Sometimes you play one of those games that you positively hate, but you just can't bring yourself to stop playing the silly thing. TumbleSeed is that game. Don't let the cute visuals and approachable vibes deceive you, this is a game that feels close to impossible to beat and will no doubt tempt you to pitch your Switch across the room on multiple occasions. All the same, this is a tightly constructed experience that knows exactly what it wants to be and pursues that end with a nearly single-minded determination. And if you can stomach the difficulty, you'll find there's actually lots to love here.
Gameplay is quite unlike anything this writer has experienced, nailing that perfect balance of being easy to pick up and nearly impossible to master. In TumbleSeed you control the titular 'seed by controlling a horizontal bar on which it rolls back and forth. Pushing up or down on the analogue sticks will raise or lower the respective side of the bar, making the game an elaborate and stressful balancing act as you finesse the speed at which the seed rolls one way or the other. As you ever so slowly make your way up the mountain you must avoid potholes, enemies, projectiles, and just about every hazard you can think of. If you fall in a hole along the way you'll lose a heart and respawn at the last checkpoint you planted (more on that later), and if you lose all three of your hearts — by way of any hazard — you have to start all the way from the bottom of the mountain.
Make no mistake, TumbleSeed is a ridiculously hard game, but it never feels unduly frustrating. The first section alone is nail-biting enough, and there's four more after that which increase the difficulty factor exponentially as new baddies and hazards are tossed at you in an increasingly more aggressive manner. The difficulty comes from the relative lack of control that you have over the seed; you can only tilt the bar one way or the other and hope that the seed picks up enough momentum to dodge whatever is coming its way. Throw in some projectiles, homing enemies and a lot of holes, and it's suddenly all but impossible to navigate the obstacles without some serious surgeon skills.
Your seed has a plethora of powers that aid in the journey, though their usefulness is something of a mixed bag. As you travel you'll occasionally come across little shrines that offer you a brief respite from the dangerous environment and a choice between two new powers. At the tap of a button you can change between various abilities, such as a tumbleseed that drops a checkpoint or one that lays mines in its wake for a set period of time.
To activate your current seed's power you just roll over a seed patch and automatically pay the required amount of crystals (if you have enough) to activate it. As you travel up the mountain, crystals lay about waiting to be picked up, and they act as a sort-of currency that governs the usage of your powers. It adds an interesting risk / reward system to an already grueling game, because both crystals and soil patches are pretty scarce to begin with and only grow less common the farther you go.
The main issue with this is that not all the abilities are particularly useful, and even the useful ones have some strings attached that limit their effectiveness. For example, one seed power allows you to add another heart to your count, but it requires you to roll over four patches to activate once, spending a crystal each time. There's certainly a broad array of powers on offer, and some of them have pretty cool and creative effects, but we found ourselves sticking to the same two or three in our runs just because it wasn't worth the risk or cost of using the others.
Of course, it wouldn't be a roguelike - or 'roguelite' as it's been described - if there wasn't an element of chance involved, so each time you die you get sent all the way back down the mountain and the whole landscape is changed. In addition to that you lose any crystals you collected and begin with the same basic four seed powers. This is what will ultimately make or break the game for many; it really comes down to just how punishing you like your games to be. Tumbleseed effectively erases any progress you've made at each game over, aside from stats of your last run and the record of your best run. Otherwise, you start over from square one, every time.
This can unfortunately lead to the game getting a bit too frustrating and repetitive for some players. Yes, the randomized nature of the game makes each run unique, but it can be a bit disheartening to see over twenty minutes of progress go up in smoke. If you're the kind of gamer that likes a good feedback loop and a steady rate of progress, you won't find any of that here. The progress comes from your own personal knowledge and skill in the game improving over time, but little more comes from the game itself. The erasure can be mitigated somewhat by completing simple quests — such as picking up x crystals — that will grant you portals which let you start higher up, but most of the game will still be spent retreading a lot of the same ground trying to get just a little farther.
Now, much has been made about this game being a "flagship" title for the Switch's HD Rumble feature, and for its part it is pretty interesting. As the seed rolls to the right or left of the screen the Joy-Con will rumble more or less depending upon the speed at which the seed is moving. It's one of those things that you don't strictly notice when playing — due to the laser focus required to stay alive — but it's a neat addition that adds to the experience. At the very least, it makes portable mode the definitive way to play, as the effect is most noticeable when the screen rests between the Joy-Con.
The presentation is quite admirable, too, featuring some quirky visuals that somewhat call to mind the strange vistas of the Patapon games. Environments are quite distinct from each other, featuring a broad palette of colours and set pieces, and the game has a generally light look to it due to how thinly outlined most shapes tend to be. The music is composed of sounds like tribal drums, ambient forest noises and banjos, all coming together to produce some excellent mood music. Nothing here is strictly memorable, but it definitely gels well with the focus required on the exact gameplay.
In terms of replayability, it ultimately depends upon how good or bad you are at picking up the controls and learning how to manage the game's threats effectively. Theoretically speaking it should only take about an hour to reach the top of the mountain, but should you somehow be able to do that there's always the challenge of trying to do it faster, or with less deaths, or with less powers, so as to climb up the global leaderboard. If that's not enough, there's also a daily challenge in which you're given one shot at getting as far as you possibly can up a set layout. It may not be radically different from the main mode, but it's a nice diversion for those who maybe just want to play a few minutes of the game per day.
All told, Tumbleseed is a game that will certainly divide opinion. The absurdly high difficulty demands that you put up or shut up; if you don't take the time to be patient and focus on improving your skills in controlling the seed, you will not find much enjoyment here. However, if you're willing to stick it out and put in the time required to 'git gud', you'll find a deeply rewarding game with nearly unlimited replayability between the daily challenges and the constant tease of getting a better score. If you consider yourself a skilled and patient gamer, give Tumbleseed a shot. If not, perhaps something else might be a better choice.