Maybe we aren’t playing the right games, but nature, and very specifically the beauty of it, isn’t something that video gaming captures well. Nature is, after all, a complex old system: when you’re in the weeds, quite literally, you want to be seeing individual blades of grass moving independently; the light needs to shine just so; you’ve got to feel like you’re in the environment, kicking dust about you; and the audio needs to capture the whole shebang. These are details, and details aren’t easy. Sometimes it’s best if you just focus on giant space-knights whacking seven bells out of each other.
In the short hour we’ve spent with Bramble: The Mountain King on PC, it’s clear that someone has gone pooh-pooh to that notion and tried anyway. Because it is utterly, breathtakingly beautiful. It’s a sunlit stroll through the most remote of forests, a burbling creek running through it, and the birds providing the only chorus. If nature has been impossible to contain and reproduce in gaming, then Bramble: The Mountain King is something of a miracle. It made us want to stick on the wellies and walk outside.
After that eulogy, it feels a little prosaic to compare it to other games. In terms of how Bramble: The Mountain King plays, it’s got a couple of clear keystones in terms of Inside and Little Nightmares. It shares those two game’s feelings of loneliness, as you explore a world that’s much bigger than you, and certainly more dangerous. It’s an adventure mostly on a 2D plane, but with a playful use of the background and foreground. Bosses, or larger enemies, clamber in and out of the playspace to terrorise you, and your only hope is to evade them.
But while these games are spiritual partners, Bramble: The Mountain King has a vastly different palette. And why not? Who says that these narrative adventure games, kickstarted mostly by Limbo, should be dark? Bramble: The Mountain King is effervescent, glowing with natural light. There are lovely meanders through tall grass, down rapids, and balancing over logs. Atmospherically, it looks near-perfect, and there are only the odd faults that nibble away at immersion. Water splashes look bugged, which would make sense for a preview game, and Bramble never quite looks like he is fully in the environment. He clips through the odd rock, gnome and grass blade, but there’s still plenty of time for Dimfrost Studio to finetune things.
Bramble: The Mountain King is colourful until it isn’t. In the demo, things actually do dip into Inside and Little Nightmares’ palette, as two interior locations are explored in the form of a couple of caves. Bramble has a Spark of Courage, a handheld light that makes these areas equally but differently lustrous. There’s the dank, dripping sense of spelunking through unexplored caves, which is just as effective and evocative as the outdoor sections. Again, we’re here with the niggles: the platforming in the subterranean sections is more formulaic – not necessarily a bad thing – but that’s down to the level design, rather than the mood.
But what makes us so dizzily excited about Bramble: The Mountain King is its one and only ‘boss’ encounter, if you can call it that. The trailers somewhat ruined the surprise of this one, and we’re about to ruin it further, but the Näcken is the demo’s big hitter, and it bodes extremely well for the rest of the game, whatever form it takes. As you jump from lilypad to lilypad, a monster looms in the background, playing the violin. And then it’s heard you, snapping its head back and diving into the pool to intercept.
What follows is a sequence that would happily challenge the spider in Limbo. You are hiding from sight, ducking behind rocks, and leaping over its grasping hands. The visual direction of this sequence is astonishing.
There’s two elements that make this confrontation so special. The first is that the Näcken feels so real. There’s a moment where he’s lost sight of you – just for a moment, as it thinks it has you in its hands – but then its head suddenly jerks your way, and it’s swimming after you in almost a single motion. Näcken feels utterly believable in that moment, and believable is exactly what we didn’t want. It was terrifying.
The second is that he feels new: a villain that we haven’t seen before. Plumbing the depths of Nordic folklore is clearly paying dividends, and we’re excited about what other grim entity is going to lurch out of Dimfrost Studio’s pandora’s box. There’s a neat moment after Näcken is dispatched, where you stumble across a corpse holding a tome, and inside is a visual story of the Näcken’s backhistory. We’re a fan of the framing. Hopefully every creature in the bestiary gets this kind of treatment.
It would be fair to say that we’re excited about Bramble: The Mountain King. It still has room for refinement: some graphical, as we mentioned, and we would have loved more reasons to explore, to move off the beaten track to find collectibles or other hidden elements. But as a calling card for what might follow, it’s exceptional.
It’s easy to look at trailers for Bramble: The Mountain King and assume there is a breezy, friendly platformer contained within it. But as beautiful as it may be, its heart is dark, and it’s clear that it’s going to unleash a host of nightmares upon us in 2023. We couldn’t be more ready for it.
Bramble: The Mountain King is due for release on console and PC in 2023. Huge thanks to Dimfrost Studio for giving us a little insight via Steam for PC.