First impressions count. If they are set high, you can end up being disappointed as a game fails to live up to a great opening; if they are set low, you could be pleasantly surprised as a game gets better after a shaky start; or they could be exactly how the game intends to continue. For me, the first ten minutes of Ary and the Secret of Seasons painted a picture of exactly how the game was going to be throughout – screen clipping whenever I moved the camera, bad animation and graphics that look like a PS2 game; a story that is exceptionally basic and quests given by plasticine NPCs that started with such soul-crushers as ‘play hide and seek and find five kids around town’. Please, not again.
Starting with a bedtime story of a season-stealing mage, we are introduced to Ary, a young girl with a fun plucky attitude, who never takes any notice of adults. Ary is nicely androgynous as character designs go which works well with what happens in the story. You see, the story is something like a take on Mulan. See if you see the similarities – Young girl dresses as a boy in order to be accepted to replace a male family member as a guardian. Ary cuts off her hair, wears her brother’s clothes and leaves home to take her fathers’ place as a guardian of the seasons. And it’s set in an Asian-themed world. Yeah, that’s Mulan.
When its clear the other guardians are about as ineffectual as all the adults in Ary’s life, and have lost two of the four crystals to a thief, Ary takes it upon herself to track down the remaining one (she has her father’s) and then save the country from perpetual winter. Strange comets have fallen to the earth and disrupted the seasons across the land and it’s up to her to put things right. From there it meanders into a set of four large temples where Ary needs to gathers the four season crystals and save the world.
The story of Ary and the Secret of Seasons is functional and does enough to take you along the journey with it. The quests and distractions along the way are nothing like as interesting, which is not good when the story is basic at best. When there’s barely anything of interest to do besides a few random fetch quests, you’ll end up ignoring the NPCs, and rushing to the next story quest. I can’t see many over the age of twelve having their interest kept by the storyline, but it’s probably pretty serviceable as a kid’s adventure, that doesn’t try to do anything very interesting. But don’t expect the kind of jokes or subtext that would keep an adult interested too.
That said, even kids will see the lack of polish. Ary may look cute and cartoony at first glance. But be warned when it starts to move its very much a game that feels out of place in the modern market. The graphics would not have been out of place in the PS2 era, and aren’t much better than the first Jak and Daxter for example. There is lots and lots of fogging obscuring the world while the game struggles to load its own graphics. The draw distance in towns is horrible, and had levels of popup not seen since the N64 days. Sometimes, I couldn’t see the other end of a town square while standing in it.
Ary is also full of mainly graphical glitches with a couple of functional ones thrown in for fun. Starting with the simple ones and getting worse; there is a massive amount of screen clipping whenever you are inside a building or structure; clipping all over the house you start in when you move the camera; glitches when pushing blocks around that have Ary bend over backwards, flicker about, run circles or break her back; falling through the floor more than once; falling through the water once which resulted in the game reloading the last autosave. My favourite was in one venice-like city, when none of the water effects loaded – I could jump in the water and swim around and hear the splash, but I was hovering in mid-air. The water effects and the surface hadn’t loaded.
It’s generally that the graphics seem poorly implemented. Things haven’t been thought through. Wind rustles through grass in an underground dungeon. Every NPC except Ary has been animated pretty poorly. They all look like cookie-cutter people, with hair made from plasticine. They barely move their eyes, and their movements are always strange and jarring. There are odd pauses throughout cutscenes, making them even more stilted and wooden than the animation alone. And the voice cast try hard to work with the poor dialogue they’ve been given.
Colours are garish and off-putting. It’s like there was no subtlety in the colour department at all. The best thing I could say for graphics is that there is a cute little mini-map with a 2D 16bit version of Ary on it which was nice.
Ary is a basic 3D platformer marred throughout by what seems like counter-intuitive design choices. Half the game is pseudo open areas, on an interlinked overworld map, split into fields, towns and cities. The other half is a number of interior Zelda-like dungeons pertaining to the season elements. Ary has the powers of the four seasons, but these really just boil down to heat for summer and ice and snow for winter, with Spring and Autumn amounting to colour changes. It didn’t feel like the system had been thought out beyond a few temperature-based ice block or water puzzles.
Early on the season skills can seem almost pointless, as the game saves its best uses for these skills until you a firmly in the second half and you’ve already lost the will to play. There are four semi-large temples, with the first, the summer temple, waterlogged. There’s not much explanation anywhere, but it seems that high summer would dry out the temple, and this allows for a series of bubble-based puzzles underwater making things work in spheres of summer dryness. The other three temples continue a trend of average puzzling, but were far better than the rest of the game.
Quests in the overworld were incredibly unimaginative. Fetch this item, go here, talk to this person. Back and forth, back and forth. Nothing ever reached towards good, let alone great. I actually had one quest that just made you flit from one end of the town to the other, half a dozen times to talk to different people, only to fail the quest (scripted) and find that the object of your search is right where you started. It’s this pointless busywork that all the quests fall into, with not a compelling one among them. Keep to the story and you might maintain the momentum to finish. There’s also a strange shuddering loading issue every time the quest’s completion or starting information appears.
Finally for gameplay, combat. Again exceptionally simple and bare bones, consisting of a single combo, one timed deflection mechanic and a roll. The enemies are uninspired biped hyenas with clothes and armour, who shout a war cry at you each time you engage that sounds like a magician finishing a trick. Duh dada darr. Let me tell you that gets old fast. Combat serves no purpose in Ary – you will gain no levels, exp, items, hearts, health, nothing from fighting. So guess what? Within an hour you will stop bothering. It has a lock-on system, but also a passive lock-on based on what you are facing. So you cannot then lock on to something next to you if it’s not also right in front of you. And finally if you die, you can continue that same fight from where you left off, with the enemies at the health you got them too, ridding the game of any consequence. The same thing happens on bosses, making them pointless to fight.
There is some music in Ary and it won’t offend anyone’s eardrums, but it’s also never worth listening to. As with the rest of the game it’s pretty lacklustre.
So, first impressions were right on the money. I hear Ary’s release was delayed, and I can see why it needed to be. It’s just a shame it still needed a lot longer in the oven. Ary lasts for a tedious ten hours, and there’s pretty much nothing to get enthused about, no single part that rises above that invisible water level. Considering there is a trophy for doing it all in five hours, I’d say if I’d cut all the unnecessary flitting about towns doing fetch quests, I might have managed.
Ary and the Secret of Seasons fails to tell a compelling story, fails to offer any compelling quests, and its best feature – a series of four temples near the end – are still very basic when compared to any of the Zelda games to come out in the last twenty years. The trouble with its season-control mechanic is that it ends up a pretty rigid and dull bubble-creating puzzle device, and is really just element control, which we have seen hundreds of times before. Ary’s graphics feel two generations out of date, and it’s got a hell lot of glitches that need patching.
Ary and the Secret of Seasons is a basic my-first-adventure, that rarely lifts itself above mediocrity. Turns out having the power of seasons can’t stop the game being a disappointing rainy day in summer when you’d planned to go to the beach.
Ary and the Secret of Seasons is available now on PS4 (review system), PC via Steam, and Nintendo Switch.
Developer: eXiin, Fishing Cactus
Publisher: Modus Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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