The Wii U eShop, unsurprisingly, isn't short of options when it comes to platformers, especially as it's a genre typically associated with Nintendo systems and their gamers. Wooden Sen'Sey, published by Neko Entertainment, aims to capitalise on that popularity and remind gamers of old-fashioned difficulty; these are noble yet tricky goals.
Though the level of challenge may bring controller-throwing 8-bit titles to mind, this isn't a retro-styled title in the sense of Shovel Knight, but very much in the modern school. It should be highlighted that it's also one of the better-looking download efforts on Wii U, with a playful art style and tone being accompanied by some stylish effects. Shifting camera angles add some pizazz, and there are only occasional hints of slow-down; throw in some decent, Japan-themed music and this title delivers some top-notch presentation values.
That's a positive first start, and the first level gradually introduces you to the core mechanics of play — it's immediately striking that our hero darts along at quite a zip, careering along with a decent leap. In time you're introduced to basic melee attacks and grappling hooks, used both for swinging on wooden beams and ceilings and for a pound attack; the latter is also vital for boosted jumps. The mapping of these moves is relatively instinctive with a combination of the face buttons and a shoulder button, yet can be frustrating to execute. That's the overriding issue with Wooden Sen'Sey — there are good ideas, but it falls down on what matters the most.
The physics are a primary issue, as our hero doesn't always react realistically to the world. The uninspiring enemy design — the majority are variations on black blobs — doesn't help, but using some as platforms immediately feels a little strange. The standard melee attack has such a poor range, meanwhile, while also bringing a struggle to strike indeterminate hit-boxes on some of the weaker enemies; while it builds up to a little combo, any but the standard grunts generally take you to the cleaners if you tackle them with a melee attack.
As a result of this the best method of attack is the pound attack, rather like an extended bounce attack that brings DuckTales to mind. It doesn't feel as sharp as that retro example, however, and as the game insists on using the left analogue stick for movement can be missed at times; it's a one-hit move, too, so you may find yourself in a pattern of attack / position / attack again. It lacks flow, and can be frustrating in tougher encounters.
This is a particularly difficult game, too, and in our view goes beyond retro-level challenge to unadulterated cheapness. There aren't many levels, with an unlockable Time Trial mode, but actually seeing the content on offer is outrageously difficult; the level designs are often reasonable, yet it's the off-kilter physics, slippery and unreliable, that let the experience down. The grapple should allow you to swing around environments with a sense of joy, yet maintaining momentum is surprisingly awkward, as the analogue control leads to unplanned shortening of the rope; another good idea with poor execution.
That's not to say that there aren't irritating moments of level design, with the star-throwing villains generally the greatest sinners. The title's habit of shutting off a small area for a battle is normally acceptable, but one section places these menaces at either side on high, narrow platforms. You have to swing up there, but the narrow gap makes momentum an issue; as you position yourself they throw a star and cause you to fall. Considering you're limited to four hits, even the regular energy boost in this area isn't enough to make it fair. Challenging? Absolutely. Good design? Certainly not.
Battling through the campaign can feel like a chore, ultimately, and this player generally considers himself thoroughly competent through beating many action platformers. As for the Time Trials, getting past the first half dozen or so with bronze awards is punishing, and infuriating enough that getting to the latter challenges will be a pipe dream for all but the best players. It's a case, it seems to us, of the developers having over-familiarity and strong skill levels and considering the challenge to be a virtue, but this game has simply gone too far.
It's a pity, too, as there are some moments of real quality here. We've already highlighted the presentation, but there are also some playful diversions from the norm, such as an underwater level — not as difficult as standard stages — and some cute retro references. As an IP this has the potential to be a success, while the developers have gone to the effort to throw in off-TV play, second screen GamePad info when using the TV, and some alternative control schemes. All, sadly, undermined by a level of difficulty and unrefined physics that succeed in causing a great deal of frustration.
Wooden Sen'SeY has all of the materials to be a winner — sharp visuals, clever touches and plenty of charm. The execution falls down, however, as the intention to offer 'old-school' difficulty isn't backed up by polished physics and impeccably structured level design. Those factors all need to come together for this approach to work, but what we have is an overly difficult, at times intensely irritating, platformer. If you're a seriously skilled player, the kind that can boast of beating the most gruelling of games, then this may be worth a punt. For everyone else, we suggest finding an alternative Master.