Wandersong puts players in the shoes of a whimsical bard with the ability to sing. This (sometimes overly) happy musician is on a quest to learn a song from the ethereal Overseers that’ll save the universe from its impending doom. I appreciate the fact that Wandersong tries something new and ignores combat in favour of more unique ideas. However, for every genuinely impressive moment that Wandersong threw at me, it also presented underwhelming gameplay sections that don’t work.
Most of Wandersong’s gameplay centres around the bard’s singing voice. Players can change the note the bard sings with a multicoloured weapon wheel (singing wheel?) accessed through the right analogue stick. His voice never really gets annoying and it’s always cool to see the environments and wildlife change colour, depending on the note that I was singing.
The developers genuinely do really creative things with the concept. Some levels might see you trying to move objects and even platforms by singing, leading to some neat puzzle-solving sections. One of the best sections of the game features a great time manipulation mechanic that is immensely satisfying to solve.
The problem with Wandersong’s gameplay is that most of it boils down to being nothing short of Guitar Hero for dummies. See the colour on screen? Sing the note associated with that colour. To make things more easy and simple, the colour you need to match might also be pointing in the direction you need to move your right stick. Essentially a lot of Wandersong’s gameplay encounters are match-colour challenges that children can complete. It’s a shame the central mechanic, which is actually very unique, is treated more like a gimmick.
To be fair, there are more than a few instances where this concept works. In some boss encounters you’ll need to replicate the notes on screen very quickly and some of these scenarios can be quite demanding. So maybe my Guitar Hero comparison wasn’t all bad. However, even these sections are dampened by the fact that you can’t take damage or even really be defeated, so if you miss a note there are no consequences at all, effectively cancelling any tension.
Despite these gameplay problems, Wandersong is commendable for the fact that you’ll never be doing one thing for too long. It tries to throw something new and a little unexpected at players often so I was never even annoyed when these match-colour challenges occurred. That something new can be either a fresh story beat or a new mechanic so I was always enticed to see what was waiting for me.
This variety also applies to the different areas in the game. The game begins in a generic, green fantasy village. But through the course of proceedings players are dragged through areas that seem like they belong in separate games, in a good way. During my playtime I had sailed with pirates, walked through an industrial city and been stuck in the middle of a war between two kingdoms. Every time I reached the end of an act I was excited to see where the game would take me next.
Not to mention the fact that Wandersong’s atmosphere appropriately changes with each act. Sea shanties might be replaced for some more subdued melodies. Or maybe the game adds a more sombre blue tint to its aesthetic.
Speaking of its music, for a game about singing Wandersong doesn’t disappoint when it comes to its soundtrack. The musicality of the gameplay is always in-sync with the tunes accompanying the adventure. And the music itself is perhaps the most impressive part of the game. Each song is filled with so much heart to a point where I found myself listening to the game’s OST when I was away from my controller. ‘Mysterious Rainbow Girl’ is a personal favourite. Some tracks might be a bit too optimistic, in an early morning cartoon way, but they still sound either incredibly catchy or in line with the game’s overall aesthetics.
The game retains its paper cut-out art style throughout its duration and it looks surprisingly pretty when it wants to be. Some areas do lack detail and seem like bland pieces of paper to run across, but many screens are filled with little flourishes in the foreground and background which add colour and life to Wandersong’s environments.
While I might have had a problem with many of Wandersong’s gameplay ideas, I was mainly clicking buttons during conversations and story beats. What initially seems like a straight forward and predictable hero-saves-world tale does have a few wrenches thrown in for good measure. Some fun, and surprisingly poignant, twists are included all the way. It might not be as subversive as something like Undertale or as emotionally raw as a fellow indie like Celeste, but it’s still engaging in its own right.
The writing and characters are a bit hit or miss. Overall, the characters are generally charming and chuckle-inducing. Many even surprised me by how smartly funny they were. The fact that we get a new supporting cast every chapter is also refreshing, since our main bard and his companion Miriam are mainstays that have their own character development.
The problem with many of the characters are the same problems that itch at many of Wandersong’s musical tracks. Their impenetrable joy, energy and optimism can sometimes feel overwhelming and just too much. It doesn’t make the overall story as believable and as emotionally real when so many characters behave like they’re on the joy pill from We Happy Few. The pessimist, Miriam, may seem like she’d balance the problem out. Alas, for the first half of the story she leans too heavily in the opposite direction and is plainly annoying until we hear of her own backstory.
Ultimately, Wandersong on Xbox One is worth trying at least (especially since it’s on Xbox Game Pass). The way it constantly switches up its gameplay and tone can be exciting and refreshing, and I wholly appreciate that Wandersong isn’t trying to replicate the ideas or style of any other game. Many of its gameplay ideas didn’t work for me but more than a handful of them did. If you’re willing to look past them, Wandersong presents a heartfelt and joyful story with a great soundtrack to match.