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Neat exploration and movement is slowed by a leaden pace and frustration.
The advertised hook of Mable and the Wood is that it’s a Metroidvania game where you don’t have to kill anyone. It seems a little disingenuous in that regard, but it does also emphasize that the goal of this visually-endearing platformer is not fighting baddies. Instead, Mable’s journey is all about movement and exploration. The base concept is an engaging one, as Mable traverses a world in various forms with an emphasis on non-violence. However the neat ideas don’t entirely translate into something great, as Mable and the Wood falls squarely into the realm of mediocrity.
You play as Mable, a young girl wielding a sword that weighs her down so she can’t jump or attack on her own. She is a shapeshifter, though, and by using abilities found while exploring and defeating bosses more forms are added to her bag of tricks. This is the crux of the adventure as at first you start with a simple fairy form before adding the likes of spiders, moles, and more. Every form is only temporary, tied to a regenerating meter that forces the player to turn back into the powerless girl when it runs out.
A lot of options spin out of this mechanic. I found that the multiple forms could be used for traversal in different areas, working best in tandem. Movement still occasionally got frustrating since some of the more freeing abilities are slow and laborious to use. That in turn rewards mastery. For example, I had issues with the spider transformation until it clicked and I was able to spin webs and zoom around the locales. Unfortunately, that was not a common feeling. The varied transformations felt like they sometimes just arbitrarily made movement difficult, coming off more as restrictions than extensions.
One of the more commendable aspects of Mable and the Wood is the overall freedom of exploration. Early on, you’re guided along a straight path, but soon enough you can basically go in any direction, cherry-picking whatever bosses you want to find and taking their form as a transformation. Multiple endings await at the conclusion, but while the narrative is interesting enough to drive forward the adventure, I wasn’t compelled to dig that much deeper.
Going back to the hook, you can, in theory, play this game completely non-violently. That’s really neat, but it’s also mildly asinine to play the game that way. Figuring out how to fell a boss without combat is a nice little twist, but it helped make a game that already had a grueling pace thanks to the addled movement go even slower. It’s a noble option, though not one I recommend following through on.
Mable and the Wood is a game that has its heart in the right place, trying some interesting new things in a tried-and-true, side-scrolling presentation. Unfortunately, a lot of those ideas aren’t that appealing and the novel ideas soon unravel into an endearing but merely decent adventure.