This article was originally published October 2018.
I love music rhythm games, but Wandersong has a bit of a learning curve. It’s an imprecise, unstructured game about music and, while it has some rhythm cues as part of its structure, it’s much more about music as a connecting force; something spontaneous and part of a larger world. The game is more focused on what music is used for than how precisely it’s executed, and feels unique and exciting as a result.
Wandersong is a cute 2D side scrolling adventure game where you play as a bard. The adventure starts off with you finding out that the world is going to end, and the only way to save it is by learning a load of powerful songs from ancient beings. The world itself is charmingly dubious about your ability to fix all these problems with a few tunes, and given the setup it came as a surprise to see how much optimism, joy, and humour the game wedges into every minute of its runtime.
The art style is a big part of this, with simple character and environment designs all made to look like they’ve been constructed from layers of colourful craft paper. That’s not all: the game has a dedicated dancing button! The protagonist’s eternally optimistic smile and the uses of music across the overworld all come together to make a very jolly place; a world where problems are solved with love and happiness rather than violence.
One relatively early scene in the game encapsulates the optimism and beauty of Wandersong, as well as how it presents music. I found a young musician whose mother had passed away. They wanted to play for crowds, but had always hoped their mother would play with them the first time they played, and now worries they may never feel comfortable playing music in front of others again. The bard ends up using singing as a medium for this young musician and the ghost of their mother to connect, and makes them realise the powerful connection that music creates between the two of them – even if one is no longer there. It was a beautiful and touching moment, delivered without words, purely handled by performing music together.
Normally in these kinds of music rhythm games, you’re graded on how precisely you can hit notes. Wandersong is a lot more loose and forgiving, with the only penalty for playing poorly usually being the song not sounding as perfect as it could. If you fail a track, it’ll just loop from the beginning until you get it right. All the musical notes are played, both in music rhythm sections or on the overworld, by pointing the right thumb stick in one of eight directions, producing a note and a colour, and when you’re playing in a rhythm section, notes to play are denoted by a colour as well as a direction to make it easy to know which note to play properly. Layer this over a superb soundtrack, and Wandersong is a real treat for anyone who fancies a relaxed journey through a musical world.
On the overworld you can sing at any time, either just for fun or to progress through the world. You might have to sing a certain note to change the direction of wind, or make a plant grow in a certain direction: if you play the same tune as a bird, it’ll follow you and help you make a larger-than-usual jump. There’s a bunch of other singing mechanics and Wandersong never sticks to one for too long, constantly finding new uses for its relatively small set of mechanics, and staying fresh from start to finish.
I can’t recommend Wandersong highly enough. It’s a palate-cleansing sort of video game, something that’s full of sweet moments, problems with happy solutions, and a hero who just wants to touch people with the power of music. Music doesn’t have to be perfect to be touching and, when Wandersong lets you enjoy music as something imprecise and human, it really captures the spirit of what meaningful it can be.
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