Islands of Wakfu
Islands of Wakfu is an action-adventure game, the streamlined elements of both genres creating a title that wouldn’t have felt out of place during the 16-bit generation.
Islands of Wakfu is gloriously presented from the moment it begins. A lot of care and attention has gone into how the game looks and sounds. The music score is rich, deep and varied from piano movements to more abstract sounds. It’s hard not to be wowed by how vibrant the world is and the attention to detail. The sprites and backgrounds appear to be rendered in a similar way to Flash animations, the result being 2D layers that have a story book appearance. It looks fantastic, with detailed animations, a living, breathing background and honey pots full of charm.
Like some of Studio Ghibli’s films, underneath the pretty art is a story with adult themes. It’s time for Nora’s initiation and all is going well until the village is attacked by an unknown force. Something has been unearthed and the past has come back to haunt her people. Along the journey there are tales of genocide and the enslavement of an entire race; the content is a lot darker than the visuals.
The story is crowded. In a bid to create a deep back story, those new to the Wakfu universe (there’s also an MMO and TV series) may find themselves lost and confused. There’s either too much going on or not enough, and often the reason for roundhouse kicking everything that moves, while growing plants, was lost on me. How are a dragon and a girl brother and sister? While explained, it’s done in a fleeting way, as is much of the story and with a multitude of NPCs to meet along the way it’s hard to keep up with all the tales and wise words.
The introduction gives the impression of an open world, where backtracking will be necessary and new skills will grant access to exciting discoveries. However, this is a linear tale set over several chapters. You can travel back to earlier locations but this is to replay, rather than revisit them; the same bosses and cutscenes playing out as if you’ve never visited them before. The tutorial is surprisingly long, placing you in lovingly in its arms and carrying you through the basics. Then you’re let loose into the world and the difficulty goes from non-existent to nails in the blink of a loading screen.
You play as both Nora, a young girl capable of martial arts, and a dragon called Efrim with deadly spit. You can switch between the two characters at anytime or play in local co-op, allowing both characters to be played at once. The action-adventure hybrid is similar to 16-bit beat’em-up and shooters respectively, taking place on an 8-way axis rather than 360 degrees.
The two characters interact with the world in different ways. Nora is able to breathe in, absorbing the life force of plants and small animals, while Efrim can breathe out, blossoming plants or making certain objects explode. If Efrim breathes on a special flower it will grow and provide a honey pot, with Nora she will absorb its Wakfu and regenerate health. The characters playing out as necessary polar opposites is a nice touch.
It’s not only attacks that vary between the playable characters; their puzzle solving attributes are different too. Nora is able to teleport anywhere and activate portals, while Efrim can conjure the ‘mighty’ platypus that can collect and move objects hidden in smaller areas. The puzzle sections are reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening: if it isn’t a switch or two that needs to be activated there’s a cracked wall somewhere to be blown up.
And while the end result of each puzzle is clear and the solution simple, it still managed to stump me for a few minutes each time, just like in the 16-bit era. During a day trip to the beach there appeared to be what looked like a small entrance to a hidden cave. The games introduction showed how Efrim could summon a controllable blue platypus. Trying unsuccessfully to summon the platypus, searching the level over and over for clues, reading through all the help sections again to eventually give up, I later discovered that the platypus was unlocked further in the game.
It’s hard not to fall for Islands of Wakfu’s charm. The level of presentation and beautifully realised world with the accompanying music score is a treat on the eyes and ears. I wanted to like this game. However, the evil spirits of bad game design that had been laid to rest rose from their graves to cause a nuisance on more than one occasion. With the game leaning more towards action than adventure it’s a shame that the combat is so unbalanced.
Efrim is able to circle-strafe enemies and pepper them with weak shots, slowly lowering their health. It’s boring but necessary as Nora’s initial attacks are weak and blocking is manual. When blocking you have to point in the direction of the attack, often inaccurate due to the 8-way axis. A simple solution would have been to have Nora/Efrim automatically face attacks when blocking. So rather than risk being hit, Efrim’s long-range attacks were used repeatedly.
Later unlocking a skill that added an automatic roundhouse kick when teleporting completely tipped the scales the other way. The quick teleport ability places Nora directly behind the enemy, granting a moment of invulnerability, and this skill adds a powerful attack. From this point onwards all combat became teleport, attack, teleport, attack, teleport, attack and so forth. This helped with the basic enemies that take more hits than they should, although this could be due to the co-op design. With no online co-op and only local play there is no option to ‘jump-in’ and you have to start a separate campaign from the beginning. With this in mind, perhaps co-op might have helped (or just the auto-block recommendation) with the many difficulty spikes.
After encountering a particular boss many players may quit the game in rage, never to return again. The battle starts off relatively well and it’s the usual setup – fight a wave of enemies, do some damage to the boss, rinse and repeat. Then the game commits a cardinal sin thought to be long lost. Upon beating this intergalactic space pirate he drinks from a honey pot, his muscles doubling in size and his energy bar refilling. Already aggravating enough, things get worse. All of his new attacks have a very specific way of being dodged that will take multiple playthroughs to master. The frustration is further multiplied when you are forced back to the very beginning of the fight, including the short cutscenes, every time you fail.
The combination of this difficulty spike and inconsiderate checkpoint impales the enjoyment on a pirates hook and throws it overboard. Swearing at the TV is not something that can be condoned, but in this case it’s perfectly acceptable behaviour and better than leaving teeth marks ingrained on the controller or a dint in the wall. This isn’t the only example of a difficulty spike in the game but is one that could easily anger anyone; you have been forewarned. In being reminiscent of older titles such as The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening and Story of Thor with a more linear experience, Islands of Wakfu willingly inherits the negatives of old game design.
For younger or more inexperienced players there is an ‘easy’ mode (granting you immortality) but that doesn’t excuse the spikes and troughs in challenge. With Islands of Wakfu being a linear story it would have been interesting if the normal mode had granted this too. While not a direct criticism of the game, others do the same, it would have been a unique touch if the game kept the player alive, twisting events slightly to continue the story. After all, if we’re playing a predetermined tale, in which the character doesn’t die, death just becomes an inconvenience rather anything meaningful to the player. By embracing this, the story would be a little more personal to the player’s experience and seeing bosses shriek in terror as you get back to your feet would have given them a taste of their own medicine.
Islands of Wakfu looks and sounds better than it plays. With the audio being top-notch and the world wonderfully realised through its strong art design, it’s full of character, but it’s a type of character you’ll want to strangle when hitting a dead end on one of the many difficulty spikes and inconsistencies, which is shame as there is a lot to be liked about Ankama Play’s world.