Graphics aren't everything, are they? We all know this. Shitty pictures can quickly become irrelevant if the game is strong enough, and beautiful shinies often belie a stinking poop of a game. Being distracted by the pretties is a fool's game. Still, I only chased down the developer of Secret Legend [official site] because I saw pictures of it on Kill Screen* and it looked so damned gorgeous. I nagged him until he sent me a copy of the game in its current very early state, because I wanted that prettiness right in front of my face. Oh, and it seems it's a really rather lovely game, too!
Gosh it's pretty though.
Essentially a modernisation of early Zelda, Secret Legend - at least in this early form - is a clean, crisp and wonderfully precise game. An isometric view, a gorgeous little fox character to control, and a lot of land to discover routes through. As you explore you find chests, and these give you equipment that allows you to progress where you could not before. Metroidvania, check. Swiping at blades of bobbing grass with a sword, check. Finding potions and extra weapons and coins to drop down wells to turn them into shops, check.
The result is something rather extremely adorable, thanks in a large part to its Monument Valley-meets-Bastion-esque aesthetic. The animations of both your fox, and the array of enemy types, are all simply perfect. And perfectly simple. Running, rolling, whacking and idling are all such a pleasure to look at, while the way grass swooshes as you run through it made me gasp the first time, and I've yet to grow tired of watching it. In fact, just the shape of the trees is so pleasing.
Combat is surprisingly tricky for something so immediately cute-looking, with later enemies packing enormous punches, and tactics necessary rather than just wildly swinging your stick or sword about. And again, all the attacks, the explosions, the blasts, are superbly good looking. And all on such a little scale, so teeny, all without a sense of showing off.
That's what comes through most at this point - a game that barely seems aware how lovely it is. There's no hand-holding. There's, as yet, no story. (In fact, all the in-game text and instructions are in an unintelligible language, so defiantly understandable is the game itself.) It never zooms in on something to make sure you've seen, it doesn't point the camera for you, it doesn't want to nag you about anything. That's deeply refreshing, and the result is a quiet, modest little project that is completely endearing.
I want to try to explain what I meant by "precise game" earlier. Obviously as games players we learn the vocabulary of gaming - a game's job at its start is to let us know which dialect it's speaking, teach us any new words and phrases we need to know, and let us know how to apply knowledge we already have. Secret Legend feels like it's speaking something so core, so essentially game. Look, I'm struggling to express this. It's not that it's simple, although it's not complicated. It's not that it's unoriginal, though it's strongly set in an established form. It's just pure. Does that make sense? It's not ashamed of being Zelda, it's not ashamed of failing to introduce some dramatic new twist or complicated new mechanic. It's just getting on with being good at being what it wants to be.
That strange language in which in-game text is written occasionally features a recognisable number, or a word in English, that prompts you to guess at what it might be trying to say. And I realised, as I was playing, how this exactly captures my long-lost feeling of playing a Japanese game on DS and fathoming what I was supposed to be doing via the same means. For some reason "CONGRATULATION" would be in English, and the instructions for the puzzle would have the number 8 appear enough times that I'd realise it was significant. I don't know if Shouldice was intending to convey this, but it sure felt familiar.
This is all rather effusive praise for a game that's described as "really early", and goodness knows, developer Andrew Shouldice could arse it up entirely between now and whenever he chooses to release it. But it's deserved praise too - it's so immediately attractive, both graphically and with its gentle, explorable world. If this can maintain its purity, not bury itself in details, then it could finish up as something really special. Well, it already is.
*Please remind me to hunt down Kill Screen's Dylan Pasture and hit him with a bat until he learns what "adventure games" are.