In a dark forest, scarred by alien machinery and steeped in an unnatural silence, a strange, hairy creature bobs awkwardly across the foreground. Without really knowing what to do the player tries out a few buttons, and quickly discovers a way to keep the little furball in the air. After a few tumbles and unfortunate accidents, a journey through BADLAND: Game of the Year Edition has begun.
This initial sense of experimentation and discovery says a lot about the way Badland wants you to play. All you really have to do is keep moving to the right - a simple goal carried over from the title's initial release on mobile devices - but you're never really told why, or even what exactly you'll be up against. Sporting improved graphics and plenty of extra levels for its Game of the Year release, is this a mystery worth diving into on Wii U?
From the very first level, the left-hand side of the screen acts as a punishing timer, making sure that the pace is kept frantic and your aim is to always keep moving. The environment is filled with spindly branches, narrow caves and half-operational graveyards of industry, all waiting to slow your progress; so if the screen catches up to your creature then it's back to a checkpoint and a chance to re-evaluate your surroundings. Think Flappy Bird, but much better and put through a Tim Burton blender. Controlling your momentum and positioning is vital, with each tap of the 'a' button prompting a flap of your wings and a little extra height, which soon becomes second nature.
Once you've gotten the hang of flying, the game frequently throws new surprises your way to mix things up with something bizarre. Whether it's changing size, morphing your shape or even cloning yourself, more and more gameplay mechanics are slowly unveiled as you progress, without an annoying tutorial to introduce them first. Using your weight to break through foliage, shrinking down to navigate tiny passages, and rolling at high speeds to escape crumbling stalactites all make for memorably dynamic moments.
These aren't just cheap tricks either. The physics engine here is beefy enough to handle all these changes on the fly, with size, shape and texture all playing a part in puzzle-solving. Often, you'll need to clone yourself in order to go down two separate paths at once, or multiply into dozens of creatures to barge through clusters of obstacles. It might be a little trial-and-error, but your exploration and quick thinking is always rewarded.
Each stage ends with an unceremonious trip through a pipe, before you're dumped into the next set of challenges. The level-based single player campaign takes place over the course of a single day, starting in the morning and ending in the cold dead of night, with additional days waiting to be unlocked upon completion. Levels can last anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes depending on your skill, but the checkpoints are more than generous enough to avoid frustration...for the most part.
Eventually, you'll face levels with no checkpoints at all, and these pretty much require flawless execution to survive. On top of that, you're judged based on time, skill, and the amount of clones you bring to the end, with bonus missions adding to the replayability of passed levels. Rest assured - there's a seriously vicious streak to Badland's difficulty, even if it starts off a little meek.
We can't go any further without praising the gloriously grim art style, which may borrow from Limbo's shadowy palette, but ultimately stands out thanks to its sprawling jungle setting. Pierced by ominous blinking lights and unsettling architecture, the deep, foreboding woods hide their own secrets as curious figures watch silently from afar. Their bright eyes and glimpses of movement draw the player's attention away just enough to appreciate the gorgeous background art, without distracting from the task at hand. Similarly, the musical cues and sound effects play their part in setting a moody tone.
There are about 100 levels to complete, but the inclusion of both co-operative and competitive multiplayer modes brings even more gameplay if you've got some friends handy. It's offline only, as up to 4 players share a screen, but all you need is a good ol' Wiimote to join in. Over 25 dedicated competitive courses are a tonne of fun, and it's easy to make a playlist of your favourites. Playing with all 4 is total chaos, even when you're meant to be co-operating, so teamwork be damned - it's every clone for themselves!
We recommend playing Badland in short bursts, despite the addictive "one more try" mentality it promotes. It's inventive enough to just about keep things from getting stale overall, but after about an hour of constant progress, fatigue can and will set in. If you aren't throwing your GamePad through a window in anger at later levels, you'll be itching for something else if you play entire episodes at once. It's a gorgeous, intriguing world - take your time with it.
Badland is as dark, brooding, and mysterious as the most sullen teenager, but this seemingly simple game is built on a foundation of ingenious design. Its hands-off approach to guiding the player makes for an invigorating challenge where it counts, and plentiful checkpoints help alleviate the frustration that comes from later levels. It teaches you how to interact with the environment before turning it all on its head with a slew of mutations that change your abilities, and that's a little bit brilliant. Don't be mistaken, a sense of repetition means this is definitely well-suited to shorter play sessions, but we still reckon you should have your eyes on the horizon for this beastie.