Review: Sproggiwood

By Sean Clancy 06 Aug 2015 0
This is what's known in the extermination biz as "going ham." This is what's known in the extermination biz as "going HAM."

Somewhere in the back of my mind, while playing Sproggiwood, there's this refrain: I'm here to help, I'm here to help, I'm definitely, most positively, here to help. It's strongest when I'm staring, befuddled, at the idyllic town which serves as the game's market/quest hub/low-rent Sims analogue--a saccharine settlement which grows as the player completes levels with different characters, unlocking new villagers, decorations, and buildings (the last of which, in turn, house new playable character classes).

This refrain is weakest when I'm plowing through Sproggiwood proper, which is to say when I'm actually playing the thing, cleaving through hordes (families?) of asexually reproducing jellies with the stout Warrior, or stabbing back and forth between vampiric will o' wisps with the Thief. I'm chaining powers into other powers, unlocking more abilities (or stronger iterations of the same) as the experience points roll in until, finally, I bring down this boss or that and see the end-stage rewards screen, which details my gold winnings and what new villager I've unlocked.

The villagers, as it happens, all look like one of the handful of mobs I've been clearing out of the surrounding wilderness and ruins. I mean, exactly. They're not even wearing hats. So stay with me when I say that Sproggiwood is really about low-fantasy gentrification.

The setup is that you're a "cloghead," one of presumably many square-noggin-having peoples renowned for their orderly nature. One inter-dimensional sprite is so enamored with your squareness he's whisked you away to Sproggiwood, to serve as counterbalance to a newly emerged, rapidly expanding race of sentient mushrooms. It's like the Istari in Lord of the Rings, but if the wizards just haphazardly went around killing folks instead of manipulating people and giving wise political counsel. Less Gandalf, more Sharkey.

It's also silly as hell, naturally, and all the more annoying for the half-winking tone the game maintains throughout. Sure, the lore's not the point, but Sproggiwood commits the all-too-common sin of cheekily and consistently pointing out how ramshackle the story is. "Isn't this sort of lame?" it says, too subtly to be genuinely funny, yet too obvious to be anything but a clear meta-dig at perfunctory game narratives--lazy writing which spawns lazy writing about lazy writing, sure as those jellies will spawn yet more jellies when cut in two.

I prefer "of advanced age," youngling. I prefer "of advanced age," youngling.

Still, this--plus the game's often uninspired aesthetic, which can veer into Cyanide and Happiness territory--is only the veneer which conceals Sproggiwood's surprisingly meaty core. Six classes total, each with four moves gradually unlocked as you progress through a level, with each ability powered by blue stars of stamina gained from killing mobs.

Sproggiwood really opens up the first time you realize that a one-star ability can be spammed indefinitely against weaker mobs, with each kill sustaining the chain of slaughter. On the other end of things you have your third- and fourth-tier abilities, moves which can dispatch a tough mob, sure, but are better deployed when you can be sure to recoup some or all of their stamina cost.

The Archer, for example, has a one-star move which deals ranged damage to a single target--great for small jellies and spiders, but inefficient against bigger jellies and bosses. Then there's the piercing shot, which hits all mobs in a straight line. Positioned correctly, that's a slice of boss damage and a surfeit of sweet celestial stamina juice for the weaklings you've ganked. Things gets even more economical when you've upgraded a move twice, to its full potential. In the case of the Archer's piercing shot, the arrow wraps around the world itself, hitting foes both ahead and behind.

A minotaur without a maze is like a belabored simile without a pithy ending. A minotaur without a maze is like a belabored simile without a pithy ending.

There's a streamlined loot system as well, which can further increase a character's damage-dealing or damage-taking potential. Some weapons shoot fire columns out with each strike, while others do, well, more of a wave. Then you have ice weapons which are... largely the same as the fire ones. (In fairness: ice sports less upfront damage, but a guaranteed immobilizing freeze the first time you hit a mob.)

With honest-to-goodness health potions being somewhat rare drops--mixed in as they are with the likes of stamina potions, haste tonics, and invisibility colas--items that afford reliable healing are among the most valuable in the game. Vampiric weapons, for example, restore hit points with each successful kill, while different variations of pottery garb will net you health for each vase you break in a level (there are many).

At the start of the game it can seem like the right combination of items will always get you through a level--especially since, once discovered, you can buy these goods from the shop with gold from dungeon runs. You can also spend gold upgrading buildings in that odd town/unlicensed zoo you're developing, upgrades that, among other bonuses, will increase the rate at which your heroes level-up or populate Sproggiwood's levels with more treasure pots and healing shrines. These are one-time, upfront buys; once you shell out for a character's flame dagger or vampiric bow you'll always have the option to start a run with that kit.

Thing is, Sproggiwood gets tough quick once you're out of the opening levels. Enemy variety is only somewhat lacking--there are several different skins for a handful of mob types, but the color-coding actually means something. For example: after death purple jellies leave behind slime piles which do electric damage when stepped on, crisping you (aww), but also zapping foes near you (yay). Blue jellies, meanwhile, leave behind goo that, left untouched, will eventually spawn another, larger blue jelly (kill this and you might face three of the smaller variety, with each leaving its own greasy clone patch after death).

"Pretty soon you'll find yourself eating government cheese and living in a CHARMING SHACK down by the RIVER!" "Pretty soon you'll find yourself eating government cheese and living in a CHARMING SHACK down by the RIVER!"

Sproggiwood loves throwing the player into this latter sort of pickle. Fail to act quickly enough and a pair of blue jellies can grow into an insurmountable blob. Spiders--which endlessly spawn until you destroy their home nest--force you to make risky plays, foregoing relative safety in the narrow passages that mobs will gladly funnel down. (Sometimes, these spiders explode.)

Boss fights are tough as well, though not in nearly as clever a fashion as most of Sproggiwood's regular baddies. Mostly they're tanky, with just one main ability (say, a charge, or a vampiric aura) to their credit. The basic strategy for end-level fights is knowing when to take a swing at the boss and when to farm up stamina on lesser mobs--the amount of health you walk into the scrum with will invariably be worth more than your ability to grok the big bad's moves.

Still, Sproggiwood is a clever, fast-paced RPG disguised by a tawdry facade. Is it particularly deep? No. Is there too much grind to it? Yes. Does the whole town element seem tacked on and unnecessary (albeit cute), like Bastion's eponymous bastion without the warmth and heartbreak which made that refuge so dear? Definitely.

But, despite the cotton-candy style, Sproggiwood really is its own thing. Name that other game where you can play a vampire wielding a vampiric dagger, killing off all but one of each species and--in a twisted inversion of the biblical Ark--leaving the last to live out its days in a Farmville-esque town from Hell. I'll wait.

Review: Sproggiwood

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