“Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).
For the first couple of hours, it’s a surrealistic little riff on the Atelier series concept of collecting resources to “cook” up stuff in a cauldron. You head out into a little forest area, talk to a rainbow coloured duck, a snake with a thing for LSD and a genius who has decided to get revenge on a river by emptying it one bucket of water at a time, and by doing so you get the necessary ingredients to brew up potions. In this blissfully twisted and faintly sinister home “town,” you collect those resources to make potions with your grandpa, which cumulates with you producing a potion that makes it snow and everyone is happy. It’s so blatantly inspired by Atelier that our little hero delightfully chirps out “taru” (barrel!) every time she sees one, just like the Atelier girls are famous for.
Then you discover a doorway to an underground dungeon complex, learn that that’s where your mother disappeared many years ago, and then you decide to go delving to try and learn what happened to her. The ease in which Märchen Forest transitions between surrealistic point-and-click adventure and dungeon crawler is impeccably slick; they’re two things that feel like they should be separate, and yet somehow in collaboration they work. In the dungeon, the top-down perspective is alienating and distancing. Deliberately so, I feel, because the non-combat side of the adventure uses a different perspective and is inviting and warm. A visual distinction between the comforts and security of home vs the cold, unforgiving road, in other words. It’s a contrast that is subtly woven together in a truly engaging manner.
Less interesting is the combat, which plays out in real-time, but isn’t overly engaging. When the enemy attacks, you dodge out of the way to avoid taking damage, and then spam the attack button as often as possible (depending on your character’s speed statistic) until the enemy is either dead, or can take another swing at you (at which point you’re best served to duck out of the way again). Märchen Forest’s combat isn’t necessarily easy thanks to its many traditional roguelike proclivities, but it’s roughly the equivalent of a button-mashing Paper Mario, and with the frequency of combat in the dungeons, progress can become exhausting after a while.
Märchen Forest wants to encourage players to explore these dungeons. There are all kinds of treasure chests and bits of loot that you’ll spy on the other side of a wall as you amble around, but finding the keys for these things often involves backtracking or heading off in the opposite direction to the exit of the dungeon, and the slow, ambling walking pace plus that encounter rate makes such exploration unappetising. On the other hand, you’ll often force yourself to do it anyway, because if you don’t use exploration as your answer to grinding, those bosses will still roll you through sheer brute force.
On the plus side, as far as roguelike design goes, Märchen Forest is quite reasonable. Being knocked out in a dungeon simply means losing all your unidentified items. Yes, many of those are the best bits and it is a pain to lose them, but you still keep experience levels and identified equipment, so the next run is going to feel that much easier. It’s the right balance for a game that wants to use the roguelike qualities without testing the player’s patience with it. So, even with the irritating frequency of battles and their less-than-inspiring design, Märchen Forest gets away with it (especially given that the enemy designs themselves are also charming and fun).
Finally, and to Märchen Forest’s really great credit, it knows its limits and respects the player’s time. For something so vividly creative and deliberately oddball, the epic JRPG format would never have been to its benefit. Instead, the game’s over in a dozen or so hours, give or take, and that’s exactly how long it should be.
Märchen Forest will be chalked up as something “weird” or “zany,” I’m sure. It’s not really. It’s what would happen if you got Salvador Dali and Lewis Carroll together with the Atelier and Shiren the Wanderer developers, and while that sounds like a mix too eclectic to work, it does in a way that can only be described as “surprising” and “delightful.” Märchen Forest is better in concept than execution, but that concept is so strong and original you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t grit your teeth through the more laboured gameplay bits.
– Matt S.