The image of indie game development, with a team of one or two working in their free time, doesn’t normally coincide with higher education. In this modern world, where video games are as common a pastime as cable television was fifteen years ago, the presence of institutions dedicated to video game development have begun to crop up all over the world. These resources have given fledgling developers the opportunity to create a resumé for themselves, to showcase what they’re capable of in this growing world of technological know-how. Enter La Rana, a free-to-play showcase involving students from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
Arriving to Steam just yesterday, it is the finished product of a small team of students passionate for gaming, wanting to make their mark on the emerging world of indie gaming. Whether or not they succeed is entirely dependent on one quality: perspective. La Rana is a game that tells a short story in short fashion, like the methodical, quickened croak of a frog’s expanding throat.
La Rana is available to play for free on Steam.
Something that La Rana manages to embody within the course of its runtime is a storybook-like presentation of text that adorns the top-portion of the screen during gameplay. This text continues as long as the player triggers various switches within the game that continue the story being told. As the central frog, the player is tasked with discovering the history of an abandoned temple and reviving the power that once kept the world in balance (at least in its water supply).
It reminds me quite a bit of the simplistic stories of old, much like myths or folklore of gods growing jealous or spiteful for, in hindsight, petty reasons. However, a visual novel this is not. The text that is shown throughout the course of the game is fairly minimal. It describes the situation that led to the current setting and little more—the rest only implied through the imagery presented in the game’s physical setting. Compacted in as simple a manner as possible, it’s a general storytelling device that will likely satisfy any ongoing participant. So long as one doesn’t expect more than that, there’s little reason to complain.
Within this section, I would like to elaborate on an important detail surrounding La Rana that will likely decide whether one gives it the time of day. The game is tremendously short. It took me twenty minutes to complete this game in full, assuming there were no secrets or easter eggs that I missed along the way. Twenty minutes is, by gaming standards, as puny as a frog’s toes. This is where the matter of perspective comes into play.
La Rana is free-to-play, made by students within an established university for game design, and likely had a small timeframe for completion (a semester? Maybe two?). It would be easy to say that the game fails because it isn’t as expansive, detailed, or mechanically-varied as a typical AAA title. Perspective is an empathetic tool that provides a measure of credibility to any achievement, no matter how small in comparison to the world’s platinum standard. And for that, this review shouldn’t be perceived as something that assumes this title should apply to the same standards as companies with hundreds of experienced developers working non-stop on a huge project.
Even so, within that pond of perspective, there are still issues to be had within La Rana, many of which are confined to the style of gameplay. Billed as a puzzle/exploration project, there’s very little to be had within either of these genres. What the most puzzling aspect was for me was, about halfway through the trek inside the temple, realizing I could aim the spurts of water one can shoot out of the frog’s mouth. Everything else was fairly common knowledge, at least from someone experienced in puzzle games. As an exploration game, one can follow a linear path that leads to a final obstruction that ends the game. There’s not really much to explore outside of simple progression, at least nothing I could find. No hidden paths or little secrets that I could muster. One would expect a little more freedom within—perhaps some sweeping shots of what’s to come in the form of a small cutscene, at the very least.
On the matter of controls, everything was responsive and didn’t give me much fuss overall, though I will note that the directional movement was a little stiff. Adding to this, when one goes to shoot off water from their mouth, the frog will quickly rotate to straight in front of him, which threw me off somewhat when trying to aim. While this isn’t much of a problem for a game that doesn’t require pixel-perfect jumps or aim (the paths are fairly wide), it does a little more to make me crave the freedom that the game doesn’t allow. La Rana is a little better played with a keyboard and mouse, I feel, though a standard controller is also comfortably intuitive.
It’s somewhat difficult to categorize this game in any particular field. The closest I can come to is that it can serve as an inexperienced gamer’s stepping-stone puzzle game. The puzzles are not difficult in the slightest for someone accustomed to Legend of Zelda titles, but perhaps they may prove more difficult for a natural beginner. This may also stretch to who this game would be most recommendable to: beginners within the video game medium looking for something simple to start off with. La Rana would do the trick wonderfully. Its simple narrative presence is easy to soak in, the puzzles are fairly straightforward, and the length is almost appropriate for its storybook presentation. I could almost see myself sharing this with my child (one I do not have).
Graphics & Audio
What may be the best quality of La Rana is in its visual aesthetic. Like its narrative execution, the simplistic design and distinctly blocky-textures make it a decent-looking indie title that would likely hold up for future generations. What I didn’t find noteworthy in its gameplay I could find in its visual details. The more water the player has, the bigger the frog’s cheeks. When one isn’t sure what to expect in a certain junction, painted images adorn the walls of the temple, perfectly suiting the atmosphere. These little details are really nice to have and make the game easier to immerse oneself into. I only wish there was more to explore and/or find within the temple’s environment, even if it would only aid in the foreboding nature of the narrative.
Only a few tracks consist of La Rana‘s soundtrack, but each one does a fine job of instilling a certain mood within each level of the temple. At first, the game feels cheery and upbeat, but the further along one goes—uncovering more of the story—the more mysterious the background tune becomes. It’s never quite so dark that it’s a liability for fear-aversive children, though it puts a little pressure onto the player that something is amiss. It would be easy for the developers to just put the same music track throughout the game; the fact that they didn’t to go along with the mood of the story is a good decision.