From the moment the title screen bounces and jiggles into view, it’s clear that Spirit Roots is not your average indie. This has a polished presentation that belies the £5.79 price tag, and you would be forgiven for thinking that it was a Rayman Legends DLC drop. Everything from the world map to the flourish as you pick up collectibles is straight out of a AAA platforming drawer. It’s going to hook a fair few platforming junkies into playing it.
But Spirit Roots does have a bit of a ‘polished turd’ problem (although ‘turd’ is probably overstating it a bit). While it might look flat-out gorgeous, Spirit Roots is a mediocre action-platformer with some bothersome flaws. It’s that odd game that has style AND substance (there are fifty levels here), but is let down by being a drag to play.
Focusing on the positive, Spirit Roots really is good looking. Enemies glide about like they’ve been animated by Pixar, and the VFX is stellar: every time you pick up one of the game’s collectibles, it glitters and shimmers with flourish. It doesn’t quite have the charm of some of its platforming peers, but in budget terms, this is one of the better-looking indies we have had the chance to play.
There are fifty levels here, carved into ten-level chunks with a boss rounding them out. Each of these ten levels span different areas like caves, deserts and the tundra – all the platforming staples. The aim in a level is to get from A to B, but that will only get you one of the level’s three stars. To get the other two, you will need to collect all of the Lum-like coins in the level, and defeat all of the enemies.
Spirit Roots doesn’t really motivate you to get the stars, though. They don’t unlock anything – achievements, levels or cosmetics – and they often put you in the way of danger. If you’re like us, you will soon abandon them as something to collect, and just race to the end of the level instead.
Blocking you from the exit are enemies and platform obstacle courses. The enemies are a limp old bunch. Each area offers you two or three new enemies, but they tend to just be remixes of the ones you’ve already fought. You’ll come across plenty of riffs on ‘heavy enemy that moves slowly’ and ‘projectile-firing enemy’. Fighting them isn’t much better, either, as the game forcibly limits how you can fight them. The heavies can only be fought with a sword, so you’re locked into certain methods of approach.
That would be less of a problem if combat felt good. You get two attacks, but they’re both rubbish. There’s a pistol, but it takes an age to fire and even longer to fire a second round. When enemies take three or four hits to topple, and they often sit on higher platforms, it can mean a dull old dance of jumping and firing once, then jumping again. The second attack is a sword-swipe, and it’s similarly slow. With no visible recoil on the enemies, and a wafty feather duster of an impact, it can be hard to tell if you’ve hit.
Spirit Roots is slow and cumbersome in combat, and that stretches to the jumping too. The main character seems determined to amble through a level. Bizarrely, the second world adds in ‘swale’, mud that slows down your character and doesn’t allow them to jump or attack, and thinks it’s the best thing ever. A slow game suddenly becomes even slower.
While Spirit Roots takes you to magnificent new places, it can’t do enough to make them feel different. We’ve already mentioned the enemies, which are effectively copy-pastas of each other, but the levels have an air of familiarity about them too. Spinning blades appear in all the levels, as well as pushable blocks, moving platforms and spikes waiting for your doom. Spirit Roots just hasn’t got enough toys in its toy box to play around with, especially when you consider this is fifty levels long.
Those levels took us a fair few hours, but not only because of their sheer number. Spirit Roots opts for a punishing approach to checkpointing that had us rage-quitting on more than one occasion. You get three hearts, Legend of Zelda-style, but they don’t represent health. Make a mistake and you die, returning to your last checkpoint with one heart gone. So, they’re not life points, they are lives. Lose the three lives, and you have to restart the entire level again. It’s effectively an ultimatum: get to the next checkpoint in three lives, or you’re playing the whole shebang again. It felt oddly punishing for something that otherwise had a family-friendly feel, and we didn’t have enough faith in the slow controls and harsh collision detection to make it feel justified.
The consolation is that the bosses in Spirit Roots are a reasonably imaginative bunch, and they’re in a nice sweet spot of being challenging but not impossible. They break up the monotony of the levels, and they make good use of Spirit Roots fantastic art, being giant dung beetles and goblins in gangster cars.
We didn’t regret getting tangled up in Spirit Roots, but we didn’t wholly enjoy it either. While it looks like a Rayman Legends expansion pack, and comes with a heap of levels, the charm began wearing off as soon as we started playing. Spirit Roots is too slow and too exacting a platformer to make us want to play to the end.
You can buy Spirit Roots from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S