One of the best things for a grumpy old cynic, such as myself, about working for a site like Nintendo Enthusiast is the abundance of opportunities to be surprised, to experience a game firsthand before any pesky journalist, reviewer, or let’s player has had the chance to break it down and fill me with preconceptions. It happened to Dakota Lasky at E3 when he got his hands on Splatoon with no prior knowledge of that game’s existence, and it happened to me last week when I was asked to review Armillo on the Wii U. If you had asked me as little as ten days ago what I knew about Armillo, I would have been able to reply honestly that I had heard the name — and that’s all. So it was with great excitement and anticipation that I sat down to play this debut release from Vancouver-based indie studio, Fuzzy Wuzzy Games.
Unfortunately, the excitement didn’t last long. My first impressions were not good. From the concerning, suspiciously glitch-like way the music drops from the initial loading screen to the alarmingly cheap-looking front end in which every menu screen looks like it has been created entirely from clip art found in a late 90s version of Microsoft Paint, it wasn’t a good start. Then I started playing the first level, and, well, I honestly didn’t know what to think. The game is definitely a platformer, this much I know. Part puzzle platformer, part action platformer, and the references are all there, clear as day. Mario Galaxy‘s spherical stages; Metroid Prime‘s Morphball sections — I was struggling to put my finger on what exactly this game reminded me of. And then, it hit me: you know when Sonic Lost World came out and it looked like a low-budget Mario Galaxy knock-off? Well, Armillo looks like a low-budget Sonic Lost World knock-off. It’s difficult to discern what kind of art style they were going for, other than the aforementioned generic clip art, although the textures and lighting are pure Banjo Kazooie and Forsaken 64, respectively.
The gameplay itself was also somewhat bemusing in the early stages: you’re an armadillo who rolls around these spherical worlds like a disconnected tire, but for much of the time, you’re stuck on a rail and taken on a sightseeing tour of the level. It’s like going on the miniature train ride at an amusement park: you can see things going on all around you, but you can’t interact with any of it directly. I was concerned that this would be the case for the whole game, but thankfully, I was very wrong about that. I mean, you never really do anything other than roll, jump, and boost, but the level design opens up wonderfully as you progress and your skills improve.
There is a truly stunning amount of variety in the level design and that translates into gameplay that is never dull, never repetitive. For starters, you have your main levels — your fully 3D spherical planetoids — and scattered throughout these levels are portals to the parallel universe — your de facto Dark World, complete with countdown timer and myriad opportunities for dual-world puzzle solving. At the end of each main level is a bonus level where you blast off to the planet’s moon and race against the clock to collect as many maguffins as possible. Then — finally! — there are the secret levels, which are 2D, retro-inspired, super-difficult speedruns, completely separate from the main game.
Most impressively, almost every level manages to introduce and then discard a new gameplay mechanic. There’s the level where spells attack you and make you feel like you’re underwater, the level where you change the temperature to melt ice blocks and cool jet flames in order to progress, the level where you have to eat a ton of sweets and cake to get big enough to break through a rock barrier, the fully vertical 2D level, the homage to Yoshi’s Island‘s Touch Fuzzy Get Dizzy level, and so many more. Nothing gets old. No idea outstays its welcome and the whole game just keeps on running away at a very impressive clip. It makes for a highly enjoyable — and eminently replayable — gameplay experience.
The music and sound design is surprisingly, given the visual design, top-notch. The satisfying sequence of chimes when you collect a line of orbs makes you feel rather accomplished and the wide selection of electronic music that ranges from ambient to techno to 8-bit really helps create this universe’s atmosphere while producing some great memorable and hummable tunes. The retro 2D levels in particular are accompanied by some stand-out chiptunes that perfectly capture that old 80s arcade feeling.
If I have one minor complaint about this game, and I do, it’s that there are a number of minor technical issues that keep cropping up, such as the occasional wild frame-rate dip, glitches relating to the scoring, and allocation of gold medals at the end of levels (it would appear that I’m now ‘locked out’ of getting gold medals in a couple of levels), and the fact that pressing ‘A’ during the totalling up of your score actually skips the whole thing so you can’t see the final results at all without an unnecessary wait. These things are minor. I do, however, also have one major complaint.
Remember when I mentioned the super-difficult speedrun levels? Well, as a gamer, I am all about super-difficult speedruns. I love them. I’m top 20 in the world for a ton of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze levels. These levels, I did not love so much. Why? Because the difficulty is partly down to an ill-advised and horribly cumbersome double-jump delay. The problem with it is that it’s very erratic and unpredictable, and that is precisely what a speed runner does not want in his games. Very few games since the turn of the millennium have made me curse and want to break things, but a few nights ago, I found myself seriously weighing plans to buy a new TV and pro controller because this game was making me want to throw one through the other. Without this infuriating design, these levels would be my nirvana; with it, I don’t even think I’ll go for all gold medals.
Despite these complaints, I can feel that my playtime of 20 hours and counting with this game — you could beat the main game in fewer than five, but 100% completion, as ever, will take rather longer — is leading me inexorably toward an enthusiastic recommendation. As I sit here looking at my handwritten notes in my [
daughter's] Hello Kitty notebook, I see that there is only one word that is circled for extra emphasis and that word is “infectious.” That really summarises my experience of this game very nicely. The music started it, the pace of the gameplay really started to click, the flow of the game hit a sweet spot, and the diversity in the levels really won me over.
In the end, I found myself in the old routine of having “just one more go” instead of actually writing this review like I should have been doing. In fact, the final secret level in this game, The Brutal Path, a.k.a, Armillo‘s version of Super Mario Galaxy 2‘s The Perfect Run, had me retrying and failing for — let’s just say a long time — and I played it until I beat it. It’s always a good sign when a game manages to reel you in like that and considering my less-than-stellar first impressions, it’s also one of the nicest surprises an old cynic such as myself could have. Thank you, Fuzzy Wuzzy Games!
- Great game-feel. Boost, jump, boost, jump, and sliiiiiiiiide...
- Teeth-gnashing, controller-smashing frustration over a less-than-predictable control mechanic in the 2D sections.