System: Switch (eShop)
Release date: May 2, 2017
The first thing that hit me upon playing TumbleSeed is how tactile it feels. Even as I was hopelessly fumbling and rolling my seed, making inconsequential progress up the game’s procedurally generated mountain, its textured soundtrack, satisfyingly percussive sound effects, and bright bubbly visuals kept me going – at least until I had a better grasp on the game. As it turns out, TumbleSeed is an excellent roguelike.
You control a nameless seed prophesied to defy gravity and reach the top of a mountain littered with traps and dangerous wildlife. However, you don’t control the seed, exactly. It’s really an interaction with the seed by guiding its rolly physics on a horizontal platform, shifting each end up and down with the left and right analogue sticks. The unconventional controls are the greatest hurdle to get over before being able to appreciate the roguelike part of TumbleSeed. Push the left or right stick up or down and the ends of the platform move accordingly, causing the seed to roll.
It sounds simple, but it took me a while to understand the intricacies of this scheme. Once I got the hang of it (thanks in no small part to me noticing the importance of the tilting board’s small inclinometer), an interesting navigation dynamic came into play. Rather than fumbling and swerving the seed back and forth in an attempt to get the swaying seed’s momentum under control, the game becomes more purposeful. Extremely subtle and precise angles are essential. For example, a very slight tilt guarantees a predictably slow roll. If I line myself up against the coming holes and obstacles of the level and set my seed’s tilt at just the right speed, I can perfectly plan my maneuver up the screen.
TumbleSeed is a roguelike, so there are a variety of weapons and abilities to find as well. The mountain is scattered with diamond shaped pockets of soil to plant your seed abilities. Every run starts with four basic abilities. One seed creates checkpoints in the event you tumble down the mountain. One offensive ability creates a rotating barrier of daggers around your seed. It is complimented by a defensive ability that allows you to regain and increase health. Finally, there is a last resort ability that sacrifices a soil pocket for more of the minerals required to use seed abilities. Everything is balanced around the all-important resource of minerals and these base abilities. Beyond the necessity to master its movement controls, TumbleSeed requires that you learn to manage this essential resource. Everything is dictated by it making for a really satisfying gameplay loop, one that kept me fixated for days.
The game’s design as a roguelike is perfectly lean. Every mechanic plays with others in the background, often in smart ways I didn’t immediately notice. There’s not an overwhelming number of upgrades. If I had to guess I’d say there’s only a little over two dozen and you become acquainted with just about every ability within a few hours. It doesn’t feel like there needs to be more either. Each upgrade has its own specific use, with certain types being particularly effective against aggressive enemy types higher up the mountain. Forward planning and preparedness for contingencies are something a good roguelike has to instill on its players. TumbleSeed achieves this in a more layered way than most when basic movement has to be considered alongside randomly doled out powerups.
I wouldn’t have been nearly as pulled in if it wasn’t for its comprehensive leaderboards. There are local, friends, and global online leaderboards that record everyone’s best runs up the mountain but the daily challenge leaderboard is a particularly smart inclusion. By selecting the daily challenge mode you get a single shot at the leaderboard for that day. If you die early on, too bad – that was your shot for the day. Try again tomorrow. A good run typically only takes around twenty minutes which makes TumbleSeed an excellent game for quick pickup, if only to come back refreshed to take a shot at the daily leaderboard.
TumbleSeed is a great roguelike. It takes the best aspects of the genre and cuts out a lot of the fat while introducing its own interesting approach. While its unconventional control scheme takes a while to learn, it ultimately adds a second layer of consideration to an already tightly designed set of mechanics. With its comprehensive leaderboards, there’s really nothing I can ask of this game that it isn’t doing just right for me. In an unusually stellar year of game releases it says a lot that by my own volition, TumbleSeed is the only thing I played for a week. Don’t let it fly under your radar.
TumbleSeed review copy provided by aeiowu for the purposes of this review.