Every time you play Tumbleseed you’re going to have a brand new experience. This is because the game is a roguelike, meaning that it is procedurally generated, from the enemies that you encounter, the layout of the levels, the town that you start in, even the power ups that you can pick up along the way on your adventure.
Tumbleseed has some fantastic game design, the game is all about risk vs reward, and is filled with non stop decisions that you have to make that could spell your doom if you choose poorly. The most common decision that you’ll have to make is what powers to use. You get the same four powers every time, as well as random powers that you end up purchasing with the game's currency (not real money). The first power that you get is called Flag seed, flags are your checkpoints, if you fall in your adventures, and you will. You’ll only ever fall as far as your most recent flag. You plant them in diamond shaped gardens as you play. In order to plant one you have to have crystals that you have to roll past to pick up while you’re playing. There are things like caterpillars and dragonflies that will harm you if you run into them undefended, the next power that you’ll pick up is called Thornvine. This also costs crystals to plant, but unlike the flag, these come with you. You can have up to 3 thornvine at any time, and you can use thornvine to kill enemies by running into them. A defeated enemy will grant one or more crystals, and your thornvine will break. Run into an enemy without thornvine and you’ll lose a heart and fall to your most recent flag.
There aren’t enough crystals on the board for you to use your powers non stop, so you have the Crystal power, this lets you pick up shards of crystals at gardens. When you hit 3 gardens two crystals will spawn at your location to pick up. Finally there is Heart Vine, which allows you to regenerate hearts by hitting 4 gardens with the power equipped. The trick to the game is, that when you use a garden, it's used up, so you can’t hit it again. This means that you constantly have to decide which power is best to use at which time. Do I replenish my hearts so I don’t get a game over? Do I get more thornvines to defend myself against the dangers of the mountain? Do I plant a flag to keep my progress should I make a mistake. All of these powers rely on your ability to generate crystals quick enough. If you’re all out you have no choice but to use the crystal power to replenish your stock.
In addition as you play the game you’ll unlock shops where you can spend crystals on other powers that spawn randomly in the game. Some powers will have Tumbleseed firing projectiles left and right as you move up for a time, others may make you invisible, or plant a turret that fires homing missiles at enemies. Spend too many seeds on a level and when you get to a shop you won’t be able to pick up the new hotness in seed city.
The art in Tumbleseed is really fantastic. They have put down the graphics in layers, like the Lost Woods in a Link to the Past, You can see the shadows of the clouds moving over the background, while creatures are zipping back and forth across the screen. The game is filled with bright colors that really stand out, but I feel like there is just a bit too much to look at and distract me. So many shiny things! The sound design is also spot on, rain and wind sounds great, and the sound effects of the various creatures and obstacles that you encounter along the way have a great cartoony vibe. The music is cool and soothing, but I ended up turning it off. I needed something that I could sing along with to distract my brain so I could let my thumbs take over the controls, because the more I thought about it, the worse I tended to do.
While we’re on the subject, controls make or break this game. For me they broke the game. Tumbleseed feels like a fantastically designed gem of a game, hidden behind infuriating controls. You don’t actually control your character directly, instead you move the left and right sticks to move the left and right side of a vine up and down. This controls the angle of the vine, and Tumbleseed rolls back and forth in response. It is very difficult, and very precise. You can control the deadzone, but I personally was not able to find a sweet spot. You have to avoid enemies and obstacles, while picking up crystals and planting gardens, and the game refuses to allow you to react quickly enough without losing control. This might seem weird, but I ended up playing backwards. Instead of pushing Tumbleseed up the mountain, I found myself letting him fall backwards. I wasn’t holding the controls differently, but it felt like the feeling you get when you’re backing up a truck with a trailer attached. I don’t feel like this is a case of bad design, it's more that the control scheme just didn’t click with me, and your experience might be very different.
One thing that I’d like to point out is that this game does not use motion controls, some might say that it would be perfect for them, but I think the degree of precision that is required to successfully navigate the mountain, wouldn’t be achievable with motion controls. I would have liked a difficulty slider to reduce the number of baddies or obstacles on the screen. This would allow me to build up to the level the game starts at, because it is very difficult.
In addition to the story mode the game also has non-procedurally generated levels in the daily challenge, which is like a high score game of sorts, so you can find out who can get to the end the fastest. I’d bet that Tumbleseed is a speedrunners dream, with new content every day and real skill involved in order to succeed.
Ultimately I feel like Tumbleseed is a fantastically designed gem of a game, hidden behind frustrating controls, I recommend you check out a demo of the game if possible before plunking down your hard earned money on it, as the game has potential to blow you away if you’re good at it, but if you’re not amazing at dual stick games, this game will lead to some broken controllers. That being said, I don’t doubt for a moment that this game will be popular with a segment of the market, I’m just not part of that segment.
Special thanks to RoguesPortal for asking me to write this and supplying the review copy.