The Sundew Review: Futuristic Retro… Or Not (PC)

Drenched in the sci-fi dystopian rainfall, The Sundew emerges with admirable ambition. Join Anna Isobe as she's tasked with an objective that will change her life forever. Be sure to bring a little brainpower and intuition; this is a game not for the faint of mental puzzle-solving.

The Sundew Review: Futuristic Retro... Or Not (PC) Cover

There have been a few recent Point & Click titles I’ve gotten into in the last few years. When it comes to classics like The Secret of Monkey Island and Sam & Max, my experience with the genre is fairly low. Most of what comes to mind are various playthroughs of games I’ve watched streamers try to figure out, and the old Carmen Sandiego games on PC (those count, right?). Otherwise, I’m rather green when it comes to games of these types, and it certainly showed with my time in The Sundew.

Heavily inspired by similar games of yesteryear, this is a sci-fi dystopian story starring a cybernetic woman who’s more important than she knows. Developed by a “one-woman studio” from France, it’s an ambitious portrait of retro aesthetic, modernized for current players. With a clear passion for puzzle-solving and large, sweeping epics, there’s value in how the final product turned out. Mileage, however, may depend on how ingrained in Point & Click history one is going into it.

The Sundew is available to purchase on Steam and Nintendo Switch for your regional pricing.

The Sundew | Launching October 14th on PC & Nintendo Switch!

Story – Wait, Go Back

Like with many sci-fi stories, The Sundew involves a dystopian society full of espionage, flashy media overflow, and mental disorientation. Playing as Anna Isobe, a cybernetically enhanced cop, a simple morning grows progressively worse, leading to an eventful timeline of events. The player will have to look carefully and solve logical puzzles in order to get ahead.

Upon finishing the game, I couldn’t help but look back at all that had happened and say, “Indeed, things occurred.” I’m jumping a bit in the time progression, but the intent is to showcase the apathy I felt by the end. Given the Point & Click moniker, its story becomes essential in keeping the player immersed and motivated to progress. What unfortunately occurs every so often with these types of games, with a passionate developer ecstatic to tell their own story, is that it gets lost in the big picture.

To explain it simply, a clear attempt at building an expansive world and characters is present. A lot of text and information is easy to disseminate so long as the player is willing to explore and interact. What becomes an issue is length—completing the game took me about four hours, and without reading too much, it can take about two and a half. To condense such a desolate, bountiful world full of corruption and misery into such a short runtime, even considering the time it takes to solve puzzles, it leaves a lot to the imagination.

Hey, neither have I!

Hey, neither have I!

What doesn’t help is how little happens, relatively speaking, throughout. I’d wager about a third of the time one will spend in the game is roaming around areas, finding items, and trying to solve puzzles. As such, there are a few instances of significant exposition dumps. A lot of elaborating on things that, filling in for the player, Anna is completely unaware of. Or not. Some scenes she’s learning about things, others she’s joining along and stating info like common sense, which the viewer has no idea of. Again, a lot of imagination may be necessary to try and understand all that’s going on.

Characters, in this vein, also suffer. There’s simply not enough time to develop these characters enough to have them be empathetic. Anna herself is fine, if only by virtue of following her throughout the whole game. Pretty much anyone else is the issue. Jimmy, Rick, Spiel, Karin… integral in name alone, though we hardly know them as people whatsoever. Their importance to the story is also situational, with them popping in and out of the story at will. Like with the narrative, it comes across as too limited, too restrained by the short length. While I understand game development takes a long time, especially by one person, the end result still feels too compact for something so ambitious.

Jelly donuts, yum!

Jelly donuts, yum!

Gameplay – Interaction and Combining Stuff

Those familiar with the genre will have no trouble figuring out the basic mechanics of The Sundew. You move Anna around by clicking spots, you interact with objects, people, and points of interest, and you manage an inventory that occasionally requires combining things to progress. Basic stuff.

With the addition of hindsight, the developer was able to throw in some key details that make for a smoother experience. A hint system is in place to specifically mark what is and isn’t interactable in a given scene. Pressing the F1-F5 keys will bring up symbols on things that can be (or will be) fiddled with. While this only helped me minimally throughout my playthrough (my pride wanted as little help as possible), I can see this being a tremendous help to new players.

Speaking of help, The Sundew requires a sufficient amount of brainpower to get through its story. In most cases, Anna is stuck in a single area and needs to scan her environment for clues and key items in order to escape the situation. I found that things are fairly logical and easy to decipher with experimentation… usually. There were a few times where I was caught in purgatory because I couldn’t figure out how to use an item.

Kuroi Neko seems like a fun place.

Kuroi Neko seems like a fun place.

For example, at one point you have to take a “scrambler” and test it on these security robots named “spiders.” It wasn’t until looking up a video guide that I learned you had to put it on a small table somewhat off the path, when, from what I recall, this is never necessitated anywhere else in the game. Some form of text such as “I don’t want to set this on the ground” would’ve made this far more clear to the player. Situations like this weren’t too prevalent, thankfully, though it did inflate my playtime by running around, trying to figure out what to do.

Mechanically, the game works as intended, at least as I was able to decipher. Only minor gripes that occurred were occasionally finding it hard to run (by double-clicking) and the game sometimes transporting Anna to the entrance of a new area just by click and sometimes watching her walk slowly towards it. There seems to be no consistency with it. Otherwise, items worked as intended, things progressed smoothly, and I encountered no bugs via slowdown or crashes. For a game by a solo developer, it’s rather mechanically fine-tuned, which is an impressive feat.

Oh, and you can play I Spy throughout the game by finding little Space Invaders aliens hidden in the environment. I quite liked this being a part of the adventure, too.

That's not a Space Invaders.

That’s not a Space Invaders.

Graphics & Audio – What a(n Un)Wonderful World

If you want a picturesque view of what Point & Click titles looked like in the ’90s, The Sundew does it splendidly. Not the most detailed spritework, especially for character models, but that’s the point. Even so, there are enough sweeping images of desolate cityscapes and dreary sunsets to get one in the Blade Runner, er, sci-fi dystopia mood. A lot of individual areas engage in this sort of lonely, corporate-overlord tone that suits the atmosphere of the journey well. Incredibly mechanical, lacking in any soulful personality, it’s only the extremes of a curmudgeon-y suit-and-tie organization and wild, bright lights of lifeless hedonism.

Should one pay close attention to detail, they’ll notice that one’s mouse marker flashes specific colors on interactable objects. Many things will be named if you scroll over them, but that doesn’t mean you can do anything with them. If name alone, it’s simply an identifier; if blue, Anna can comment on it and potentially be used to the benefit of the player; if red, Anna can interact and / or collect it for use of progression (eventually). Upon realizing this (halfway through the game), it made identifying markers in the area all the more clear. Go for red, and occasionally indulge in blue if all else has been exhausted. Clues like this are heavily appreciated.

Call of Bootty seems like a fun game.

Call of Bootty seems like a fun game.

On the auditory front, there’s not too much to specify. The Sundew is more apt to immerse the player with sound effects and ambiance, rather than parading them with sick beats. In fact, I don’t know if I can recall a single instance of actual music outside of the opening and ending. Most of it are the effects heard around specific areas and objects. People chattering, glasses clinking, futuristic bikes revving up; it has no shortage of effects to make things alive. At least in that capacity, there’s enough to keep one’s ears focused.

One thing that did take some adjustment was the lack of any sound with dialogue or text prompts. This is excusable given the retro feel and abundance of other sound effects to keep things spirited. Nevertheless, upon booting up the game and reading Anna’s words, there was an abundance of silence that became somewhat unnerving. Ironically enough, further on in the game, Anna will actually audibly speak, though only a couple lines.

The Sundew was reviewed on PC via Steam. A review key was provided by Player Two PR.

Summary
Passion is a double-edged sword. On one hand, you have a spirited, ambitious attempt to create the next sweeping epic the likes people can latch onto and discuss for years to come. On the other, you have a relatively short game that does not afford the story time to develop to get to that emotional boiling point. While a pretty solid Point & Click adventure with intuitive puzzles and a neat I Spy side-hunt, The Sundew will always be marred by its own insistence with telling a five-hour story in two hours. I appreciate the attempt; it just didn't land as intended.
Good
  • Puzzles are consistently logical and only occasionally odd
  • Completely effective in showcasing a retro Point & Click
  • Finding Space Invaders aliens is fun
Bad
  • Story is too large in scope for the short runtime
  • Characters are generally underwhelming
  • A few puzzles have very unclear instructions
6
Fair

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