I know what many of you are thinking. You take one look at Retsnom and groan. Another pixel art indie game. I admit it. I did the same thing. They seem to be a dime a dozen these days, and it seems like it’s the go-to style for indie developers. There’s no denying that some of these games are good, but it can be hard to sift through the chaff to find the gems.
Retsnom revolves around a man who goes to the future in order to obtain a vaccine for a zombie virus to save his daughter. He is quickly forced to look a little deeper into himself and his own motivations however, as he discovers the situation in this zombie infested future may have more to do with his own actions than he could have imagined. It’s a loosely cobbled together narrative that requires some suspension of disbelief, but does a decent job of offering a story that nudges the player towards looking at more than just what lies on the surface.
It’s a One Man Job
Created by solo Korean developer SOMI, Retsnom isn’t flashy by any means, but it does manage to play with some mechanics that have yet to be heavily explored in the genre. Mirrors play a primary role in both Retsnom’s gameplay and narrative — notice that Retsnom is “monster” backwards. You can then mirror the world in small sections around the character in order to progress, collecting objects and solving puzzles through the game’s 60 levels. Need to get over a gaping chasm? Mirror the world so that the blocks behind you become a path in front of you. What about that high ledge or wall blocking your path? Utilizing the mirror is required to bypass these obstacles.
Puzzles quickly ramp up. Just when you are getting the hang of solving things by flipping the world left to right, rain begins to fog up the mirror, which causes blocks to disappear progressively until you flip that section back to normal. Then you receive a mirror that allows you to flip the world — and gravity — upside down, bringing in all new elements and requiring different thought processes to make your way through. It makes for some tricky moments as you seek to discover the secrets of the lab, the old man, and the zombie vaccine that he guards.
In many ways, Retsnom reminds me of a game like Fez, actually utilizing the 2D pixel art to further the unique mechanics rather than just reusing what many others have already done. It’s not something that could have been easily accomplished with a 3D art style (or even a higher resolution 2D art style), so those of you groaning about the pixelated aesthetic can rest assured that it plays into the game mechanics. Despite this, I feel that there could have been a little more detail added in, particularly to the backgrounds. Each of the five worlds has its own coloration and theme, but within those themes, there’s a lack of variety or interest outside the layout of the blocks making up each level.
Retsnom’s biggest failing is in its difficulty inconsistency and lack of increasingly teaching players some of the different things that they can do with each new mechanic. This leads to an atmosphere of repeated trial and error to solve each level. In some cases this is a brilliant way to have players teach themselves, but there were a number of levels I felt I completed through sheer luck, and probably not how they were intended to be. It also tended to get repetitive trying absurd things that seemed like they were outside of the box rather than having an “a-ha!” moment when you finally figured out how to navigate a particularly tricky portion.
It’s all capped off with a dark piano based soundtrack that helps to set the tone of the dreary world. Surprisingly, it’s this very dark portion of the game that’s Retsnom’s bright spot and helps to elevate it above the rest of the indie wash. It’s striking and draws a specific level of emotion, making the mirror mechanics and reflective plot intriguing despite the simplistic visuals. Each note punctuates the inevitably dark outcome of the man’s obsessive desire to cure his daughter of the ravaging zombie disease.
I’m not usually one to mention price in a review due to prices ultimately changing over time, but Retsnom’s initial offering is unusual for an indie title, coming in at just $4.99. This makes it relatively simple to get past the stigma of it being a pixel art indie game to try out what is ultimately a very interesting premise. Setting it to a dark story themed around death gives a bit more weight to the puzzles than just asking players to complete them without any compelling reason. It’s not perfect, but SOMI gets major points for trying something new and exploring mechanics that other games don’t. Maybe it’s time to look a little deeper into the mirror that Retsnom offers and reflect on your own reasons for avoiding indie games.
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