By Josh Speer / January 6th, 2020
|Release Date||November 15th, 2019|
|Platform||PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One|
|Age Rating||E for Everyone 10+ – Fantasy Violence|
I really wanted to love Woven. After all, I was one of the original backers of the unsuccessful Kickstarter project, and was duly impressed by Alterego Games’ decision to self publish the project afterwards. The premise of Woven was really compelling and different, taking place in a soft world of woolen yarn and fabric that is being invaded by strange mechanical insects. Our hero is a goofy elephant named Stuffy, and he quickly comes across a new friend, a firefly-shaped robot named Glitch. Together, they set out to discover the truth and explore this world, transforming and reweaving Stuffy to scale various obstacles along the way. If only the adventure had lived up to that fantastic premise.
Woven is the sort of game that would have made my childhood self smile. It plays out like a live action Winnie the Pooh, in a calm and mellow land where all that matters is relaxation and finding flowers. At least at first. Stuffy is a very amicable protagonist, but not the brightest bulb. A fact that is repeatedly referenced by the game’s narrator. The narrator’s tenor sounds very British, and at first I enjoyed how his paired sentences usually rhymed. It does grow old rather quickly though, especially when you realize that the narrator is not gonna help you much with direction. If you get lost at all, he’ll start reminiscing like a grandfather with dementia, talking about the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea. None of which is helpful. Which wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that getting lost is a regular occurrence in Woven. Or at least it was for me. I managed to get stuck about 5 minutes into the game, in what would be considered the tutorial area. That’s because the game doesn’t hold your hand much, and trusts you’re clever enough to pick up on the clues in your environment. Sadly, what Woven thinks is plainly evident very rarely is. Case in point, the very first blueprint machine I came across gave no guidance how to operate it. I eventually figured it out, but it was a sign of things to come.
There’s dozens of blueprint machines spread across Woven’s 5 regions, including meadows, deserts and jungles, and each blueprint gives Stuffy new transformation options. To unlock the blueprint, you play a little musical mini-game by operating mechanical levers to select notes. Though this was confusing initially, I grew to enjoy the mini-game. At first I assumed that each animal form would have set limbs, but you can mix and match after you acquire several, creating bizarre chimeras. Case in point, you can pair Pig legs with Lion arms and a Rhino head. You can even have two different arms or legs simultaneously. Each body part has different capabilities that allow various actions. You’ll need these to solve puzzles and make your way through the game. Though Woven is nominally a linear experience, the world is so wide open it’s easy to not immediately know where to head next. A good example was when I came across a short hilltop ringed with mountains, with a circular passage full of cranky yak creatures. I could stomp my foot to force the Yaks to move, but after moving in a complete circle, I wasn’t sure what to do. I eventually found the solution online in a very helpful playthrough, but it was frustrating being on the cusp of a solution and having no idea where to go next. This was due to the fact many of the puzzles in Woven are time based, but they don’t tell you they are. If a clock had showed up indicating I had a certain amount of time, I would have known to hurry up. And the farther I got in the game, the more complex and active the puzzles got. I much preferred the puzzles that required thinking but not fast reflexes.
While it’s clearer why you would want to transform Stuffy to progress, it’s less clear how to use color palettes called patterns. You’ll find tons of flowers as you wander about, and by stomping your foot, they’ll open up and allow Glitch to scan them. You can also scan some animals for these, but they rarely sit still, so you’ll either need to be quick or find a way to distract or incapacitate them. Lastly, there’s patches you’ll randomly find on the map to unlock patterns. Patterns do a couple of things. On the one hand, they let you decorate Stuffy at the knitting machines, making him look as fancy or hideous as you please. You might be more surprised to realize you need some for puzzles. An example are giant snakes that block your progress unless you match their pattern. There’s another cool segment where a mechanical spider will pounce on you unless you blend in with the background. I don’t mind using patterns strategically, but it’s very easy to not scan the right one, and then be forced to backtrack until you find it. Some sort or an indicator of where key items resided would have helped, but there’s no such thing. And given the wide open format of Woven, it’s rather easy to get lost and miss the proper patterns. Oh and did I mention there’s more than 100 of them spread across the entire game? Which makes it even more daunting when you manage to pass one without realizing it.
You may be wondering what Glitch does, and the simple answer is he operates every mechanical device you interact with. He turns on the blueprint machines and knitters, scans items and can also use his light to illuminate dark caves. The little firefly is pretty helpful, and his backstory ties directly into the plot of Woven. You’ll find lots of nodes that reveal bits and pieces of his lost memory as you go. I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say there’s a reason Glitch feels so strongly pulled by the planet’s moon. I wish I could say Stuffy’s backstory was as interesting, but he’s almost an incidental character. He could literally be anything or anybody else, and it wouldn’t change the course of the game. I never knew much about the elephant, other than he was apparently simple, cowardly and loved flowers. It’s not clear how long he’s been around, what he did before Glitch or anything really. He’s just there to progress the story, and that’s a shame, especially since he’s nominally the main character.
Not everything in the game works poorly. I did find it handy how the different Joy-Con controlled Stuffy and Glitch, respectively. And I appreciated visual prompts indicating what abilities I needed to get past obstacles, and found the camera easy to operate. The problem was primarily with the game’s physics. Woven is a wide open 3D world, but often what seems a clear path forward ends up tripping you up with invisible stage geometry. Bushes often kept me from moving forward, which was awkward. As a fan of platformers, I found this made Woven a lot harder to enjoy, since I was never clear if I could progress or not. Sometimes you do actually need different abilities tied to animal parts, such as jumping or pushing, but you never know in advance. So if I came to an area with a puzzle and had the wrong parts, I would have to backtrack all the way to the nearest knitting machine and reweave my elephant friend. I really think it would have been much easier if Stuffy could fast travel to these, since they’re spaced rather far apart and it’s not very fun walking about. Failing that, I would have loved a mini-map, since that would have cut down how often I got lost in Woven dramatically.
Visually, Woven has a cute storybook aesthetic. There’s lots of bright colors and soft details. While I have no problem with that, I do have a problem with the graphical fidelity. I will mention I played the Switch version of the game, and from what little research I’ve done, it runs far better on other consoles. I normally don’t complain about things like framerate or the like, and usually find most games I play on Switch run great, but oftentimes the graphics here were muddy and fuzzy. Simply put, this game suffers from Bloodstained syndrome, meaning every other iteration of the game plays better than the one on Nintendo consoles. Which is truly a shame, since this is the perfect sort of all ages game that would otherwise appeal to a lot of Nintendo gamers. Musically the game is frankly dull, and quite muted musically. Sound effects lack punch, and actions often don’t have the proper impact as a result. When Stuffy punches a box out of his way, it just slides quietly out of place. Much like the rest of the game, aesthetically Woven is a very mixed bag.
While I hate to add onto my other complaints, I have a few more. For one thing, I find it completely awkward how Stuffy always looks at Glitch as he runs forward, contorting his head to follow the firefly everywhere. That’s minor, but a more significant issue relates to the linearity of the game. If you miss any collectibles or achievements, you can’t get them until the next time you play through the game from the beginning. Once you reach a new area, there’s no backtracking, and the game auto saves. So if you’re one of those people that loves to platinum games, best of luck. And finally, while I don’t mind the general lack of combat in the game, it makes it that much more challenging when you have to contend with the final boss.
Much as I wanted to love Woven, I left the experience quite disappointed. There was promise here, but for whatever reason it wasn’t met. If you don’t mind clumsy physics and very complex and vague puzzles, you might enjoy what’s here. Even then, it’s a hard pill to swallow at $19.99. Though you can beat the game in less than 5 hours, it took me around 9 due to getting lost repeatedly. So at least you’ll get some bang for your buck. This is one of those games I recommend you pick up on a sale. Hopefully Alterego Games has more ideas they can breathe life into in the future, cause I’d honestly like to see them succeed. In the meantime, I’ll lament this tale of an elephant and his firefly buddy.
Review Copy Provided By Publisher
AdventureAlterego GamesGlitchpuzzleStickyLock GamesStuffyWoven