You can’t fault Effie for its ambition. Starting small, you begin in a temple as the hero Garand, cursed by the witch Melira to be prematurely aged. You have come to the Elder Protectors to reverse the curse, and they largely ignore you and put you through a series of trials. There’s some lightweight platforming and some outcrops to shimmy across until you get your shield – the Swiss Army Knife of Effie, as it does absolutely everything – which allows you to fight and take down ranks of Pac-Man-like ghosts. Having completed the trials, the Elder Protectors reveal that the curse requires the destruction of three Gems of Evil, scattered about the land, and the doors to the temple open.
Up to this point, we wondered if we’d found ourselves in a budget Tomb Raider. It’s confined and linear (and relentlessly dark), and we could imagine playing for about an hour before getting bored. But, once the Elder Protectors flung open the doors to the Red Planes of Oblena, we realised our mistake. Effie is far more ambitious than we gave it credit for, and we got a whole lot more excited.
Effie is an open-world action-adventure game, and it’s got its eyes on Breath of the Wild rather than Tomb Raider. It even plays the same trick as Breath of the Wild, albeit taking slightly longer with its prologue: beginning underground and then rewarding you with an incredible vista. You can see landmarks in the distance that are clearly your eventual destinations – a barrel keg the size of a tower, a series of windmills and a giant temple – but there are also plenty of smaller points of interest, swarming with enemies.
We hopped down from the tower and surprise number two was revealed: your shield acts like a kind of magical toboggan, and you can ride it about wherever you want, cutting the distances down dramatically. Light beams litter the area, boosting you like a beardy Sonic the Hedgehog, and the world positively demands to be explored. Fair play to Inverge Studios: they’re a young studio without many games to their name, but the reveal of the world, plus the jump onto the shield, is one of our favourite gaming moments of the year so far.
If you’re distracted by side-quests in games like The Witcher 3, then it’ll be some time before you get back to Effie’s main quest. Cemeteries, swamps, mini-towers and shield-races can be investigated, most often for Relics (the collectibles of Effie’s world) and chests full of runestones. Collect enough of these runestones and you will level up, upping your combat prowess and health bar, which makes the harder sections of the game more palatable. If there’s a criticism, it’s that there could have been more of these explorable areas, as it was always a pocket-joy to stumble across them. There’s only a dozen or so about, and we were hungry for more.
Surfing your shield about is a little cumbersome, as handling is slippy. It’s most infuriating when you’re trying to complete shield-races, which there are mercifully few of. Inverge have decided that you don’t need directional arrows to point you to the next slalom gate. So, when you’re pelting through a race, well ahead of time, and you find that the race has taken a handbrake turn to the left, without any indication that it will do so – well, it’s not fun.
You’ll have to explore the bigger landmarks eventually. Signs tell you to get off the shield, and you’re on your own, wandering a hefty environment. If you’re sensible, there’s a pattern to this: clearing the area of ghosts and goblins – including heavies that have specific weakness and attack patterns – then rinsing the area of treasures. Among them, you might find the key, lever or pressure plate that moves you to the next room. That makes Effie sound formulaic, but it deserves a wee bit more credit than that. Often the keys are locked behind puzzles, are hidden about the room, or have a sequence you need to perform. The areas, too, are well-designed and great to explore. Nooks hide treasures, making you feel rewarded for being inquisitive.
Windmill City was our personal highlight, and will be the first you work through. There’s a city at the foot of the windmills, hiding hundreds of runestones and chests, and you’ll clear that before wending up each of the windmill towers. You power them up individually, spinning the blades on the windmill, then clambering across the windmill’s mechanisms to get to the next one, and so forth. Effie’s pretty effective in making you feel like you’re powering a massive complex, and it’s equally true of Woodborne, the last of the three landmarks, which turns into a functioning lumber mill.
Complete each of these areas and you’ll unlock a boss battle, which is mostly Melira firing area-of-effect attacks at you as you try to do the stuff you’ve done previously, like taking down mobs or jumping across platforms. They are undoubtedly the weakest sections of Effie, since they’re regurgitations of previous sections, but also because there are no checkpoints. When you’re dodging buzzsaws and making pixel-perfect jumps, at the same time as Melira’s reticule is zeroing in on you, returning to the start can feel enraging.
Considering the games that it will inevitably be compared against, Effie is a touch short, with the open world giving up its secrets in six hours or so, and only a few abilities to unlock. Full marks to those abilities, though, as they make you massively overpowered and you’ll soon be leaning on them. Holding Y does a directed earthquake attack, a kind of ‘cone of death’ that makes short work of even the heavies, while holding X does a swirling shield attack, which wipes out any enemy in your vicinity with one hit. By the end, these were effectively the only attacks we performed, and the LB shield became moot.
Aside from these big hitters, combat in Effie is serviceable and on the simple side, with X and Y attacks being spammed in various combinations. It only comes undone with floating enemies, as there’s no lock-on or targeting system, so they can irritatingly float out of range. Platforming is fine too, with its only foibles being an RB ‘rush’ attack that you will need to perform at the end of a double-jump to get maximum distance. This jump-jump-rush pattern isn’t quite as precise as it could have been, as you’re never quite sure of where the rush will take you, and you can often overshoot.
The biggest downfall of Effie is one that makes scoring it incredibly difficult. We wanted to love Effie, and we enjoyed vast chunks of it, but it is incredibly buggy. They come from all sides: on the graphical front, the environment constantly strobes and twitches, making it a real eyesore, and the lighting can’t decide whether it wants to be light or dark, switching with a single footstep. The audio dropped out for most of Effie, and we had weird cockroach-clicking for large portions of it. Cutscenes played twice, and weren’t particularly great the first time.
The gameplay, too, is riddled with issues. We had to restart the final temple a few times, because red vines blocked entry even though a cutscene had just removed them. Enemies died, leaving their attacks on the battlefield, playing on a loop and remaining deadly. Enemies squatted in pillars with hatred in their eyes. Effie puts you in a situation where you’re constantly questioning the game: was that intended to happen, or was it a bug? When you’re stuck, more often than not you assume it was the game, whether it’s true or not.
The bugs add a bad aftertaste to things that might have been fine without. Graphically, Effie is a bit chunky and ramshackle, but the art direction is often spectacular, particularly in the red open fields of the hub. With the relentless graphical bugs, though, the vistas are damaged, twitching like it’s about to turn into Silent Hill. The platforming, too, would have been fine, but unreliable physics and bugs create nightmare sequences that threaten to toss your game controller out of the window, like Woodborne’s boss battle.
There’s no doubting that there is a short and ramshackle Breath of the Wild at the centre of Effie on the Xbox. Its rough, indie edges can be incredibly charming, and surfing the open world on the back of a magical shield is a gift that keeps on giving. But the rough edges are too sharp, too frequently. Effie is a three-wheeled wagon full of bugs, poor checkpointing and some imprecise gameplay, and there will be times that you weigh up abandoning it at the roadside. If you can find the patience to plough on, though, Effie is a colourful action-adventure whose world is its trump card, and it plays it as often as it can.