TumbleSeed review: I tumble down, but I get up again

TumbleSeed review: I tumble down, but I get up again

Normally I would wait until I have finished a game before I give my thoughts on it, but in the case of TumbleSeed I don’t see that happening anytime soon. TumbleSeed is hard, really hard, but it’s that challenge that makes it so alluring. Combine that with it possibly being the most unique arcade style puzzle game I’ve ever played, and you have a game that almost feels impossible to skip over.

I call it an ‘arcade puzzle’ game because I’m not sure how else to describe it. TumbleSeed’s developers refer to it as a ‘dual-stick action balance game’ or, as the game’s subtitle suggests, a ‘rolly rougelike’. Players control a set of vines stretched tight like a board to balance and roll a seed through an increasingly difficult set of areas in an effort to reach the top of a randomly generated mountain. Using the left and right thumbsticks, players raise and lower each side to move the ball along vines, while also raising and lowering it up the hill. At its most basic, gameplay is similar to this old bar arcade game, however TumbleSeed has a graph to help players better understand what they are doing. Underneath the seed’s position on the vine is a little tube with a circle in the middle of it, exactly like a level finder. This helps players understand how steep of an angle they are at and what sort of movement it is placing on the seed. If you happen to be playing on Nintendo Switch, HD Rumble simulates the feeling of the seed’s speed rolling from side to side on the controls. Mastering positioning and movement is key to performing well, and the level graph goes a long way in making that information quickly available to players so they can focus on the challenges in front of them while not overly worrying about what the seed is currently doing.

Speaking of challenges, TumbleSeed features more than just holes in the ground like its arcade predecessor. Enemies and other traps litter the ascent, taking one of your seed’s three hearts if you happen to fall or bump into one. To combat this players are given a number of seed powers, which can be planted at certain points to modify the seed or the environment. Players start with the same four basic powers each run: a checkpoint seed, which allows the player to create a new starting location if they were to fall down one of the holes, a thorn seed, used to create spikes that rotate around the seed which can be used to damage or kill enemies, a heart seed that, after a number of uses, gives players an additional heart, and a diamond seed, which allows players to grow the game’s currency. Other seed powers can be found in the villages separating the mountain’s different zones, or the seed chambers spread out over the course of the climb.

Building strategies based on the seeds you discover in each run is crucial in getting the best results. Maybe you go full offense by covering yourself in thorns and building little laser turrets in areas that have a high number of enemies or maybe you play things safe by stacking hearts while also using a seed that fills in the holes in difficult areas. Using these seed powers, beside the diamond power, costs a number of diamonds. Diamonds can be found lying about or acquired through destroying enemies. Both acquiring and using diamonds adds a level of risk and reward that challenges a player to strengthen their knowledge of the game so they can adapt to the situations that are presented to them.

In addition to seed powers, the seed chambers also feature a few other helpful things to the player. Some feature a seed combiner, allowing you to mix two seeds to make a new one. From my experience, the combinations are not completely random. Mixing two offensive seeds will generate another one, but mixing the exact same two does not guarantee the same results. Other passive powers can be found in chambers too, like having diamonds magnetized to you or being able to plant for free if you are down to one heart. These powers are super useful, but fall off of you if you lose a heart. You’re capable of picking them back up again, but losing it often means the area it is in is dangerous enough that you may have to forget about it. After completing a few quests for your fellow seed kind, these chambers can also be used to skip sections of the mountain you might have bested already. It takes a lot of work to get these portals but they will make the travel shorter and less stressful.

Tying everything together is an incredible art style and audio presentation. Vibrant colors on loose geometric shapes give a calming atmosphere to the death that awaits. An electric synth soundtrack somehow straddles the line of being uplifting and hopeful, while also sounding menacing. Even the sounds that the seeds and enemies make seem perfectly balanced between the sounds you would expect to hear from these creatures and warnings of what lies ahead. The style makes it easy to distinguish what is currently in front of you, so you can focus on getting your movement and seed placement right.

Don’t get me wrong, even with these helpers TumbleSeed is incredibly difficult. Both holes and enemies are extremely numerous and close together. The higher you get the smaller the margin for error is and even in my multiple hours of playing I have only reached the third of four zones a handful of times. The difficulty is at times staggering, but fits exactly with this type of game. Rouge-likes like Spelunky come to mind while playing it, another game I’ve played for an embarrassing number of hours and still haven’t gotten to the ‘end’ of. Its roots stem from arcade games seemingly built for bars and exemplify its ‘give it a few goes, get pissed off, quit, come back with even more determination to succeed’ nature. If you think games are too similar nowadays I promise you this is different from anything else you are currently playing, and if you like rouge-likes, this might be your new obsession.

TumbleSeed was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch with an eShop code provided by the developers.