Review: Ittle Dew (Wii U eShop)

A Link to the (Swedish) Past

Let's get this out of the way first: if you like The Legend of Zelda, you'll absolutely love Swedish studio Ludosity's new Wii U eShop adventure title Ittle Dew – it's a love letter to A Link to the Past with the cartoony art style of The Wind Waker. With a sweeping soundtrack and a charming, self-aware sense of humour, Ittle Dew is full brain-bending puzzles and a branching, nonlinear gameworld that will have you coming back for more long after you've completed the main quest. Frustrating combat and a few glaring technical issues aside, Ittle Dew is one of the most well-designed download games ever released on the eShop, approachable enough for young players and deep enough for hardcore Zelda veterans.

Like Zelda, the strangely-named Ittle Dew is a 2D adventure game with a heavy focus on puzzles and exploration. You play as the eponymous Ittle Dew, a "bumptious" adventurer (as the game manual puts it... now that's a great adjective!) stranded on a mystical island with her fairy-fox friend Tippsie, who as the name implies gives her tips along the way. Ittle wears a green shirt with blonde hair so you don't forget where the game gets its inspiration from, and Tippsie is basically a less-irritating, alcoholic fox version of Link's flying helper Navi. The only way to escape the island is for Ittle to convince the item shop owner, a mysterious pirate named Itan with a boat for a hat, to build her a raft. But of course, Itan won't just sell her the raft; she must retrieve "The Artifact" from "The Castle" before he'll agree to build one. So begins Ittle Dew's dungeon-crawling, puzzle-solving adventure. This postmodern self-aware style of game is all the rage these days and the concept risks becoming stale; luckily, the warm-hearted humour and optimistic outlook help Ittle Dew feel not like a cynical satire but more like a loving tribute.

Ittle Dew is a striking audiovisual achievement. Everything in the game world uses a shaky hand-drawn animation style reminiscent of Yoshi's Island, and the cute, rounded cartoon characters are equal parts Wind Waker and Costume Quest. A particular highlight is Itan's item shop, known as Itan Shop – rather than the top-down view of the rest of the game, Itan's shop is presented in a cinematic head-on camera angle with a depth of field that lets you savour every obscure item he has on sale, from the swordfish on the ceiling to the magic eight ball in the corner that reads "STOP SHAKING ME."

Accompanying the beautiful item shop is an instantly memorable song. It seems all Swedish video games are required to have atmospheric soundtracks, and Ittle Dew is no exception; the sweeping, swashbuckling music gives the game a melancholy, nostalgic feel that will stick with you long after you've put down the controller.

Ittle Dew handles how you'd expect it to: control stick or D-pad to move, abilities assigned to each of the four face buttons, and the Select button to swap the TV and GamePad screens. You can press the L button for Tippsie to give you a hint on how to beat each room – they're great hints that will help you get out of a bind but don't make the game too easy. If you're a pro, you don't have to use the hint system at all, but if you're less experienced it's nice that the it's only a button press away.

There are no touch screen controls in Ittle Dew, but that seems unimportant. The main screen shows gameplay and the secondary screen shows you the level map, as well as how many of the treasure chests you've collected in the current level; this is helpful for making sure you don't miss any of the extras. This setup has the best of both worlds: it shows different, useful information on both screens while at the same time allowing for easy off-TV play. The problem, though, is that for some reason there's no audio on the GamePad; presumably this will get patched in the future, but it's a bummer for now, as you'll have to either stick to your TV or play on the GamePad in silence.

Unfortunately, these are only the beginning of the technical issues in Ittle Dew. The initial loading time for the game to boot up is uncomfortably long, and once you're in the game, each time you enter a new room it stutters noticeably for a few seconds while all the data in the room is loaded. In addition, audio (both music and sound effects) will sometimes cut out entirely, which is especially heartbreaking since the game's music is so great. Worst of all, in our playthrough we encountered a game-crashing bug three different times, which required us to do a hard-reset of the Wii U system. Luckily, Ittle Dew auto-saves your progress any time you gain a new item, enter a new area, or open a treasure chest, so no progress was lost, but that still doesn't excuse the game-freezing glitch.

It's a shame all these issues persist, because beneath the technical problems Ittle Dew is a true gem. The auto-saving mechanic and the Tippsie hint system are indicative of its welcoming design philosophy; not only does Ittle have unlimited lives, but when she dies (in an adorable child-falling-over animation) she respawns in the same room, so there's no trekking through the same dungeon over and over. Not only that, but the game's pause menu includes a "Retry Room" option, so if you're stuck on a puzzle or cornered by enemies, you can reset the entire room with no penalty.

You'll need that retry option, because Ittle Dew presents some truly cerebral puzzles; it's a good thing this reviewer played Adventures of Lolo not too long ago, because many of the brainteasers revolve around moving blocks. The four abilities Ittle gains throughout her journey are all connected to this block-moving mechanic in some way: an ice wand that can freeze objects so Ittle can slide them across the room, a fire sword that can melt ice blocks, a portal block that can be placed anywhere, and a portal wand that can teleport enemies (or Ittle herself) to the portal block. All these items have multiple uses, and as you get deeper into the game you'll find all sorts of nifty secondary tactics, like using the ice wand to freeze walls that can then reflect shots from the portal wand, or using the portal block to redirect patrolling enemies in the direction you want them to go.

Every aspect of this action-puzzle gameplay is impeccable, except for one thing: the combat. Ittle must get incredibly close to enemies before they're within range of her melee attacks, so it's very tough to avoid taking damage. Enemies patrol around rooms in a semi-random manner that makes it interesting since they never walk in the exact same pattern twice, but it also means you never know when they'll bump right into you and inflict damage. The penalty for death isn't harsh, but this is still a major annoyance in some sequences of the game where you'll wish the developers abandoned combat entirely in favour of pure, unadulterated puzzle solving.

You can finish Ittle Dew in under five hours, but it has all sorts of replay value. The genius level design allows for branching paths, sequence breaking, and even multiple ways to reach the final boss battle prematurely. Whether you're a completionist or a speed runner, there's something here for you: there are many entirely optional dungeons that exist solely for the dungeon-spelunking enthusiasts, and a wide array of humorous Pokémon-like collectible cards of every enemy in the game for you to seek out if you want to. Once you acquire all the items it gets a bit easier, but experienced players can challenge themselves to finish the game without getting every power-up; the game even offers the option to display a timer at the bottom of the screen so speed runners can keep track of their pace.

In a gaming industry where strong, non-sexualised female protagonists are hard to come by, Ittle Dew is a breath of fresh air – not only is Ittle herself a lady, but almost all the enemies you'll face in the game are female. None of the enemies are very sinister; many of them are just girls wearing animal-suit pyjamas in the vein of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book Where the Wild Things Are, nonchalantly trudging around the levels because it's their job. Ittle even finds the bad guys' bedroom at one point in the castle, where she discovers they're just regular people.

Ittle Dew oozes with charm, from the pyjama-clad enemies to the creepy old men littered throughout the gameworld who claim to give you hints; in fact, they're deceptive scarecrows that try to send you in the wrong direction or distract you from hidden passageways. Enemy designs are all quirky, and the dialogue is subversive in a fun, lighthearted way; this is an impressive accomplishment — in the sense of the English translation being so strong — for a development team based in Sweden, which is acknowledged briefly when one of the game's first bosses starts speaking to you in Swedish. Little touches like this make this a delightfully endearing experience.

Conclusion

Ittle Dew is a top-class puzzle-adventure title that Zelda fans will absolutely adore. Even if you're not a Hyrule aficionado, there's enough wit and charm (and one of our favourite soundtracks in the entire Wii U library) to make it appealing to players from all walks of life. Unfortunately, the combat mechanic is sub-par, and most egregiously the game is full of technical issues. They are by no means a deal breaker, though, and you should definitely check this one out; Ittle Dew is one of the most clever, well-designed indie titles on the eShop, and hopefully most of the technical problems will be ironed out down the road if the game gets enough support.

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