Wavetale is a videogame. This videogame was created by Thunderful Games. This leads me to try and unpick the thick web of different companies related to the group. The close relationship between Image & Form (the Steamworld folks!) and Zoink (Lost in Random and Fe!) seems to be where this game comes from, though it’s unclear.
Those two devs are now under one roof at Thunderful Games. The Thunderful Group came about through a merger that happened at Bergsala. And Bergsala has been a vital part of Nintendo’s distribution in Europe over the last 40 years as excellently recounted over at IGN (so I’m not gonna bother retreading that here, it would be much, much worse).
So, while the name Thunderful might not conjure up much other than ‘indie publisher’, the folks behind Wavetale are part of an excellent spiderweb of pedigree and intriguing history. What’s that got to do with anything? Uhh, I dunno, I just think it’s kind of interesting. Mostly because I really love Steamworld Dig 2.
Either way, Wavetale, stuck on Google Stadia since last year, has made the leap to consoles – and whether you like it or not, you should be at least a little bit interested.
You are Siggy, in a painterly, post-war-decrepit archipelago struggling to fight against this black gloom that swamps the quiet islands from some old evil nemesis. With your grandma, you set out to find sparks to power up the lighthouse and fight back this swampy sludge. But, she doesn’t want you going in the water…and you’re on an archipelago…
Then, a storm of sludge swamps you away to a tiny island. You make a friend, a shadowy creature swimming through the sea. They stick a foot out of the water. You touch feet, and Siggy clumsily reenacts Jesus and walks on the water. Then, you glide.
This first moment of movement and momentum is a joyous and lively skate across gently billowing waves, an overwhelming feeling of freedom in comparison to the brief and heavy-booted trudge on land from earlier. This movement is Wavetale’s key.
As you skate across the water, you can jump, double jump, air glide, dive, speed up, and grapple onto certain objects, all while floating across the water gracefully. This handful of movement actions forces upon you the urge to play around. Like SSX or Tony Hawk, the movement is addictive, but there are no high scores to hunt or sick tricks to pull off. You do it just so you can do the other stuff (which is not, in this case, spraying graffiti everywhere).
The other stuff is the chores – good chores – that dot the islands. It genuinely reminds me of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, as I glide over the waves before leaping onto islands to see what’s going on.
When you land on an island you find strange sludge slimes that need to be beaten down with your net on a stick, and they proceed to produce nice golden currency for you to buy cute hats. You can also use a grappling hook to nab these currency orbs that dot the landscape, which feels pretty good.
Defeating these strange enemies is an easy affair. There’s a light attack and a heavy attack, but you can literally just hit the light attack over and over without much of a challenge. That’s fine, I’m not here for Dark Souls. What’s less fine is the stiffness of it all.
While at sea your character moves like a figure skater with rockets strapped to their heels, yet on land they wear boots of lead. For example, while running, if you execute an attack, your character suddenly slows. There’s no fluid sense of weight. This jarring lack of momentum on land has to be there to ensure that sea skating is a dizzying rush. I just wish there was a little more friction in the combat.
Either way, the combat isn’t the focus of the game, yet occasionally hints at wanting to have more action chops than it actually does. As you spin your stick to fly through the air, you can slam down an attack on opponents, which feels good. But then slipping back into light/heavy attack combos never offers the same feedback.
Still, there’s other stuff that makes it all fun, which is the main thing. As you beat down these strange creatures, you also hunt for ways to traverse the various platforms to reach your goal. The goal may be a spark or a switch or something similar, and along the way, you come across other switches, which in turn activate grapple points and moving platforms and whatnot. This is how you get around the land.
All these different mechanisms are lined up clinically to create a parkour climb that turns into a bobsled run, which then turns into grapple-hook monkey bars that make you feel like Spider-man. It’s endlessly fun when the gauntlet stays connected, which for the most part, it does.
So, the sea is your horizontal plane – ultrawide and ultra speedy without that much to do but that’s fine because it feels nice to sea skate – while the land is your vertical plane – dense and tall, littered with enemies, currency, and objectives. That sure sounds like a solid gameplay loop to me.
And it is. Even if the fundamentals have little charm on paper, in-game it’s all coloured so brightly and filled with cutesy characters that it’s actually quite nice that doing stuff is simply good. So many delightful indies forget to be a videogame (yet are often still great, mind you), but Wavetale is as videogamey as these sorts of videogames get.
To keep everything feeling like a videogame, Wavetale also has graphics, which is where things get a little harder to love. While the game is still great fun to play, things can be a tad blurry and the framerate can take a hit in busy moments. I don’t usually care too much about this stuff, but having had the chance to play it on Xbox, this game really shines in higher fidelity. It’s still playable though, and I still had a great time getting around, so I don’t think it’s that big a deal unless you’re a framerate aficionado. If you only have a Nintendo Switch, it’s still worth picking up.
The thing these graphics are showing off is the excellent art and animation of Wavetale. This game looks as cutesy and pastel as the next indie darling, but wonderfully animated faces, unique character designs, and an ability to play with scale keep everything feeling quite special.
It reminds me of an old French cartoon, so I chose to play it in French. (My sister is married to a Frenchman with a French family and a half-French kid so it’s also kinda a good idea for me to work that muscle a bit). I don’t know why, but, like, look at that guy’s face below. If you don’t think French should be coming out of his mouth, maybe we shouldn’t be friends. (Also the English voice acting is excellent so, you know, do what you want.).
To complement the style is an excellent soundtrack with Steve Reichian vibes combined with mellow, exploratory wind instruments, and occasionally intense, gurgling synths as the tension rises. I feel like I say this with every indie game I play nowadays, but the music is excellent. People are just pretty good at making music, I guess.
And then there’s the story, which ties everything together neatly enough, without ever feeling overwrought. In general, the consistent quality of Wavetale comes in the way different aspects just don’t get in the way of each other. In fact, maybe there’s a little too much gamey game collection going on. Occasionally it does feel a little padded out.
But that feeling dissipates speedily enough, however, as a new set piece against an elephant-trunk-like War of the Worldsy monster comes towering out of the sea. This game zips along more than it doesn’t, and any sags in the middle are blown away bombastically.
In summary, Wavetale is a Jet Set Radio lacrosse-on-ice Zelda where Link is Spider-man with a jet ski in a Ubisoft Original platformer (and you should play it in French (and maybe not on Switch)), and I love it.
Wavetale is lovely, slick, flippy, and on Switch. While its bodacious waves’ lusciousness may fade with the frame rate, the game is still a joy to play. With slick movement at its centre, the different gamey aspects, delicious art style, and general cohesiveness lend it a luxury beyond foundational goodness.
Wavetale Switch review
Wavetale’s graphical issues on Switch don’t manage to hinder the joy of moving across its wonderful archipelago. With things to do everywhere, an excellent art style and animation, and a lovely story, it’s an easy recommendation.