Available on: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PS4, PC
It’s rare for a game to infuriate me to the point of rage quitting every single time I play it, but where many others have failed TumbleSeed did not. The number of curse words uttered in a single sitting increased exponentially as time went on, which is deceiving for a game that looks and sounds this adorable. However, despite its novel ideas, the wonderful aesthetic and calming tunes, TumbleSeed’s borderline absurd level of randomized difficulty, even by rogue-like standards, severely got in the way of my enjoyment.
Git gud, indeed.
Inspired by Taito’s 1983 arcade cabinet Ice Cold Beer, TumbleSeed tasks the player with guiding a rolling marble upwards while avoiding pitfalls and enemies. This is accomplished, or at least attempted, by controlling the marble indirectly–instead lifting and dipping each side of a horizontal pole near the bottom of the screen in order to build momentum, carry, and maneuver around the game’s various hazards.
Since I’d never played Ice Cold Beer in my life, this concept was unique and exciting to experience on my Nintendo Switch. However, outside of a brief tutorial (in which I surprisingly died a few times), TumbleSeed did little to ease me into its challenging brand of gameplay.
Trial and error played a huge part in getting to where I am at right now, which is to say roughly nowhere, but there were brief moments where I thought I was getting better, only to fail in the same methods that became increasingly frustrating each time they’d occur. Spending six hours with a game only to walk away unrewarded isn’t the greatest feeling, really.
I can’t help but applaud developer aeiowu’s unique vision and the depth TumbleSeed provides for those willing to endure its soul-crushing barrier of entry. However, I think its randomization and reliance on luck are required to work in your favor far more than necessary in other rogue-likes.
While the core of TumbleSeed consists of lifting your marble (seed) to the top of a mountain peak, there’s more to it than meets the eye. Spread around the game’s randomized stage layouts are diamond-shaped planters that, when rolled across, function differently depending on which version of your seed you’re currently controlling. These forms can be switched through a pause menu at any time, and include the ability to plant checkpoints, summon a number of rotating blades, refill hearts, or increase the number of crystals collected.
TumbleSeed became not just about avoiding holes and annoying flocks of enemies that always seemed to be moving and lunging faster than I could build momentum, but about resource management and pure luck. Most of the time I was in what I embarrassingly called “ABC Mode,” for “always be crystaling.” Crystals are precious since they’re needed to interact with planters and restore hearts or summon a blade barrier. Once I had enough crystals, I’d try and build up a blade barrier (I believe up to 5 can be summoned at once–I usually died before that happened) but usually ended up shifting forms again to refill my heart container. Falling in a hole results in being dropped all the way back to the beginning of the stage, so once I gained enough height I’d switch forms and drop a checkpoint.
Frequently pausing the game to shift forms is a neat idea in theory, but in practice, it just interrupted the flow of things. However, it became the only constant strategy in an otherwise randomized journey.
Additional power-ups can be collected from randomly located vendor holes and are activated in the same way as your seed forms (running over planter spots). There’s quite a few of these, with ones that summon an avalanche, turn planters into cannons, and fling your seed into the air with a jump-like ability. Each has their own pros and cons since many are just as dangerous to the player as the enemies on screen, but, again, which two are available in each shop is entirely up to the game’s A.I. Stages typically have just one vendor, so the chances of running into your favorites are often slim.
If it wasn’t luck working against me, however, it was the frequent pestering of TumbleSeed’s ruthless enemy A.I. While guiding your seed up the mountain, you’ll have to contend with various enemy types modeled after bugs, birds, and the like, as you roll around pitfalls and collect crystals. Some of the enemies not only take numerous blows from your rotating spear shield (which breaks after a single hit, might I add), but fling the seed across the screen should it come into contact with them. This takes the old-school knock-back annoyance of classic games like Mega Man and Ninja Gaiden to a whole new level, as I often found myself tossed near a hungry swarm of pitfalls. Remeber, you’re not directly controlling the seed here. You’re merely guiding it up on a stick and using momentum to dodge the game’s many dangers.
For being insanely challenging, TumbleSeed’s aesthetic is vibrant and beautiful; the sounds calming; the inhabitants cheek-pinchingly adorable. Yet it’s made me rage to the point of being dangerous to play in portable mode with my shiny new Switch clutched between my sweaty palms. I wanted to be good at TumbleSeed–hell, I’d settle for decent–but I’ve yet to improve much in nearly six hours. Even the best of runs with higher-than-normal luck in enemy placement or power-up variety often ended in a string of curse words as the result of what I unaffectionately referred to as “fucking bullshit.”
Watching others fail during livestreams reassured me that I was not the only person who sucked at TumbleSeed, but I’ve also found the act of spectating far more enjoyable than actually playing it. However, TumbleSeed has something special going on. I don’t know what the something is, but I can see the game being popular among a small group of people that pride themselves on conquering the toughest games available. “Challenging, yet fair” is not a term I’d use to describe the game, however, and I’ve little desire to ever play it again. Yet it’s not one I’d consider bad.
There’s definitely something here. It just feels better in theory than it does in actual practice.
So, where’s the final score? There isn’t one. I spent a lot of time conveying my opinion in the above text, and I hope that’s worth more to you than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded-in star shapes. Basically, I’m not a fan of scores so I no longer use them. Read the review and judge for yourself if the game is worth your time and money.
Full disclosure: This review was done using a Nintendo Switch copy of TumbleSeed provided by the game’s developer. While I’m sometimes given games to critique, I pride myself on providing an unbiased review to fellow consumers, along with constructive feedback to hard working developers and publishers. Whether or not I pay for a game is irrelevant.