Mable & The Wood is yet another example of a game with huge potential that’s somehow been mostly squandered thanks to poor execution. It takes the tried-and-tested idea of shape-shifting (famously utilised in games like Altered Beast and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess) and runs with it, moulding its exploration and combat mechanics around the concept. The problem, though, is that while it's a perfectly serviceable platformer for the most part, it’s all been done before – and quite a bit better than this, too.
You play as Mable, a young girl awakened by a group of cultists to save the world. Endowed with an impressive sword, Mable is unfortunately far too dainty to carry it properly, let alone swing it. Instead, she’s granted with the unique ability to morph into a fairy, allowing her to zip along the environment and summon the sword back to her waiting grip – Thor would be proud. As she navigates the Metroidvania-inspired world, she encounters numerous, formidable bosses, each one granting her with a new ability upon defeat, Mega Man-style. The overall plot is pretty minimal; there’s very little reason as to why you’re setting off on such a grand adventure, but you just do it because you’re essentially asked to.
The combat is fairly unique in comparison to other platform games; since Mable can’t wield her sword in the normal fashion, she needs to get a bit more creative. When you fly around in the fairy form, the sword remains stuck in the ground. Whenever you decide to summon it back into your hands, it will effectively slice through any poor soul that happens to be in its path. This is just the starting form, too. Soon enough, you’ll be able to transform into a spider, a stone statue and more, all with their own unique abilities. Of course, should you choose to, you can traverse the world without harming anything, but this is far too easy thanks to the docile nature of the creatures – very few will actually make the effort to harm you.
Utilising each form within Mable & The Wood is essential to navigating the environment and defeating certain enemies. The problem is that some forms are much, much more intuitive than others. Flying around as the fairy just feels right, and despite the fact that your magic gauge runs out pretty quickly, it won’t be long until you’re able to soar through each screen with ease. In comparison, swinging around in the spider form is awkward at the best of times, and downright infuriating at worst. You’ll frequently swing right into the path of enemies, cutting your own health down dramatically in the process. You'll want to default back to your favourite form whenever possible, but there are frequent moments in the game that require you to switch it up a bit.
The environment itself is nice enough for the most part, with some areas showing impressive verticality, and there’s a nice variation of visual flourishes. Unfortunately, there’s very little challenge involved in traversing the world (other than the actual frustration of adequately controlling Mable), and a lot of the areas will have very similar layouts to one another, making for a pretty dull experience. At its worst, you’ll simply move forward through the environment, with the odd platform dotted around in a similar way the pipes are utilised in earlier Super Mario levels. Mable & The Wood is pitched as a Metroidvania, but it’s got far more in common with traditional platformers than it does with, say, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow or the more recent Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.
Visually, Mable & The Wood looks pretty great overall, with some highly detailed, pixelated characters bringing the world to life – though we’ve no doubt that the art style will fall flat on its face with some gamers fatigued by its use in modern indie games. The environments are similarly impressive, with excellent lighting effects put to great use. 'God rays' shine through tree canopies, lighting up an otherwise grim swampland, and villages burst with colour and charm, making these safe havens really stand apart from the rest of the game. We have to mention the stellar soundtrack, as well. It showcases a wonderful range of jaunty music that really fits in with the overall tone of the game.
It’s such a shame Mable & The Wood can’t back up its interesting premise and impressive visuals with engaging gameplay. It’s a unique take on the shapeshifting concept, to be sure, but navigating the environment is more frustrating than it is fun. There’s a nice variety of boss encounters that keep the experience feeling relatively fresh, but overall, this is one Metroidvania that fails to live up to the hype.