At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking that Ary and the Secret of Seasons is a tie-in for a new animated movie on Netflix. You’d be mistaken. This in fact a standalone title that takes clear influences from third person adventures like Zelda and wraps everything up in a family friendly package. There are few open world or adventure titles aimed at younger players so I was really interested to see whether Ary could be a gateway game. As things turned out, the answer was less clear-cut than I expected.
The story of Ary and the Secret of Seasons is original, but not particularly new (if that doesn’t sound like a contradiction). There are clear story influences from classic tales like Mulan as well as gaming stories like the aforementioned Zelda series. Ary is the younger daughter of the Guardian of Winter, one of the four elemental sages who protect the world. We join her just after her elder brother, Flynn, has gone missing (presumed dead), leaving her father paralysed by grief. When Ary finds Flynn’s sword after fighting off some troublesome hyenas, she sets out to take her father’s place as the season Guardian in hopes of finding her brother and putting the world to rights. It’s a fairly fundamental coming-of-age tale, but the Mulan spin is novel enough to keep your interest.
While Ary’s father mourns, the world order has been overturned by mysterious red crystals that mess with the seasons. Ary’s homeland of Yule is no longer the wintry wonderland it should be and the other three lands are similarly mixed up. It is clear here how closely the idea of the seasons informs the whole design of the game from powers to level design, and this notion works well, but the implementation can be lacking. The most glaring example of this was children still happily playing in a lake that has been frozen over, eerily continuing their summer behaviour even when winter is restored and their bodies trapped. This kind of oversight is characteristic of a game that lacks polish.
In traditional Zelda fashion, you travel the overworld to seek out dungeons/temples and apply newly obtained abilities to overcome their obstacles and unlock further parts of the game. These abilities take the form of items that enable you to doublejump and climb, as well as season orbs that give you mastery of a season’s magic. This sounds more exciting than it is in practice, as the magic is pretty simplistic. Winter freezes, Summer melts, Spring encourages growth, and Autumn brings watery downpours. There are a few moments when Ary offers up interesting puzzles that require a clever use of these, but on the whole things are rather one-dimensional.
Alongside her seasonal powers, Ary is pretty nifty with a melee weapon too. While various alternatives are available they all work identically and there is little need to spend hard-earned coins on the ones for sale in the shop. This is especially the case as money is in short supply and it is entirely possible to run out with many things left to buy. I would certainly recommend that you save your funds for upgrading Ary’s combat abilities rather than spending on any aesthetic options. The developers are intending to patch in coin drops for fighting enemies so hopefully this aspect will be more balanced.
I did like the distinct look of each area and the dungeons are all clear and easy to navigate, but there was a definite lack of things to do in each overland section, with only a few fights and chests spread across minutes of aimless walking. Fortunately you unlock a fast travel ability mid way through the game which alleviates this somewhat.
While the game’s visual style feels more functional than outright impressive, but that doesn’t stop the PS4 version from stuttering and having some of the worst screen-tearing I’ve seen in a long while. Graphical glitches were common place with Ary’s hair continually switching between her girlish locks and her newly shorn style out of context, and there were frequent examples of the camera getting stuck in the scenery. These technical aspects are unfortunate as the overall design is quite pleasant, but the glitches were too frequent and glaring to overlook.
Worse were the issues that affected game progression. In addition to NPCs getting stuck repeating a line of dialogue over and over until I restarted the game, I encountered one quest that simply didn’t resolve and meant I couldn’t access a later part of the story. Thankfully I could go back through and replay to reach the end of the game (ensuring I had multiple save files), so it’s not completely broken, but I could never trust its stability. It is difficult to recommend Ary until these are patched and they really soured my experience.