Occasionally in the video game reviewing business, there come times when a game confounds you. Should it be straightforward, full of holes, or more tedious than fun, it undoubtedly deserves a poor score, or so logic would dictate. Yet some hidden quality, unknown to those without knowledge of what's to come, finds itself at the forefront, challenging the technical faults with sheer emotional ambition. What it comes down to becomes a simple question with an impossible answer: Can a bad game actually be good?
Logic would also dictate that the prior paragraph would be directly attributed to the topic of this review, Incredible Mandy. It both is and it isn't; not to the extreme of completely good and bad, but retains conflicting tension between technical deficiency and emotional prowess. Something that has always drawn me towards indie titles is the aura of pure intentions. Big corporations do so for profit above all else; indie developers occasionally throw everything away in order to complete their life's calling. I find that beautiful, courageous, and inspiring all in one—feelings that permeate the heart of Incredible Mandy.
Incredible Mandy is available for Steam for your regional pricing, and will be available for the Nintendo Switch in the coming future.
Incredible Mandy has three measures of storytelling: animated cutscenes, in-level cutscenes, and collectible memories found via treasure chests or after defeating each area's boss. Their level of importance is based in that order, from highest to lowest. The animated cutscenes provide the bigger picture, transporting the player into the contextual motivation behind the adventure. In-level cutscenes only feature one thing across every level: the uncanny image of a little girl in white traversing the area, a continual reminder of the purpose of the journey. Collectible memories serve as puzzle pieces that make up the holes within the whole. Those found in treasure chests are completely optional, though understanding the purpose behind everything encourages exploration.
While limited in scope, I find that the game strikes a wonderful balance between telling the player what they should know and leaving things to linger within the recesses of their imagination. Of course, the collectible memories offer more concrete evidence of a "true" storyline; however, the dream-like presentation of the adventure and story provides a more thought-provoking execution of themes. More than that, it subverts expectations, playing with the general stereotypes that often come with the action-adventure genre. I wouldn't go so far as to say the story is powerful, but the effort in making what they could and using the limited resources to their advantage was wonderfully implemented.
With much of the story implied through visual interpretation, there isn't much detail while playing the game, story-wise, outside of the in-level cutscenes (which take between ten and fifteen seconds). When one plays through each stage, they are completely left to focus on gameplay and puzzle-solving. Should the player desire, however, to collect the memories within treasure chests, they have credible ammunition to place context within their present setting, as well as the following boss battle. To this end, one can only get as much out of the story as they choose to, and the game even provides an "Easy Mode" where players can simply focus on the story and inhibit the challenge of the gameplay. One can simply play the game without paying any mind to the inner details of the narrative, though I strongly feel they would miss out on half the experience should they do so.
The first level is long and tedious. Controlling Mandy (I'll assume that's her name, as it's never actually stated) for the first time evoked a grim feeling. "Oh, no," I said to myself. "Her control is so slow and weighted." Trying to memorize every button's function, thrown at me within the first five minutes of the game, combined with the bulky response time had me concerned for the hours I would inevitably spend with the game. After vague instructions were given on how to complete the level's more advanced puzzles, I closed the game after forty minutes, without completing the level (it autosaves progress, thankfully). That was the low point.
Coming back to it, with the mental preparation of better controlling Mandy and experimenting with her abilities to solve the puzzles, I eventually became used to it. By the third level, I started having fun with it, as more features and puzzles came to fruition. Unfortunately, I suspect many won't grow used to it, and that remains an integral issue to the game's quality. Mandy is not at all fluid or smooth, as one would likely have better luck trying to make an ice skater out of an elephant. Her weighted movement makes many platforming essentials, such as platform-hopping, rail-climbing, and distance-measuring feel clunky and never completely safe. Often times, I would try and cheese the game in order to make some of the platforming sections faster, as the speed with which this game generally runs can sometimes feel like too much empty space.
Of the levels themselves, outside the first level, I find them to be consistently fun and only occasionally frustrating with what it expects the player to do. Not so much that what's expected is the frustrating factor, but figuring out what's expected. Some of the clues given are incredibly vague, and even now I wonder whether I did what the game actually wanted me to do or if I exploited some flaw in the game's environment to surpass it. Nevertheless, as my experience grew, the challenges became easier to solve and the manner of solving them became more mentally conducive. A nice continuity exists that grows in volume as the level count grows, making a similar challenge more complex as it goes along.
From an exploration standpoint, there isn't much really going on with the levels outside of puzzles, some occasional combat sequences, and the sporadic treasure chest. While its aesthetic quality is one thing, there's quite a bit of unused space that could have been better served as… anything, really. Many times I went out of my way to look around and venture off the beaten path only to be rewarded with nothing. While it's understandable that large areas are important to making the stage feel inescapable, it would also be nice to be able to explore them for any reason other than sightseeing—something I don't play video games for.
Combat may be the most underachieving aspect of the game's mechanics, which I never considered to be optional (it never seemed optional) until after the game's end. Where Incredible Mandy excels is in puzzles, and the puzzle sequences of both the stages and boss fights are generally fun. Here's a helpful guide on how to efficiently dispatch enemies in Incredible Mandy (with an Xbox 360 controller): X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X. One can use other capabilities, but that'll get the job done the quickest. Even more indiciative of the optional quality to combat that flew over my head, there are only three types of enemies in the entire game, scattered throughout levels in a cherry-on-top fashion. Boss fights are somewhat alleviated from this archaic style of combat due to the means in which their weak points become open, which is the fun part, but general combat within levels is always a pain and never fun. It's almost like the game wants the player to skip them… how did I never consider that even once?
The final one-two punch of Incredible Mandy's fragile frame comes through the camera and the general functionality of the game. Neither of these are so extremely baffling that one has to wonder how this game even works, but both qualities have given sufficient enough damage to my experience that it's worth noting per review. On more than a few occasions, the camera during levels has given me fits about where to move and what to view, most during rail-climbing sections, where the angle of the camera determines where Mandy moves. My progress was impeded quite often, sometimes to the point where I wanted to quit altogether. Thankfully the autosave happens frequently, so too much progress was never lost. As for Incredible Mandy's functionality, in level two, I was able to hop onto the terrain that surrounded the core of the level and traverse around it until nearly the end, skipping 80% of the level. While I didn't try to do so at any point afterwards, there are a few levels where I believe it could've also been possible. Needless to say, the game is in need of a little refinement, showcasing rather clearly its indie status.
With all of these issues with the game, it would be easy to think that giving it a mediocre score would be trivial. However, that unspeakable quality has planted itself within me, giving hesitation to my apathetic judgment. These flaws—particularly Mandy's slow movement and the slow pace of the levels, the quirky camera, and the frustration of vague clues—almost feel like irremovable aspects of the game's experience, highlighting the many different emotions and challenges faced within an adventure. By the last few levels, I didn't care at all about Mandy's movements. I didn't care that the camera was finnicky. I didn't care that the game wasn't polished like it had been meticulously and painfully worked on for thousands of years. There's a beauty to its imperfection, something that almost accidentally complements the dream-like, fragmented experience of an adventure of emotional instability. It works wonderfully well with the manner of its storytelling that the flaws almost become backdrops to a much bigger puzzle. The flaws exist, and they will affect the recommendability of the title, but for me, personally, they become less of an issue the heavier the game becomes.
Graphics & Audio
One cannot see Mandy's face in-game. As stated before, Incredible Mandy does not have the polish to benefit it with minute details such as this. Is this an issue, or something intentional? Likely both. There is a minimalist style to this title, whether with the story, its visual aesthetic, or its choice of musical score. Everything is big, bold, and brash, lacking the little highlights of life that make things unique from others of its type. As wonderfully as it complements its dream-like ambitions, it also doesn't do too much for the eye of the beholder. I don't think Incredible Mandy is a great-looking game. I do, however, believe that the style was intentional and well-implemented, though the negative repercussions will inevitably come with such a "lazy" aesthetic. In-level animations, both with the girl-in-white and Mandy, are generally smooth (though still very slow). The animated cutscenes are only of passable quality, but that doesn't deter the impact they have—only hampering full immersion.
The game's musical score is where I become drawn in. It is, as most other aspects of the game, minimalist, only lightly audible in the background as the gameplay takes precedence. Occasionally tensile, though generally light with piano keys, it focuses more on immersive ambience than catchy tunes. When getting more in line with the confrontational tone of the game's events (i.e. boss fights), the score does well in captivating those same emotions. It's a calming, almost forgettable soundtrack that becomes one with the entire experience of Incredible Mandy should one find themselves sucked in as deeply as I was. In those cases, revisiting these tracks would likely take one back to the place they were in mentally while it played for the first time, almost like a memory bank. These are generally nice, though I'll admit that some catchier scores would have also benefitted the game's whole.
Simply put, Incredible Mandy is incredible. Despite a high volume of persistent in-game frustrations and nuisances, it delivers in the most splendid of fashion, radiating in emotional triumph upon the throws of imaginative escapades. A game with a full plate, despite less than ten hours of content, with each selection subtly complementing the other with features unbeknownst to the naked eye. A flawed showcase of vulnerability without relishing in the anxieties that would make it over-the-top. It somehow makes itself work, without the foundations present that would make a thousand games of the same genre work. It truly is incredible.
|+ Minimalist presentation works beautifully||– Controls (and pace of levels) are stiff and slow|
|+ Puzzles are (usually) fun and intuitive||– Camera can be frustrating|
|+ Musical score is effectively immersive||– The game needs refining|
|+ Narrative significance gives strength to nearly every other aspect||– Combat is always a pain|