The Legend of Gwen Review

Contributed by DJMMT

The Legend of Gwen is 3D platformer by Wiwi Games. It’s being published by Flynn’s Arcade, who have published several games I’ve reviewed or streamed in the past. While I have a lot to say about this game, the short version is that it’s a heartfelt attempt at making something worth playing in this already cramped genre, but ultimately doesn’t measure up to today’s standards. I want to be clear in saying that it’s not just that it’s a low budget indie project and can’t compete with the likes of Nintendo. Even by indie standards, there are better 3D platformers out there. For all its attempts at being something interesting and different, The Legend of Gwen is sadly riddled with flaws and bugs. That being said, I will of course review the game in full. Read on for a detailed accounting of why I feel this way about the game.

First, I should clarify that I was given a Steam key, by Flynn’s Arcade, for this game two weeks before the official release. While playing the game, I noticed a few things that implied the game was still being polished. There was literally a sign in the game for an area that says “Comming Soon.” No, that’s not a spelling error on my part. That’s what it says in the game. My point is that it is very possible that the version of the game that I played when writing this review will differ in some ways from the release version. Even during the midst of my multiple sessions playing the game pre-release, an update was released on Steam. I’m stating this for the sake of transparency.

The version of the game I played has a very minor amount of story-based content. Basically, the game shows you a few hand drawn sketches at the very beginning and then not much else. There are NPCs that give you clues and information about gameplay. And there are little notes about things like where to buy stuff, but there doesn’t seem to be any more plot within the game. The boss fights do have little introductory cutscenes with a common villain character introducing all the bosses, with no dialog, but for all intents and purposes, the player experience is one of a game with no story that focuses on platforming gameplay and collecting. What is interesting about this is that if you read the documentation surrounding the game, such as the Steam store and community pages, there is a decent amount of plot explanation provided by the developers, which tells me that they did think about this aspect of the product. It’s just that basically none of this story makes itself known within the game. Meaning that for the causal player, it doesn’t really count for anything.

The best part of this game is probably the audio experience. It’s the only part of the game that I really have no complaints about. For starters, you have more control over the volume mixing than I would have expected from a game of this caliber. In the pause menu, you can adjust the master, music, and effects volumes independently of each other. Not a revolutionary QoL function, but more than I would have expected going in. I also appreciated that the default audio settings are actually mixed to a comfortable level and not just everything maxed out like most games have.

The sound effects and voice acting are both good. Though the voice acting is only in Japanese. Granted there’s little in the way of actual voice acting. It’s really just the main character, Gwen, emoting when she does actions like jumping or casting spells. And she does it every single time. I could see players choosing to turn the effects volume off because of that. You also have actual sound effects for jumping, firing magic, and so on. Enemies have sound effects as well. I was happy with all of it and found it to be very responsive.

I was also really impressed with the music. It’s a mix of cute, whimsical tracks that feel very appropriate for this game. I also feel like they’re anime inspired, which seems like the right move here. Maybe a bit cliché, but in a good way. Each world has its own set of tracks that go with the theme for that world. The music does cycle randomly across stages in a given world, but there are a decent number of tracks in total, which prevented me from getting tired of hearing any of them. While I would absolutely not recommend this game just because of the quality of the audio experience, I will say that it was the only part of the game that left me pleasantly surprised.

Visually speaking, I’d say the game is cute, but very low budget. The entire game looks like it was constructed out of ready-made assets from a free Unity library. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with making a game that way. It’s just that in this case, you can tell. The menus have an almost hand drawn quality to them. But not in an endearing, original art style sort of way. It comes off more like they were trying to cut costs and didn’t want to use basic MS Word fonts. The problem is that this sort of development strategy causes flaws to stand out a lot more. The aforementioned misspelled “Coming Soon” sign. The uneven placement and spacing of text in the menus. These things probably wouldn’t stand out as much if their generally cheap looking quality didn’t already draw the viewer’s attention.

The fact that you can see the gridlines underneath the game’s floating island-based levels is another example of the game showing its hand as a cheaply made product. If, like me, you’ve actually looked at a Unity or Unreal creation window, then this game absolutely looks like an alpha still in development. You could have easily added water or clouds to hide this. They added stars to make it look like the game takes place in space, but that doesn’t hide the gridlines. Now there are plenty of platformers that do show players the gridlines in hopes of assisting them with aiming their jumps. And that would make sense here, as this game touts itself as being for “hardcore” players, as described in its Steam documentation. The problem is that the gridlines rarely help while you’re playing. They’re far enough below the game’s assets to not work that well as a guide to jumping. Not to mention the fact that many of the platforms and obstacles aren’t built at a 1:1 grid size and placement with the lines. So really the lines don’t help you and make the game look cheap.

I will say that the HUD is good. It’s not too cluttered but shares a wealth of information. Between the upper left and right hand corners, the game clearly tells you the number of lives you have, number of total crystals you have, how much time you have left to complete the level, how many stars you’ve collected, whether or not you’ve gotten the secret treasure, and the number of remaining enemies in the current stage. Not only is this done efficiently, but it’s also easy to interpret. The icons used are able to clearly convey all the information without the use of text, other than numbers.

The character and enemy designs look good. Nothing particularly impressive, but it all fits well with the game. I’ll also say that movement, outside of the player character, is pretty smooth overall. While the game may look cheap, there are a lot of obstacles, enemies, and moving parts all working together to create a challenging experience. And it all works effectively for the gameplay the developers were going for. It’s not as if a game can’t be fun just because it looks cheap. Half of Devolver Digital’s catalog looks either dated or cheaply made; and yet many of those same games are some of the most enjoyable from their library. So I could look past many of these visual flaws provided the gameplay was solid. Sadly, it’s not.

I hate to say it, but The Legend of Gwen has several performance issues. Some of them miniscule and some of them major, but in either case, there are a lot of them. For starters, the start-up loading time is pretty slow. As is the return to map loading time when you quit a level without beating it. Other loading times are better, but not great for how bare bones the game really is. The first bug I encountered was that sometimes controller menu navigation just completely stopped working. I would have to use my mouse to do something as simple as restart a level. This wasn’t the case all the time, which tells me that it was a bug and not an intentional design choice/flaw. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The Legend of Gwen’s gameplay is challenging, often for the wrong reasons, but not complicated. There are eight worlds. Each world has five levels. Each level requires you to collect five stars scattered throughout and reach the exit before time runs out. You have four lives to complete each stage. This includes both bonus and boss stages. Each stage has a specific number of enemies, which can either be killed or ignored. Enemies do not respawn when you lose a life but will if you restart the stage. The amount of time you have varies from level to level. That’s really it.

You must collect all the stars to exit the level, but there are other optional objectives in each stage as well. The game tracks if you killed all the enemies and if you collected the treasure. You are also constantly accumulating blue crystals as you collect them from within levels. The optional stuff helps you to get special bonuses down the road, but, if you aren’t interested in extra help, you can just ignore them and focus on collecting stars.

You can use the crystals you’ve accumulated to purchase a number of things. For instance, you can buy more stars. I did this accidentally, because the game doesn’t ask you to confirm that you want to buy anything. I walked up to a vendor and accidentally pressed the jump button and the game charged me more than half of the crystals I had already collected. You can also pay a hefty sum of crystals to get help with bosses or buy alternate wands. As I didn’t have enough crystals by the time I finally gave up on the game, I don’t know what alternate wands actually do. I never tried the boss assistance, because I never had enough crystals to try it. But honestly it seems unnecessary since the boss fights aren’t really that difficult compared to the regular levels.

What makes the game hard is that it lacks polish. The controls are simple. You move, jump/double jump, fire a magic spell, use a bonus magic spell in certain levels, and rotate the camera in 90-degree angles. Not much going on under the hood. But you encounter so many issues just trying to get those five stars and reach the exit on time. For starters, the jump lags sometimes. It’s not often, but it happens more than occasionally. And when it does happen, you can get majorly screwed. On the flip side, you can double jump at any time, which can be a real lifesaver. Aiming the projectile magic is terrible. It’s so difficult to aim accurately, but every level has you try to hit a distant target in order to get the hidden treasure chest. Given the time limit, you often choose to ignore the treasure in favor of completion.

I encountered issues like springboards not working properly, the camera rotation not working in certain levels, and sometimes the game just froze mid play. I will say that it never fully crashed though. Many of the jumps are hard to make, but it’s usually more an issue of the distances being unclear. Some levels are much darker, making it hard to see. Even when you can see, the character’s shadow is a terrible guide for landing your jumps in this game. Usually, the shadow can be used to assist gaging your landing in platformers, but in this it will often lead you to your downfall. Interestingly, the lack of polish can also be used to your advantage in some instances. For example, the levels have barriers in many parts, to help prevent you from accidentally falling off the side; but you can also jump over these barriers. With the help of your double jump, you can bypass many obstacles by jumping over barriers. Some levels even ask you to do this.

The time limit is absolutely brutal in this game, and the fact that you respawn at the beginning of the level every time you die makes it considerably worse. Enemies are troublesome too. Not because there are too many of them or that they’re particularly difficult to deal with. It’s that the player’s hit boxes are too sensitive and killing enemies is difficult when your magic spell is hard to aim. While you can jump on some/most enemies to kill them, there are exceptions. Ghosts for instance, can only be defeated by shooting them with a magic projectile, which again are quite difficult to aim. The time limit is used for boss fights as well. And it keeps running after you’ve already killed the boss. You can kill the boss, forget to collect the star from its body, and reach the exit with just a few seconds left, and the game will consider the level having been failed and make you refight the boss.

Boss fights are conceptually simple, but the game’s many issue make them harder than they should be. The first boss is a giant spider that keeps spawning baby spiders into the arena. You kill this boss by jumping on its head several times. There is no indicator for how close you are to killing a boss, so you just keep damaging it as quickly as possible and hope you don’t run out of time. While your hitbox is quite large and super sensitive, the same can not be said for enemies. With the spider boss, I often landed jumps that didn’t count as damage. At one point, I literally stood on the boss’ back and rode it for several seconds, because the hitbox is small enough to do so, but making contact with its back, in certain places, won’t damage you.

One of the really annoying things about how the game is structured is the limited access you’re given to special spells. Certain special challenge levels give you the ability to use a variety of specialty secondary spells. The first one you get to try is a mid-air dash, as an example. These extra spells make the gameplay much more fun and easier to recover when encountering its various issues. But these spells are only available in certain levels and in boss fights. Most of the game is you navigating stages with the basic controls and no additional advantages. It would have been much cooler if you could unlock spells over time and keep one or two additional ones active.

Some challenge levels also let you control a second character that you have to switch off between with the main character over the course of the stage. Honestly, the special stages are generally more fun to play than the basic stages of the game. Sadly, there is only one to two special stages in each world. I did appreciate the fact that I could do the levels in a given world in any order I wanted though. Overall, the gameplay just isn’t as good as it needs to be for this game to be enjoyable. It’s more of an exercise in patience than a fun, engaging challenge. It’s certainly hard, but not in a way that translates into fun or motivation to push onward. I completed multiple worlds, but I don’t think I’ll finish all eight of them at this point.

The Legend of Gwen isn’t too long but it definitely has replay value. I completed the first two worlds in just under two hours. As there are a total of eight, I assume the game isn’t going to take more than 10 hours to complete the basic campaign. But the number of additional collectible challenges and 20 achievements can definitely add to your playtime, if you can stand to keep playing. I completed four of the achievements by the end of the second world unintentionally.

Let it not be said that I didn’t try to like The Legend of Gwen, but it just isn’t well made enough for me to enjoy. If the game wasn’t so difficult, I probably would have made it to the end. But given the amount of trouble it is to play, when working properly, coupled with the fact that it’s often not working properly, it’s just not worth my time. Even if you can beat it in under 10 hours. A more polished version that ran better would be something worth considering. But even then I don’t think I’d willingly pay $20 for a game of this scope and caliber. Sadly, I’m going to have to recommend that you pass on this one. If I have to put a score on it, I’d give it a 5/10.

XPG Terrence

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