The narrative in games often takes a back seat or feel tacked on and generic however in The Lion’s Song the plot is everything and unlike anything I’ve experienced. I will try not to reveal any story spoilers as it is a delight to witness.
The Lion’s Song starts off sincerely with tiny buds of humor but later blossoms into a (depending on your choices) heartbreaking tale of loss, broken expectations but most importantly hope. All of the characters grow into more than what they once were. Taking place just over a century ago, the characters you play as are depicted not as the typical archetypes but honest portraits of people with realistic foibles, weaknesses, and fears.
The story is pretty much bleak AF with islands of understated joy. Every episode is shown from a different character’s perspective, occasionally intersecting with each other, mostly revolving around trying to get that episode’s protagonist back on their feet or off their arse after their respective previous traumas. Betrayal by jealous peers are frequent, everyday toils are broken up by glimpses into each artist’s near infinite and idiosyncratic imaginations, all the while subplots flow throughout the episodes so subtly you could miss them until BAM! my apathy to a background character has had dire consequences and now my tummy feels sad.
The first episode does a great job of easing you into the story’s somber tone and visual style, while also introducing foundations of the game’s mechanics. Starting off you play as an easily distracted composer who is attempting to complete her greatest composition yet, fighting pressure, procrastination, and self-doubt. The second character is an incredibly talented painter, haunted by his inner demons. He has the ability to see a person’s true form in layers hanging around them as representations of their psyche that they would never publicly expose.
The third is forced to hide her identity to prove her worth in the notoriously misogynistic world of mathematics (watch out for the Climatic maths battle! Pure awesome!!) The most shallow protagonist is the final one, however the last episode does a brilliant job of tying together most of the loose plot ends, while also revealing what happened leading up to and after the events of the previous episodes even his story ended up yanking on my dusty old heart strings.
Also for something that is generally ignored by the player the credits are ingenious: at the end of every episode, you are presented with a mildly interactive scene that is set in one of the locations of the episode. You can’t leave until you find the exit and while it takes a second to work out where the exits are for each sequence, so even if you are the kind of game player that wants to skip the credits straight away you’ll be forced to check out at least a couple of the talented small development staff’s credits. Which brings me to another unique feature The Lion’s Song can boast is the American Graffiti style final credits sequence (this is where titles reveal what happened to a character over a portrait), which is one of my favorite film techniques but I have never seen it done in a game. Suck on that Kojima! Thank you for Snatcher…
This entry into the classic point and click genre has many modern nuances built in and most of the genres common annoyances completely removed. There is barely any standard gameplay, there’s no game overs, no jumping on enemies. This is visual novel territory, we’re here for the story and the story you get is unique, educating and delightful. The Lion’s Song is wholly fictional but there are quite a few cameos from real life Austrian 1900’s celebrities (there were more recognizable faces than I was expecting).
The Lion’s Song attempts to show glimpses of the inner workings of an Artist’s mind, with the player aiding them to finish their latest project by working through their mental blocks and neurosis. Each episode broadens the scope of what is required of the player but it is never too confusing with no item management and there is always a character or thought bubble not too far away to set you on the right path.
Much like Telltale’s Walking Dead series after completing an episode you are shown the percentages of people that made similar choices. As you go deeper into the story you may be inclined to see how alternate choices would have changed the outcome. This can easily be done through the museum styled Connection Gallery, accessible from the main menu and as soon as this is unlocked it increases the depth the of game. Giving you hints of what you have missed and allowing you to see what choices you have been made and also includes the ability to back to a key decision scene and play it out differently from there cutting out the grind.
The Lion’s Song’s play length and general ease of puzzle completion lends itself perfectly to first timers of the genre or people wanting to experience a well crafted, unique narrative telling many sincere intertwining stories. Very rarely did I ever have to pixel hunt (the archaic method of game progression by clicking every visible pixel on the screen trying to find the next clue the developers want you to find). Nor was there any hapless busywork, speculating where to go next, what is in here is necessary and well told.
The method to solve any given puzzle isn’t ever overly signposted, they are more often than not very intuitive and satisfying to solve while also visually serving the plot by giving the player glimpses of a genius’s thought process. However, I initially found it occasionally tricky to keep up with who was talking as there are scenes of dialogue that are just colored text on a stark black background. Without knowing where it was coming from some of the initial scenes lost their dramatic weight.
Almost an interactive graphic novel, playing on the Nintendo Switch is nearly a perfect fit as you can pick up and enjoy the story anywhere. This brings me to my biggest quibble. There is no touchscreen anywhere in the game, this fact is made even more baffling by there being mobile versions of the game are also available and must feature bloody touchscreen! When the game initially started up my first instinct was to touch all over the screen, I was disappointed to find only smudges left on my screen. No touch screen in handheld reduces intuitiveness and intimacy, nor is there a one-handed mode, so moving the reticule around the scene is done with the left analogue stick or d-pad and selecting and canceling is done with the face buttons. A game whose main draw is story and visuals is severely let down by archaic controls.
Another annoyance is that you are occasionally tested to see if you have been paying attention by being asked questions about plot points that had recently been covered. This is slightly annoying as I felt guilty when I forgot or remembered a name wrong or forgot a fact, but this actually fed into the plot as the protagonist was also made out to be a dummy, for some reason moments like this made me empathize even more with the playable downtrodden, neurotic artists.
Setting The Lion’s Song apart from the rest of the oversaturated retro-styled pixel art genre is its fantastic art style that feels like autumn toned pixelated vintage photography. This complements and reinforces the developer’s decision to release in an archaic genre. The animation starts off very simply with swathes of black covering the screen but detail slowly creeps in and an effective world is realized. The pixelated characters give off just enough emotion and life to make them widely expressive without ever being over the top.
The first time I noticed the simple elegance of was very early on the player character is cold and exhausted after a long journey, her sad eyes are mostly closed as she gives into sleep but every so often she looks up straight into the camera and my heart melted, I was sold. The visuals get a lot more ambitious, by the end of the fourth episode the scenes are more open and the backgrounds alive with subtle movements. This works for the narrative but gives a bleak first impression, but don’t let this put you off as at all once the story opens up the art style does too.
Subtle audio cues inform the player when a pattern is found or a puzzle is completed while the music is made up of subtle strings and atmospheric classical loops that seem to build with the conversation you are participating in. Occasionally you may want to move on quickly as the music seemingly loops every seven seconds, which gives the music an almost taunting edge as you if you ever linger for too long.
The inclusion of closed captions is fantastic for a game that occasionally centers around directly interacting with audio and can only allow more people to enjoy it. However, this only highlights how much the touchscreen would have improved this otherwise well-crafted experience and increased its accessibility and potential reach. These factors could easily be addressed by the developers (Mi’pu’mi – what’s in a name?) and hopefully will be in a future update.
Anyone looking for an adult experience filled with honesty, consequences, and hope should buy this now as this is as mature as games get without delving into obscenity. Mundane experiences are enhanced by the visualization of each character’s inner thoughts. The slow pace and earnest storytelling really feels like the perfect game for long trips or relaxing after taking long trips. The game was originally released episodically but I feel it works best as an anthology and feels like a complete package. The soul-baring story is like nothing I’ve seen before and for a game with such a short overall time to complete the narrative has a massive emotional scope. Perfect for people interested in Austria and recent world history, realistic depictions of an artists life and unique interpretations of familiar genres.