Some games can blow you away in seconds if you let them. It’ll be the lasting impression you have of that game from that moment on, till the end of time, because you deemed that moment to be special. Other games have special moments as well: truly, genuinely surprising moments that ultimately end up being compromised by a game that never really delivers beyond that moment. That’s my time with A Story about My Uncle in a nutshell, the debut game from Gone North Games.

First-person platforming isn’t easy. If anything, it’s been a nightmare since the inception of the FPS. Most first person games have usually had to cheat to overcome the awkward feeling of platforming, choosing to either focus more on building momentum-based parkour animations, creating larger, easier to get to platforms or simply being floaty enough to make it quick and easy. A Story about My Uncle wants to tackle that challenge head on, and it’s an admirable attempt.

That first moment I was being teleported to a new and fantastical environment and started running were genuine highlights. That brief moment of building speed and launching myself from one platform to the next was invigorating. Once I got a grappling hook, I began to settle into a rhythm between running at a full sprint and charging my long jump. Using my grappling hook to swing across was a form of excitement one only really gets when one is engaged in something unique.

The accompanying sense of vertigo gives those actions a sense of thrill that modern platformers simply can never have, and would make the likes of Mirror’s Edge jealous. That is, until I got to the rest of the game. The story starts with a little girl wanting to hear a bedtime story about her dad’s adventures when he was younger, and he chooses to tell her a story about his uncle (duh). Unable to find him, he ends up picking up a unique suit very much like his uncle's, and then gets transported to this unique world where most of the inhabitants are like humanoid salamanders. They tell him they’ve seen his Uncle Fred, and then he proceeds to go forward into this world looking for him.

The basic set up is fine, if a little too mired in "videogame logic" for my liking. The parts that make it completely throwaway though are the writing and voice acting. A lot of dialogue between characters is far too ridiculous and unnatural in any context to be genuine dialogue. It would be one thing if it was the non-human creatures that spoke in a manner that felt unnatural, but our main lead isn’t any better in that department. Throw in some stilted voice acting, most noteworthy of which is Maddie, a female character, and you have a plot that hangs  just out right poor interactions between characters.

The game itself? It's a whole lot of you going from point A to point B trying to find this little boy’s uncle. Mechanically, it all feels the way it should. It’s mostly tight enough and even though I didn’t really see a value in a charge jump and a regular jump, when the charge jump is all I really used, it all works as advertised. Again, the game has moments where it provides some genuine thrills because of your ability to make these death defying jumps with a first person view.

But the level design is simply dull and far too repetitive to keep you engaged. It makes your progression in this world feel like you aren’t getting anywhere at times, even though you’ll have been jumping around for a good 20-30 minutes. A lot of the level design consists of large platforms in open space that are highly dependent on the art direction to make them distinct. Eventually, it all feels like the same shades of green, the same type of windmills, and the same brown floating boulders I’ve been hopping, swinging, and running across since the level started.

There is a change pace scenario where a monster holds you up and you fail if he catches you moving, but beyond that the game sticks to the one thing it does well. It just doesn’t make those mechanics all that engaging with its level design. Which is usually a larger issue with a lot of indie platformers.

Too often it feels like these games can feel tight and right where it matters mechanically, but the level design is straight amateur hour. If it’s not taking a 'throw the kitchen sink at you' approach, it’s something like this: something that is plain, routine and lacking in providing any sort of rhythm.



In comparison, a single Mario Bros. level may have the same basic element repeating over and over again, but the scenery reflects a sense of progression. The aesthetic is consistent throughout, the background, the enemy placement, the platform placement all paint a different part of the stage, even if it’s using a handful of colors to convey it all. A Story about My Uncle gave me the sense that each one of its 5 levels all shared the same design failure. Yes, all 5 of them are distinct and different from each other, but the flow of those levels suffer from feeling drawn out.

For those who are into mastering their games I bet A Story about My Uncle might get some added life for anyone willing to invest into trying to speed run this game. To get to that level though, means dealing with rather pedestrian level design. Level design that feels far too tedious to thrive in a genre that is so reliant on variety.

You could argue that much of the game is built upon the very basic rules of the platforming genre. After all, floating platforms in space is exactly what most platformers have really been since their inception. It might be a reduced way of describing it, but it’s not necessarily an inaccurate description. However, while Gone North Games may have an understanding of the basic rules, it’s just that: basic. What they created isn’t crafted well enough to be engaging, or interesting, or compelling. It’s not even varied enough to compete with the genre’s mid card, much less some of its all-time greats.

What you have, then, is a game that is mechanically special, but those mechanics are compromised by the level design. A Story about My Uncle can get pretty far with people based entirely on how unique it is, but it simply lacks the dexterity or imagination to be a good videogame. At best, it’s more proof of concept. 

Final Score – 4/10

 

 

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