Teslagrad was one of the indie highlights of 2014, charming players with its steampunk aesthetics and well designed puzzle platforming. Developers Rain Games have returned to this world with their stand-alone follow-up title World to the West. Perhaps surprisingly, the side on 2D gameplay of Teslagrad has been jettisoned and replaced with a top-down arcade adventure bearing a clear old-school Zelda influence. Such a move from a successful title is brave, but how well does World to the West stack up to its precursor?
The game begins with a clear echo of Teslagrad, with the opening character being a Teslamancer. It is not long before things open up, however, as the early chapters introduce the four distinct characters who go on to make up your team. Each of these cartoony characters possess individual abilities that you must harness to make your way through the game. The prerelease material emphasises the different approaches that you can take, but the game is more linear than this suggests in practice.
The characters travel independently – there isn’t a party mechanic as in a JRPG – and this means that, as with the flawed Cave from a few years back, much of the gameplay revolves around navigating the same areas by utilising each character’s skills. This aspect may sound negative, but actually works well as the world map slowly opens up and inaccessible areas are traversed. The controls are largely responsive and the main challenge is working out which route to take with each character.
It should be clear by now that this game is strongly character-led. The four heroes are very different and their personalities are reflected in their abilities and dialogues. As mentioned above, we first meet Lumina, a Teslamancer whose skills revolve around teleporting short distances and using electricity. Next up is Knaus, an orphan child forced to work in a mine on the ‘Moon’, who wields a shovel and can crawl through narrow gaps, followed by Miss Teri (mystery, get it?), a mindbender with a magic scarf that allows her to possess enemies and control them to solve puzzles. Finally, we have the wonderfully over the top Lord Clonington, a moustachioed nobleman with fists of iron. His skills revolve around punching things and climbing, undercutting the usual links between aristocratic explorers and intellectual prowess in neo-Victorian and steampunk narratives.
Although it takes a while for the gang to come together, the skilful level design offers up hints as to where different skills will be needed, resulting in a coherent feeling world. Whilst the storyline is slight, it offers enough to provide motivation for the characters and enable a few surprisingly topical comments on contemporary ideas of political abuse and environmentalism. The chief baddie turns out to be a corrupt businessman with a mop of bright yellow hair. Where do these creatives get their ideas from?
World to the West shares the cartoony look of Teslagrad, and it has a simplistic beauty that helps it to stand out. Foregoing the retro pixelated look of so many indie games, it’s almost cel-shaded style further strengthens the gameplay associations with handheld Zeldas, particularly the underrated Minish Cap. Backed up by a soundtrack full of atmospheric and haunting melodies and you have a game that is mostly a joy to play.
The flies in the proverbial ointment here, however, are the bugs and glitches that I encountered during my journey through the game. None of these were game breaking, but they did add a disappointing degree of annoyance. There were a number of classic ‘falling through the world’ moments, along with the contrasting ‘floating just above the ground’. Invariably, these led me to replay sections, but fortunately the regular save points/fast travel locations meant that none of these were overly arduous.
One task within the game had me backtracking in a manner that smacked of padding. During the game, you will see notepads in inaccessible places. These collectables, to which all of the game’s trophies are attached, seem superfluous at first but at a certain point in the game you need to have collected fifteen in order to progress. With that in mind, I would recommend making a note of where you see them as you adventure, since there is no way of recording this in the game.
The travel mechanic is one of World to the West’s most endearing features. Once a save point has been discovered by a character they can warp to it from any other. This helps to prevent the possible annoyance of repeatedly navigating the same geography, whilst still requiring you to explore with the other characters. Towards the end of the game in particular, there is a great section where you must get all four characters to a temple by following routes that are tailored to their skillset.
For much of the game, however, the team are very much individual characters and I would have liked some more interaction to have featured. A more dynamic, Lost Vikings-esque, character system would have elevated the game to even higher acclaim.
Minor niggles aside, I very much enjoyed exploring the World to the West and would certainly recommend it to others looking for an old-school Zelda-esque adventure to follow or distract from not having the sublime open world Breath of the Wild. It successfully captures the feel of a 16bit style adventure and combines this with charming characters and some great environmental ability-based puzzling. Plus, Lord Clonington has the potential to become a gaming icon for these hipster times. As I found myself unintentionally humming to myself, ‘Together, we will go our way / Together, we will leave someday.’
Version tested: PS4