One of the biggest criticisms the Wii U has faced during its lifespan is that not enough games released on the system have utilised the full potential of Nintendo's unique GamePad controller. Red Column's three-part episodic game 3Souls aims to fill the void, providing an inquisitive 2D puzzle platform experience that is designed from the ground-up for the Wii U GamePad.
3Souls - Episode 1: Nelesa (with two more episodes coming as DLC in the future) introduces the player to the world of Mustland. In this land there are people known as Ánimas, who wear life-essential masks which protect their souls from the world around them. Souls float around the Ánimas similar to a celestial light, revealing their innermost thoughts and feelings. The protagonist of the first 3Souls episode is Nelesa, a girl trapped in the sad cells of Moon Prison who is seeking a better life. The player, via the assistance of the GamePad, is able to connect with the world of Mustland and help Nelesa escape.
Episode one begins with the first Ánima locked up in a cell. With the aid of the GamePad the player is able to view and interact with the tiny pixel character's soul, revealing her feelings and thoughts. These feelings and thoughts act as both visual and audio cues to help the player solve on-screen puzzles so that Nelesa can progress. Eventually, the first lot of clues all tie together with the discovery of a hidden passage.
These challenges that Nelesa must face increase in difficulty over time. Going beyond the character's thoughts and feelings, the player will be required to make use of the microphone, touch screen and camera on the GamePad. One of the earlier featured mechanics requires the player to blow into the microphone to activate wind fans so that Nelesa is able to jump across bigger gaps. Eventually Nelesa will encounter seemingly unreachable platforms, only to discover the GamePad and its motion ability can tap into prison security cameras, which then reveals a series of hidden platforms that can reach even higher points. Other levels of interaction incorporate the touch screen; one such example is cleaning off dusty plaques with the stylus. These signs often reveal hidden maps, messages or artwork, illustrating where the actual exits are in certain locations.
Although the difficulty level doesn't rapidly spike, each mechanic introduced is built upon over time. This grows frustrating rather quickly due to the trial and error nature of each task. Many of the platform and puzzles elements incorporated into 3Souls will set the player up to fail on their first lot of attempts. One example of this is with invisible moving platforms only viewable on the GamePad while Nelesa can only be seen on the television screen. The dual-screen idea is self-evident here, but this is by no means an enjoyable platform challenge; while it's not impossible to get past this, by the time the challenge has been overcome there's more of a bitter aftertaste about the experience rather than the feeling of a triumphant success.
One other notable challenge that further highlights this problem with the GamePad implementation is when Nelesa encounters a series of security doors. Each one has a safe code on it that needs to be solved in order to progress; like with the platforms, the initial concept builds upon itself over time. The first door you can locate the pin number on a painting nearby using the GamePad, but the main issue is the input of these codes via the safe wheel displayed on the controller. The motion controls used here are so temperamental that the experience becomes rage inducing. This initial idea further develops with the player eventually having to solve one wheel with no hints in the surrounding vicinity, and another one requiring a QR code to be scanned via a mobile phone, or another nearby compatible device. One of the same doors in this section then places the player under extreme pressure with dangerous enemies flying about - meaning there is only a short window of time to solve the code before they return.
These dangerous enemies, in reality, are actually just flying flowers. There are also standard flowers which are apparently deadly threats to Ánimas, because they can remove the life essential masks from their faces. Other traditional platform elements like lava pit falls are also featured; in each area of the game Nelesa has three health points, and if all of these are lost she must restart an area. This only adds to the frustration at times, when Nelesa must travel through an area solving entire puzzles all over again.
In a nutshell, dropping from platforms into a pit of burning coals a million times over is not fun when you're unable to make a proper decision about where to drop in the first place, nor is missing a moving platform as you ascend because it's only visible on one screen and not the other. Locks requiring nothing but guess work are not satisfying to solve, nor is it fun to solve such tasks in near impossible time frames. While challenges are always welcome in platformer / adventure experiences, there is a sense of unfairness at times in 3Souls. The level of interaction with the Wii U GamePad is admirable in terms of intent but is unfortunately excessive and not always smooth. While the transition to and from the television screen is mostly seamless - beyond aforementioned examples where challenge designs fall short - it becomes tiresome.
All of this adds up, and unfortunately does spoil what is enjoyable about 3Souls. The narration of the story and voice acting is sublime. It certainly captures the eerie atmosphere and mystery of the story behind Nelesa and the world around her. Many of the game's environments contribute to the narrative, with the beautiful conceptual style of artwork assisting with the storytelling, whether it is displaying a block of cells housing fellow prisoners or portraying murky maze-like sewers. This is supported by a soothing yet appropriately lonesome soundtrack. There are also loud ping noises linked to Nelesa's soul, which will provide a hint or clue whenever available. A second player can join in on the action too, with one player taking control of the platforming responsibilities while the other handles the interactive elements via the GamePad. In many ways this is an easier way to manage the game environment and dual screen approach, so is worth trying out.
3Souls - Episode 1: Nelesa has an intriguing story, character and setting, but ultimately falls short of its full potential as a puzzle platform game. There is far too much trial and error when it comes to a lot of puzzles or working out how to navigate each area. While a lot of the challenges steadily increase over time, the problem is that you can't but help feel cheated whenever you lose a life due to the amount of guesswork required. With another two episodes on the way, Red Column must find the right balance in terms of difficulty and execution of GamePad ideas. Give this a go if you are feeling patient enough for a slow paced puzzle platformer.