by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and place and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience
-The Waste Land, Section V, T. S. Elliot
So begins the fifth section of T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land. It’s a depressing poem, one of death and hardship, and was the inspiration for the identically named game The Waste Land. While the poem doesn’t have a plot to follow, per say, developer Fledermaus says that it’s the poem’s air of desolation and cyclical loss that are mirrored in their 8-bit-ish digital adventure. While I don’t necessarily think that the game does a fantastic job of selling this emotional drain, it is a tight, fun throwback to classic side-scrolling adventure games that I absolutely enjoyed playing through.
Blast From the Past
Now I know that saying an indie game has retro influences isn’t really saying much unique or surprising any more. While it may have once been a novelty, it’s almost become the de facto form for many smaller developers. The Waste Land stands apart, however, by completely and utterly dedicating itself, for better and or worse, to games such as Metroid and Castlevania that paved the side scrolling open-ish world adventure genre. This comes through in a number of ways, the audio and visuals being perhaps the most immediately obvious. Depending on your tastes, you are going to think that the game either looks terrible or awesome. It doesn’t look inspired by games of the 80s, it straight up looks like it is one. Characters and environments have been put together pixel by pixel, animations are limited, the color palette is relatively limited, and the game only plays in 4:3. I personally loved it, for the most part. The environments are particularly enticing, covering a wide range of forests, snowy mountains, desolate ruins, Asian themed settlements and beyond. Each new area is a treat just to look at. Even more impressive is the music, which sounds fantastic. It’s just the right level of midi-cheesiness to bring me back, but also pull me into the game. I don’t often game with headphones on, but I did for The Waste Land, because I wanted that sweet nectar pouring right into my ear drums.
The only element of the graphics that I wasn’t a huge fan of was how most of the human characters look. They really don’t look like anything. I don’t mean they are amoebas or something, but they just look sort of bland. Look, I understand that games back then just didn’t have a ton of detail in a lot of the characters. I get that, so don’t say I just don’t grasp the era. There are plenty of games that still managed to give their characters a graphic identity, and most of the ones here just don’t have one. I’m not an artist so I don’t know exactly how to do it with such limitations, but I know that it can be done, and I didn’t feel it was done quite well enough in The Waste Land.
On the other hand, one of the high points of the game for me was the wide array of things trying to kill me. While at the very beginning peril will take the form of the expected - bats, giant moths, etc. - they soon take a turn for the type of bizarre popular in many classic fantasy games of yore. You’ll fight turtles with big blades darting from their shell, hanging vine monsters, giant toxin-spewing mushroom crabs, mutant triple-eyed fire-breathing zombie hell hounds, and much, much more. And that’s all in the first 45 minutes of the game. While it was cool to see how the environments and scenery changed with each new location in game, what was more exciting for me was seeing which new beasts would vying for my life.
Retro from top to bottom, interesting enemies, varied environments, tight controls, and awesome music.
Some bland looking characters, and the emotional/thematic punch never really hit for me.