Rising from the ashes of an initial Kickstarter failure, Animal Gods rebuilt itself into an intriguing retro-fetish mash of top-down Zelda and Super Brothers: Sword and Sorcery. 459 backers enabled the launch of Still Games debut story of ancient deities onto Steam. The languid, mystical tones of it’s pre-release media was a defining factor in sourcing the necessary funds – it certainly got me excited to flex the pretentious qualities my useless art degree had afforded me. I was curious to see whether Still Games had managed to overcome the obvious comparisons to their influences. Whether they had managed to create something that produces the same feeling in play as it does in watching the evocative trailer. By my fifth time shouting at the screen in frustration, I had the answers.
Animal Gods immediately draws you into it’s world. Gregorian chants by way of John Carpenter, simple yet intricately detailed art, highly-wrought poetics written on gravestones – it harmonises into an ethereal atmosphere. It makes effective use of the limited tools available, the MS Paint blocks are built together masterfully into a clean and clear design that (almost) never becomes confusing. The camera knows exactly when to pull out, making known your insignificant place in a city that has existed eons before you. There’s small problems in how the rectangle motif can occasionally inhibit your ability to distinguish what is walk-able and what isn’t. But, at it’s best, it gives the impression of living within a passionately constructed pop-up book.
Issues only arise in it’s method of storytelling. Snatches of exposition are told to you through a collection of found diary entries, cryptic clues towards the mysterious setting are laid out in front of you. It strives for Dark Souls‘ environmental narrative but somehow manages to be simultaneously too obscure and too obvious. The beauty of Dark Souls was how the lava pits and ornate castles told you about themselves and their place in the universe. Animal Gods settles for placing text dumps in your path which speak meagerly about an unseen character’s relation to the antagonist. There’s nothing to be gained from delving into the lore, there’s no through-line to latch onto. It’s a confusing mess of mysticism, science and religious fanaticism – a muddled sense of consistency that runs through every aspect of the story.
Which would be nothing but niggling background noise if the gameplay had lived up it’s Zelda forebears. The actual mechanics are straightforward but smooth. Eight-directions of movement and one button press to execute your self-explanatory set of attacks. Your sword gives a satisfying swoosh, your arrows thwomp out with the perfect speed. What you’ll be using them on only extends to variations of the same enemy. A box. A small square which either stands still or moves along a designated path. The entire tactical repertoire you’ll be required to use is waiting until the cube is in the way of your sword, and then you hit the cube. And then you hit the cube. And then you hit the cube. There’s not even any aural feedback – the cube flashes limpy while maintaining it’s fixed direction. The cube itself isn’t even excited when you hit it.
It all sounds like a dull venture that you’ll easily skip through, finger poised on the ‘hit cube’ button while you take care of the rest of your life. By your third death to blocks flying from off-screen, that naivety will break into frustrated disillusion. The slow walk speed and ponderous pace is the complete antithesis of the one-hit death system they decided to use. Having to restart a section because of a floating brick you couldn’t see, crawling back past ten more rounds of ‘wait around until the enemy is in sight of your arrow’, and then being killed again will bring you to the wiry edge of your patience.
The most egregious design choice I’ve seen in years comes from the dash ability. You’re given the skill of zip-zip-zipping past obstacles with a magic cloak. What was very nearly an elegant series of platform puzzles quickly devolves into resentment. The game gives you the capability to pull off a long-dash, hold the button to jump past previously insurmountable gaps. Which is grand, fine and dandy. Unfortunately, you’re only able to pull this off after doing a short-dash. In narrow confines, with extremely precise landing zones. I could only make it through the game by purposefully dashing my face into the wall, just so I’d even have the possibility of making it past the next death-pit. They created a system where gaining the necessary distance means taking a superfluous, deadly, action. This is coupled with sections where it’s unclear where the line between the lovely, safe ground and terrifying, endless void, actually is. It’s insane.
I don’t want to hate Animal Gods. I believe that, as the end credits attest, Still Games ‘<3’s me. And I really want to ‘<3’ them back. The last level nimbly makes use of every skill you’ve picked up on your journey – dashing across gaps into an arrow-slinging puzzle, running between moving platforms while smacking blocks down. This was the base to build from. I want to grab the developers by the shoulders and shout: ‘This. This is the first level. We don’t need forty minutes of you teaching us how to hit the motionless square with a sharpy-thing.’ There’s a lot of potential in here, gasping for air – I’m hopeful for whatever they turn their hands to next. But Animal Gods is merely a demo, a testing-ground for Still Games to learn their trade.
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