Warden: Melody of the Undergrowth is a platformer from Cardboard Keep that wears its influences on its sleeve. From the very start the visuals are obviously reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and throughout the game, from level design to the soundtrack, it reminded us of other games gone by. That's not to say it's not fun, but it combines many much-loved concepts together, although not always hitting the mark.
The premise of Warden is that you are a young prince from an Empire called Tavian, and when you are separated from your father (the emperor) in the forest, you come across Nyona, the spirit of the forest, who needs you to free her from her shackles, and you can only do this by destroying crystals. Off you go on a quest to free Nyona, then, and on the way you meet tribesmen whose village you use as a base. The story is pretty straightforward and doesn't complicate things too much, which we appreciated, and it was constantly clear where you needed to go to progress the narrative.
Along your travels you meet two spirits, and they merge into your body, allowing you to switch between them at will and giving new gameplay options. The story culminates in a surprise ending we won't spoil here, and although it isn't earth-shattering in scope or ambition, it was suitable for the simple style of game Warden is trying to be: a family-friendly 3D platformer.
As with most 3D platformers, especially those of the Nintendo 64 era that Warden clearly emulates, there is a lot of navigating environments, solving rudimentary puzzles, and fighting enemies. Just like with Banjo Kazooie, you need a certain amount of 'motes', the collectibles in the game, to unlock doors to go to new areas, and in each of the three areas is a crystal to destroy attached to a boss. It is in these areas that you gain new abilities, whether that be by meeting the spirits or by simply acquiring a new skill.
The most unpleasant part about Warden is the combat. Something we appreciated was the many weapons you can pick up through the game, and they degrade and eventually break, so you always need to switch up your arsenal and keep things fresh. In use, though, all weapons are sluggish, combos are slow and the dodging system is fiddly at times. The majority of the time it wasn't fun to engage with enemies and it was easier sometimes to run round than to take them on, especially since dodging sometimes created a glitch which put you on top of the enemy, or it could just as frequently put you back into the path of their attack.
Clipping issues also became annoying, as sometimes enemies would merge into the walls once you knocked them backwards, meaning either you couldn't kill them or they could attack you through walls. There was also the issue of invincibility frames, where in certain animations enemies couldn't take damage, which was frustrating when we tried to hit them when they were standing up, only to find their animation hadn't quite finished.
The issues extended to the physics also, as there were occasions where we moved in totally unexpected directions or moved when we shouldn't have. For example, if you get knocked down you move before your character has got back to their feet, sliding around the floor, and sometimes when you jump near an object the physics pulls or pushes you in odd directions, making navigating certain areas tricky at times when it shouldn't be.
In terms of boss fights, they followed the typical formula for a 3D platformer, in the sense that there is a certain trick to getting them to expose their weak spot, and you keep doing that until they're dead. The boss fights were fun and diverse in how you had to approach each one, so we enjoyed taking on each mammoth enemy to gain access to their crystal, especially since it relied less on the fiddly close quarter combat and gave us more space to move.
Another game we found coming to mind when playing Warden was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, as a lot of the environments are reminiscent of places like Kokiri Forest, which is understandable as the whole of Warden is set in a forest. That's not all, though, as there are also dungeon-esque environments (again, Ocarina of Time sprung to mind) with lava and stone, as well as ancient tombs and hidden caves.
There is a lot of detail in all of the environments, and it really does impress when it comes to the visuals. The sunlit forest groves look beautiful with their bright colours and luscious greens, and the dark, dingy caves were equally atmospheric, and had us relying on torches to navigate. There is a cartoon feel about the whole game, as we've mentioned with the comparisons to Wind Waker, and all the colours match that tone.
One thing we must say with the visuals is that, in the big open spaces (of which there are a lot in Warden), things in the background or far away seemed very blurry and weren't pleasant to look at, and we found our eyes hurt when trying to see things in the distance, especially when combined with the bright colours.
Puzzles scattered throughout the levels are pretty basic, but we can't fault that since this is clearly a family game for all ages. Most of them involve moving blocks onto switches for different combinations in order to open gates, and others involve navigating environments and activating levers etc. None of it is too taxing, although the optional ones for more motes can be tricky, as they involve entering a code using numbers and symbols, which aren't your basic maths puzzles by any means.
Cardboard Keep are clearly very proud of their work with regards to audio, and it's clear to see why. There is a cheery sound to all of the tracks played in Warden, all of which are available in the deluxe edition, and again this is something that reminded us a lot of past platformers such as Bugs Bunny: Lost in Time. While not particularly striking all the time, the music works with each level appropriately, and we found ourselves humming tunes from the game long after we'd put it down.
Warden: Melody of the Undergrowth doesn't bring much to the table in terms of originality, as illustrated by our repeated comparisons to other games, but it's a functional 3D platformer that will entertain for the five to seven hours it takes to complete, offering some fun locations to explore and nice environments to take in, even if it's not all perfect. It works, and is worth spending an afternoon getting lost in, and that's exactly why we enjoyed being a Warden for a while.
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