French developer Swing Swing Submarine’s latest game, Seasons After Fall, contains a whiff of 2009’s Braid, and not just because both are 2D puzzle-platformers that have players manipulating the passage of time. Both share a taste for romantic string music and a painterly visual style—a beguiling combination in a low-key puzzle game.
Players control a fox-spirit who must run and jump around a lush, mysterious forest. If nothing else, Seasons After Fall is a beautiful game, Unity Engine or not, with brushstrokes that practically burst out of the screen and a cohesive world of magic and nature that hews incredibly closely to the game’s early concept art. Spectral lights dance through waving fields of grass, or under canopies and deep caverns; strange plant-creatures scurry and grow; and enormous toadstools pop up through leaf-litter.
These visuals are accompanied by some of the best audio within the game’s price range. The beautiful soundtrack is original to the game and performed by a real string quartet. When the music pulls back, the sounds—both those that draw attention to themselves and the more subtle, background effects—are just as high quality. Whether in winter with icy cracking trees in the distance, or the soggy rains of spring, the forest comes to life in the ears. This immersive quality is especially helpful in relation to the game’s main mechanic.
Seasons After Fall‘s puzzles have players switching between the seasons to navigate the forest. Waterfalls can be frozen and thawed, and flowers bloom in the sun or soak up the rain to assist player progress. These ideas are gradually introduced over the course of exploring the game’s various locations. Unlike Braid‘s level-to-level progression, the game spreads out with four spokes coming off the main hub, the Sanctuary, and includes several voiced characters, highly-produced cutscenes, and plenty of open stretches with nothing but scenery.
These traits might suggest something closer to Jonathan Blow’s second game, The Witness, or at least a non-linear world with puzzles sprinkled throughout. Rather, Seasons After Fall‘s combination of exploration and puzzles comes across as flat. About half of the game’s total 8-10 hour playtime is spent travelling back and forth across the main paths between the Sanctuary and the extremities of the forest to complete the main objectives.
A very limited fast-travel system eventually comes into play during the latter half, but does not greatly reduce the amount of backtracking. The last few hours are also the only time the game fully opens up, although, even then, the game occasionally waits an arbitrary length of time before activating the next goal.
Any aspirations Seasons After Fall might have had toward Metroid-style adventuring rather than linear progression seem to have been squashed in the name of making the game as frictionless as possible. One or two time-consuming puzzles appear in the final hours, but their difficulty arises from being point-and-click puzzles, squeezed into a platformer’s shoes, rather than because they are particularly taxing on the brain.
Nevertheless, games with constant backtracking or simplified puzzles have succeeded through other means (as Telltale’s output since The Walking Dead attests), especially if they have an engaging story. Following this trend might have transformed Seasons After Fall from a merely pretty experience into a memorable one.
In this case though, the story fails to take advantage of anything with real teeth in the game’s setting. Hints of science fiction, terror, and the travails of adolescence exist within the story, but none are raised with any passion or conviction. One plot point is telegraphed in the first half as a decent “I am Shodan!” reveal, but the only meaningful consequence is a basic, my-first-picture-book kind of resolution at the very end of the game. Whether the story came before the final product, or if the game was made and then a story was required to stitch the puzzles together, the events covered are not enough to hold up Seasons After Fall on their own.
In editing a piece of work, the product has to be kicked out the door eventually or risk smoothing over all of the interesting quirks and eccentricities that gave the work an original voice in the first place. With a development time of more than six years, this is almost certainly the fate that has befallen Seasons After Fall, a not-very-puzzling puzzle game, and an adventure without bite.
Unfortunately, wonderful presentation is not enough to overcome these problems and keeps Seasons After Fall from receiving a higher recommendation. However, if beautiful art style, music, and sound effects are enough, prospective players can bump the grade up to a Credit.