesome moustache.
Thus you might consider it good, clean PG-rated fun, much as I did. And then a man wearing a skull on his head clawed me to death. And then a rock crushed me. And then a toad wrapped a bloated purple tongue around my stomach and dragged me screaming into its slavering maw. Like I said, getting a solid tone isn’t always easy.
The fact of the matter is that the Kickstarted endeavour “Candle” is certainly an odd game, a tribalistic tale of adventure with the aesthetic of the South American ancients worn over the top like a gown of vibrant feathers. One of the strongest comparisons that came to mind was the new(ish) Rayman reboots, only with the humour turned down and the ethereal, contemplative whimsy turned to up to eleven. Make of that what you will.
Candle is currently available on Steam for £11.99.
Because all that whimsy sticks with you throughout the entire game, so I hope you’re into that sort of thing. The overly-long intro cinematic gives us some details about how the gods created the world and it was all peaches and cream, but then Man comes along and buggers the whole thing to oblivion, because we’re all so greedy and mean, and we don’t share the biscuits and we post too many rude things in comment boards.
Damn you, humanity! Can’t you just appreciate the eternal beauty of nature, even as it tries to kill you for the fifth time since breakfast?! Didn’t you watch Lady In The Water?!
Well, I assume the little sprites shown here are meant to be early humanity. Everything sentient in this game looks like a woodlouse with a slab of pitta bread over its face, including the protagonist: Teku, who’s just a normal flatbread bug trying to live a peaceful life in one of those early villages from Spore, when another tribe comes along and burns his village to the ground whilst taking his shaman hostage – a pretty solid opening act. Right away we have a hero, an antagonistic force, and a problem from the latter that needs to be resolved by the former. All seems good to me.
But that resolution is going to take a while, I’m afraid. The first thing that needs to be done is just getting to the villains’ lair, whereupon the story pulls its hat over its eyes and has a little snooze. You can keep yourself entertained with the puzzles, right?
It’s true that we do meet folks along the journey and they’re all very prettily designed, but they barely consent to have any personality, doing the traditional adventure game demand of “give me a thing so I can give you a different thing.” The crux of this was when we rescued an elderly woman with a mushroom for a face from being captured and lightly grilled with a nice steak, whereupon she refused to give us a ride in her boat until we then gave her some pocket change, the ungrateful old bag.
And I meant what I said earlier about the tone. The villains are a bunch of primal savages, but there are times when Teku seems perfectly happy to butcher them back, including crushing two unsuspecting sods beneath a giant fish, in which you can practically hear the bones breaking. I guess nobody told those guys that they’d wandered out of Princess Mononoke and into a game of Hitman.
But I suppose the game’s story is fine enough when looked at from a distance, largely due to the presence of a soft-voiced narrator who’s supporting all the emotion, story weight and character development on his back, and doing so rather well, despite the tonal shifts and trudging pace. The ending is rather neat as well, where the story picks back up and we get a little bit more dimensionality to our villains and understand their motives. Consider the plot a solid B, dipping to B- when it starts to get a little bored and unwilling to come into work.
This is where the game starts to lose me, because where some stuff works, a lot of it doesn’t, or just flat-out isn’t interesting enough to get excited over. The basic idea we're working with is a 2D platforming adventure game that leans heavy on the item-based puzzles, not to mention the occasional challenge that feels like it could've been on the back of a cereal box. Between puzzles you do a bit of simple stealth to take out whatever enemies are in your way, steering them into contextual traps or just knocking them into whatever yawning chasm is nearby.
And that's all well and good, but the biggest problem is the game hiding information from you, including the function of certain physics. When I came across a wooden platform that needed knocking over, I figured I’d need some kind of club or explosive, but nobody told me that I could just walk underneath and bash my head against the underside to topple it.
Likewise, the game allows you to stealth-kill enemies by sneaking up and pushing them into lethal areas (Teku’s mask making him look eerily like Jason Vorhees in those moments), but that raises the question of what qualifies as a "lethal area." It’s tutorialised by a bottomless pit that you sling Skullheads into, but can you push them into water and get the same result? What about shoving them from one platform to the level beneath? Not to mention that I later stumbled across a few annoying insta-kill traps that you only find out about when you’ve been reduced to a pile of well-intentioned goo and table crusts, god damn it.
Beyond that the game is somewhat clunky in its controls, though never to the point where I lost patience with it. It’s fine enough in slow moments of contemplation and exploration, but the second you’ve got to run away from an enemy, you suddenly remember that Teku handles like a forklift on an icy lake. Come to think of it, don’t even bother to try to escape any foes that spot you. Unless you’ve set up a contextual trap to take them out in advance, they’ll almost certainly catch you and throw you into the Wicker Man.
But when you’ve got all the information you need and nobody’s trying to pin you to a specimen board, then the puzzles do work pretty well, even if they can be a bit overwhelming, with eighty billion rooms introduced every time you move to a new location. Thankfully there’s none of that adventure game logic that often plagues these kinds of games, where you have to open a door by precise use of a glass eye, a packed lunch and a baby chicken.
No, it’s usually much more reasonable than that. If you see a mounted crossbow with which Teku can mercilessly end the life of a father of four, all you need to work it is some ammo. It’s deducing the best way to lure him in range that’s the challenge, and on that score I have no complaints about functionality and design, even if there weren’t many puzzles that really stood out for me.
Call me a cynic, but something tells me that most of the developer’s Kickstarter-funded eggs were getting dropped into this particular basket. Ori And The Blind Forest was the game I kept finding myself thinking of, but whilst OATBF looked pretty good in a slightly “DeviantArt supplied all our visual design” kinda way, Candle is a lot more subtle and delicate on the eye, all watercolour paints and soft lines. Even for all my shtick about Teku and his friends looking like they’d just been swept off a picnic blanket, they do look rather charming and tend to be rather memorable to the eye, even though the masks prevent any of them from emoting.
And of course there’s the narrator, who works in neat conjunction with the rather spiffy music composition to support the atmosphere and mood, at least where the shifting tone and flat faces would otherwise let it down. It’s not quite at the level of the Stanley Parable, but it is on par with the Dealer in Hand Of Fate, so excellent work there.
Huh. Is there a growing trend of stern, old men emotively narrating in modern games?
Candle is perhaps slightly more ambitious than it could handle, with its priorities a little askew for my liking. Story seems to take a backseat to the inferior gameplay, which itself feels less important than showcasing the (admittedly rather snazzy) graphics.
But there’s nothing here that’s particularly offensive, and more than a few bits that manage to showcase some legitimate talent on the dev team. And whilst it does make it feel a little shallow to see the visuals so obviously taking the centre stage, they are good and do make the simplest actions look beautiful and fascinating and a fundamental level.
Consider it worthy of purchase if you’re fairly forgiving of some notable mistakes, as well as a big fan of pretentious, artsy, indie games – which I certainly am. All the rest of you who can’t understand why there isn’t an option to blow off tribesmen’s heads with a shotgun may find it a little harder to get on board with.
|+ Superb presentation and aesthetic||– Story is often neglected and tone shifts abruptly|
|+ Solid narration overlaps the whole game||– Movement feels unwieldy and awkward|
|+ Puzzles are fair and reasonable to solve||– Game occasionally forgets to tell you things|