Prodigal Review: Fragments of an Indie Zelda

Wishing to go back to those retro adventures of yesteryear? Prodigal is the newest foray into the old-time aesthetic, featuring an emphasis on puzzles, exploration, and improving your relationship with the townsfolk. Part adventure, part dating sim, it features tons of quality aspects to rival that of similar games.

Prodigal Review: Fragments of an Indie Zelda Cover

One of the most invigorating game genres out there is the standard adventure. When thinking of “adventure,” what comes to mind? The sweeping epics of action; journeys spanning a large span of time and places; narratives with worldly consequences; a team of characters aiming to thwart ultimate evil. Such an emotive, passionate style has long been a staple of games, dating back to the first generation of home consoles. And with nostalgia so indominable a force, it’s inevitable that some feel at home in modern renditions of old tales. Prodigal faces enormous expectations in this vein—after all, what makes it different from all the other modern-retro 2D games born from the recent indie boom? While also procuring dating sim details, it hopes to transfer the familiar, effable characteristics of charming puzzle-adventure to the new age.

Prodigal is available on Steam for your regional pricing.

Prodigal Release Trailer

Story – Of Death and Forgiveness

Oran (or player-inputted name) is returning home after a long time away from his hometown. He’s received word that both of his parents have died. With only the townsfolk and a grandfather waiting for him, what awaits is a bittersweet reunion that brings up regrets from the past. But not all are as comfortable with his arrival than the synopsis may let on.

Mental Notes

One unexpected turn that the story makes upon its beginning is the fact that Oran has a troubled past. Typically, the hero is a pure, altruistic force that refutes all negative enforcers, yet Oran is a product of mixed experiences. Many will comment that he was “always getting into trouble,” though generally heroes do sport a rambunctious nature. The difference is that this lead did something immoral: he stole money from his parents and left without hardly a word. This one piece of trivia sows the seeds of contempt among various people within the town, which the story takes ample pleasure in reminding you as it continues. A spirit of forgiveness and growth thus becomes as part of the experience as the standard adventure vibe.

Oran arriving to see all the happy people who love him unconditionally.

Oran arriving to see all the happy people who love him unconditionally.

The story of Prodigal is actually split up into two acts, though each are not created equal. Act I serves to produce typical introductory elements and equip Oran with items necessary for future endeavors. Act II occurs after what I will henceforth refer to as “a certain event,” and the consequences of said event. While Act I is far longer and feels more naturally fleshed out, I think Act II is more rushed and, to some degree, abrupt in its execution. While usually detailed and well-documented in its desire to build a world, it seems to fall at the wayside when Act II is involved. New features introduced seem to occur out of nowhere, and given the technical state of the game (more on that later), it’s hard to get as involved with it as prior.

What should be taken overall, however, is that Prodigal‘s story is one that, for a 6 to 8-hour indie title, feels incredibly vivid in life. Atmosphere, narrative intrigue, and lead complexity feel like a sort of psychological Zelda tale, one that I would love to see explored more in expanse. Time and the lack of it may have ended up as the game’s cardinal sin.

Characters

As briefly mentioned before, Prodigal has aspects of dating sim games added to its core foundation. Upon arrival, Oran will meet with many, many characters that make up the general hometown. Some are more important than others, whether in terms of plot, dating purposes, or relevance to Oran’s past. While not all are provided a lot of screentime, many do provide some enticing dialogue to read, even if only for flavor text to service their motives or situation. Even background characters, many of whom are given one or two lines total, service to make the context of the area realistic. And they are plentiful.

Caroline makes it a focal point to ensure you that she is not a background character.

Caroline makes it a focal point to ensure you that she is not a background character.

With regards to romanceable options, one has six options. Each range wildly in personality and history with Oran, though four of six are what I interpreted to be childhood friends. To reiterate, a 6 to 8-hour indie game is not going to have gripping drama with oodles of development in the same way as, say, Fire Emblem: Three Houses. When adding the fact that it’s a puzzle-adventure game on top of that, there’s even less time. All things considered, I do believe it performs amicably in making all options seem likeable and three-dimensional. Just that, like with most things, some are better than others. That said, River is best.

Gameplay – Effective, but in Need of Healing

Allow me to cut to the chase quickly: Prodigal was a really messy playthrough or three. In my week or so playing it, I encountered a fair number of odd glitches, bugs, and weird details that didn’t seem to add up. At first, it was minimal, though noticeable. Then, after a certain update, it actually became worse, with incredibly basic bugs appearing such as music not looping and objects that clearly don’t belong happening onscreen. Had I not been in contact with the developers throughout the days prior to release, it could’ve been an outright nightmare for new players.

You'll notice the health gauge is squished up against the daytime indicator. Early playthrough bug.

You’ll notice the health gauge is squished up against the daytime indicator. Early playthrough bug.

I’ve actually played this game in full twice, with a third and fourth playthroughs done about to 70-90% completion to ensure quality and to unlock achievements, for a total playtime of about 18 hours. My first playthrough had very noticeable bugs in Act II’s progression, and the small thing here and there with presentation. Second was, as described before, pretty bad. The third cleaned up a lot of the prior absurdities and a bit of the first, but still presented some oddities in small detail. Finally, the fourth and most recent seemed to be the most clear and functional, showcasing technical integrity and even adding some detail to Act II that served as a band-aid for a much larger issue (still appreciated). So for the time being, Prodigal is now the closest to a completely stable game as it’s been since I received it. However, given the state it was in just a week before release, who knows what else may be hidden in the code that I may not be aware of, due to faulty execution?

Outside the Swarm

Now that that completely reasonable issue has been disclosed, I can start gushing about how much I love this game’s playstyle. My comparison to a retro Zelda before is not only reflected in its story, but its gameplay mechanics, as well. Dungeons, puzzles, secrets; there’s so much detail and hidden trinkets. Experimenting with everything available is a curious mind’s treasure trove of fun, and Prodigal delivers. Even the town hub has its fair share of collectibles and secrets, which one can access with new items in a metroidvania fashion. Whether in dungeons or finding gifts for townsfolk, there’s a lot to do here.

Winged Boots: The BEST item in the entire game. Also, that's not Tess's name.

Winged Boots: The BEST item in the entire game. Also, that’s not Tess’s name.

Romance isn’t quite as detailed, but hey, human communication isn’t that complex, right? In most circumstances, getting closer with the girls in the town requires gifting them a specific item, then speaking to them daily and triggering certain cutscenes by going to certain places. Be aware that they aren’t always fixed in one place, though. A time-of-day system ensures that they’re placed in various places in the town depending on the time of day, which also helps the community feel more alive. Most aren’t too complex, as insinuated, though others require some extracurricular activity, which are the most fun. They aren’t as expansive as a standard dungeon, but it’s neat to do what equates to mini-games in out-of-place fashion. Oakley’s romance route was hampered by bugs early on, but has since been fine-tuned. Really, what’s nice about this is getting to know the characters.

The gameplay typically shifts between two phases: inside dungeons and outside dungeons. Inside, one is capable of using all items at their disposal to figure out various puzzles to progress. Most of it involves hitting switches and manipulating moving objects—you know, the classic stuff. Feelings of claustrophobia and seedy dampness pervade. Outside, only a couple items can be used, and the player is freed to a more expansive playground to explore and interact with. This could be a little repetitive to some, as the only real respite from the back-and-forth comes through the dating sim options and the central plot. For me, who felt right at home the moment the game allows control, I never grew bored. I’ve played through Prodigal almost four times by this point, and I still intend to continue. For retro adventure enthusiasts with tempered expectations, this is a surefire portal to childhood bliss.

The mighty pickaxe.

The mighty pickaxe.

Graphics & Audio – Pixel Pretty

I’ve said it plenty of times before, and still I continue to parrot this point: pixel art is wonderful. Prodigal is a gorgeous game that captures the essence of early-era games beautifully, even if not as technically complex as others within its genre. I particularly like the characters portraits, which vary in intensity and exude tons of personality. The color coding is also pretty apparent for the timeframe they’re trying to capture, which I don’t personally care for, but I digress. Animation was a minor detail that also faced some bugs early on, but this aspect I don’t mind too much. An already lovely game is subject to showcasing a character shooting cloud out of their boots without running. Oh, the horror! The story beats feature numerous cutscenes that otherwise work and provide plenty of reason to get immersed. That’s half the pleasure of retro-styled games with modern hindsight.

Audibly, the game is somewhat on the same par, as a fair number of tracks are catchy enough to remain memorable outside the context of playing. Although, some of this is a result of constantly hearing the same tunes due to a near-interchangeable soundtrack for each area. The title theme, town theme, and first two dungeons were stellar, while all else personally doesn’t share the same beat. In terms of ambience, it’s fantastic, even if just for ambience. As an additional package outside the game, I would hesitate. It makes its case for both catchy and appropriate, with tracks varying randomly in effectiveness on the former. Otherwise, it’s a strategically composed game that knows how to get people immersed, and occasionally bopping.

I need an adult!

I need an adult!

Prodigal was reviewed on PC via Steam. A review key was provided by Colorgrave Games.

Summary
Imperfections are just part of something's charm, aren't they? Despite the struggle of consuming a varyingly complete game on multiple occasions, the potential and intent beneath shine through beautifully. Effectively immersive and hits on most parts "fun" and "nostalgic," Prodigal is a feast for those craving a substitute for the long wait created by bigger, more expansive adventure titles. Even with its size, it juggles the question of whether bigger is better by making a relatively short journey one that resonates more deeply. And it has cute girls, if that's more your thing.
Good
  • Fantastic variety of things to do
  • Charming display of retro flair
  • Intoxicating puzzles and dungeon finesse
  • Interesting take on the hero trope
  • Lovely pixel aesthetic
Bad
  • Romance aspects are a little too straightforward
  • Shift from Act I to Act II feels abrupt, rushed
  • In need of complete and total quality control
8
Great

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