Red Stewart reviews Where’s Samantha?…
I have to admit- I am genuinely surprised it has taken this long for there to be spin-offs of Kirby’s Epic Yarn. By spin-off, I do not mean the literal definition of a new property based in the same world as a pre-existing IP, but instead a game inspired by a major release. Generally, it’s been the indie market that’s basked in trends established by AAA companies, although there have been a number of notable instances where the opposite rings true.
Regardless, in the case of developer Respect Studios and publisher ROKiT Games Limited’s latest release Where’s Samantha?, it seems clear that the aforestated Nintendo title was a major influence, which is far from a bad thing. Despite not selling the best, Kirby’s Epic Yarn was a wonderful, charming entry in the pink puff’s franchise, with its unique set-up making for some of the most creative levels I have seen in a Nintendo platformer.
Alas, I can’t say the same for Where’s Samantha?. One part aesthetic identity crisis, one part severely misguided story, this indie game falters in too many departments to be worth recommending at full price. That is the short answer. For the longer one, read on!
We will begin with the graphics as that is what stands out the most to me. In this day and age, I get that developers want to craft something out of the blue: something that will make their creation be the talk of town, distinct from the esthetic skews of other marketplace variants. But there has to be a consistency; things have to make sense, even in the context of a fictional setting, and that just wasn’t the case here. I noted the similarities to Kirby’s Epic Yarn earlier, but what I didn’t mention was how Respect Studios thought it a good idea to combine this with a half-baked steampunk schema. Imagine cross-stitch patterns filled with pipes, gears, chains, screws, sawblades, and smoke-filled rods and you’ll have an idea of what Where’s Samantha? looks like. Even the storybook at the very beginning, which contains beautiful pictorial drawings, is adorned with metal casings whilst atop a table cloth.
The problem is that the two sides don’t blend well, with the former, in particular, feeling out of place due to its limited appearances in comparison to the latter. Let me put it to you this way- we have all seen hand-drawn cartoons that decided to incorporate some 3D animation into the mix, such as the Fire Nation’s tanks in Avatar: The Last Airbender or King Ramses in Courage the Cowardly Dog, and it always feels uncanny due to it being an entirely different style (in the example of Courage, though, that was of course the point). That’s the case with Where’s Samantha?. It’d be one thing if these simulacra were of the same embroidery, but that evidently wasn’t the intent of the devs. In fact, I don’t know what their intent was with this bizarre polymorphization. Is it some ecological message about industrialization ruining the pleasantry of the natural world? The backgrounds may be lacking in detail, but they’re clearly full of trees. Or is it simply, as I put it, a shot by an indie company at being inimitable?
Whatever the case, in my opinion, it didn’t work. If the mechanical models were supposed to be some sort of thematic ancillary to the story (or, like Courage, were meant to be outlandish for the sake of genre thrills), it’d be one thing; however, I didn’t get that sense here. To be clear, it’s not that it’s distracting or an eyesore, it’s more that it seems to have been done for the sake of forging an emblematic flair, and so is privy to the old criticism “style over substance.”
The crocheting that constitutes the majority of the overworld is thankfully very well done. Though there is a lot of repetition in terms of copy/pasted platforms, grounds, and tools, there is a handcrafted quality to the original designs that is not lost on the replicas. Similar to how The LEGO Movie claimed to have fashioned everything from actual existing LEGO pieces, I like to think someone on the art team of Where’s Samantha? sewed together real-life needlework to use as a basis for the computer-generated objects we see in the game. Characters have some degree of life to them, from rolling their eyes to snoring asleep if they’re inactive, and they look nice overall. To top it all off, their interactions with external stimuli are smooth courtesy of smart animation design. However, the desaturated filter put over the entire game might leave some wanting more vibrancy given the primary colors strewn throughout.
Story is the next big critique I have, and that has to do with how misconceived the narrative is. You play as George, a squarish being who is living a peaceful existence with his sweetheart Samantha until a gust of wind sweeps both of them into a strange new land. Separated, George must make his way to her.
You may be asking what’s wrong with this premise, given that it’s essentially the “Rescue the Princess” outline pioneered by Super Mario Bros. back in the day. Well, it has to do with how uncomfortably and inconsistently metaphysical things get. At the end of every level, George (or any of the other playable characters) recaps what they just experienced, and they are VERY aware of what transpired. If you had to split yourself up or encounter some deadly mechanisms, George reflects on what happened.
There are three problems with this choice by the makers: one, Where’s Samantha? isn’t a tongue-in-cheek platformer: it’s a legitimate entry in the genre, and so having the writing be humoristic when the gameplay itself is serious (standard life/death causals) is odd to say the least. Two, despite said humorous intentions, the script very quickly becomes annoying due to George himself being whiny. Seriously, not a moment goes by without him fretting about Samantha; every danger or fantastical creature he meets almost always gets tied back to Samantha, whether it’s fears of a clone of his running off with her or an obstacle hindering his progress to her or the realistic possibility of her having already gotten away. It is beyond irate and will make you want to skip through these section as quickly as possible. The third is that a glaring plot hole somehow arises, even in this scant tale- when George meets Samantha, he is unable to communicate with her, causing her to think he isn’t her beloved and walk away. What? How was he able to speak with her in the beginning, speak aloud in-between, and then speak to her at the very end, but NOT speak to her at a crucial moment when she wants to chat with him after being split up? There’s literally no explanation, and it’s such a vexatious contrivance.
So, by and large, the story is terrible. It fails as a satire, comedy, dark comedy, romantic drama, and even a stock adventure. When the silver lining to a spiel is the presence of a skip button, you know you’ve done something wrong.
Sound is next, and it’s lacking too, particularly in the mixing department. If you want to hear any of the SFX, you’re going to have go into the options menu and turn down the other facets, though it’s not like you will be missing much given how minimal everything is: a crime for a platformer. There’s no landing sound for falls onto terrain, and other dins like creaky swings and electronic gadgetry are replicated ad nauseum. The one sound effect that I noticed had variance were George’s jumps and slides along surfaces, but those differences had to do with speed instead of weight.
As for the music, you get two tracks that play: the first one in the first two thirds, the second one in the final third. They’re sufficient if unmemorable, however the fact that a game around four and a half hours only had two discernable music compositions is a damn shame.
The narration for the bookends of each chapter are done by a single voice actor, and while I did make my gripes about the story known, I can’t really blame him for anything faulty. Yes, having one individual voice all three protagonists (one of whom is female) is a dumb call by the producers, but I cannot fault him for any missteps. It’s clear that they wanted him to do this for the sake of comical absurdity, and he somewhat succeeds on this front if only for the fact that he’s actually putting effort into the roles.
Lastly, we get to gameplay, and there isn’t too much to go over here. You have your atypical leaping and bounding that is standard for platforming. The “gimmick” (if I may reclaim that word from the derogatory manner it’s unfortunately garnered) involves division. George (or Frank and Samantha, the two other compatriots you can take control of) have the ability to split up into two-three smaller versions of themselves as soon as they consume a special item. This creates size and weight deviations that you must use to successfully solve puzzles and surpass environmental hindrances, whether it’s making yourself lighter to hop farther or becoming bigger to push through a beam.
Nothing ever got frustrating and I ultimately enjoyed myself. It was a solid system that, outside of one bit, didn’t have any broken areas. My one criticism had to do with the mandatory nature of the letters: much like the Donkey Kong Country series, there are runes present in every level that you have to collect (and no, unlike the KONG letters, these appeared to be random and not spell out anything secret). Let me repeat- they are not side objectives, they are mandatory- if you do not get them all, you have to restart a chapter; that’s right, you have to restart because gathering some without gathering all doesn’t get saved. It’s not that these babies are hard to find or a chore to acquire, but the forced nature, especially when it doesn’t amount to anything, may be discouraging to others.
So, in conclusion, what do you get with Where’s Samantha?. You get a platformer that tried out something new visually in order to diverge from the constant schlock being produced yearly, yet made the unusual decision to subsume a steampunk motif that was of a different style and consequently did not fit. The story is embarrassingly bad and tonally awkward, the sound is severely lacking, and the gameplay isn’t so amazing that you will write home about it. However, you do get a swell, homespun craftsmanship to the vistas before you, and the puzzles never fall into arduous territory.
It took me 4.5 hours to beat Where’s Samantha?, which, at a $13.00 asking price, doesn’t quite hit my $1.00 : 30 minute ratio. Combined with my other issues, I cannot quite recommend it, though those looking for a solid indie platformer to support may find some entertainment here.
+ Yarn aesthetic.
+ Narrator tries his best.
– Annoying narrative.
– Insipid soundscape.
– Illogical steampunk
Rating – 6/10