Tumbleseed boasts a jaunty aesthetic paired with gameplay that is as hard as it is rewarding. Its challenge is largely due to the control’s steep learning curve and in no small part to the player’s task: save the Tumbleseed and his homeland. To do this, the Tumbleseed must scale the collapsing mountain that was once his home and plant himself at its peak.
As if that wasn’t difficult enough, players doesn’t control the seed but instead control a vine the Tumbleseed rolls around on; using the left and right thumb sticks to move the left and right sides of the vine up and down (respectively). Unbalancing the vine causes the seed to roll towards the end with the lower center of gravity. This makes for a careful ballet of shifting the seed from left to right while climbing vertically in addition to avoiding procedurally generated pitfalls and enemies. Sadly these hazards aren’t the toughest challenge you’ll find in this title.
The controls are the biggest beast players will have to tackle if they want to reach the mountain’s peak. Feeling more like patting your head while rubbing your belly than a balancing act. The amount of dexterity the game demands from the player is downright overwhelming at first. After several hours I became more comfortable with the controls but the awkwardness of stilted movement never fully subsided. This kind of methodic precision stands in stark contrast to the frenzied tumult that Roguelikes typically depend on as a source of tension. Instead, the Tumbleseed team have turned the formula on its head to provoke familiar roguelike hysteria inducing a white knuckled tension familiar to any fan of the genre.
The difficulty of any roguelike is balanced by enticing the player to jump right back in after every failed attempt. Tumbleseed mostly succeeds but suffers from the cardinal roguelike sin: finicky deaths. Once again the controls are to blame. I died countless times because of the slow responsiveness of tilting the vine and by extension the seed’s roll. That’s not to say all deaths are cheap, but they are more pervasive than other (stronger) roguelike experiences.
In large part what kept me coming back to the game is the exploration of the world and the charming atmosphere it has to offer. Vivid colors, amiable characters, and pleasant art direction in the earlier levels that fade into ominous muted colors and designs in later levels. Making for an inviting aesthetic that continues to engage the player even after progressing past the lighthearted vividity of earlier sections. The score follows suit and is a nice compliment to the whimsical visuals offering plenty of auditory glee when appropriate and minor key foreshadowing when the pressure is on.
Thankfully the engrossing world keeps the gameplay fresh by promoting exploration and the finding of ability caves. Delving into these caves lets the player choose one of two new abilities that not only them on their journey but retool the gameplay strategy. None of them are game breaking but they offer welcome benefit. One might fill in craters allowing the seed to roll over them unharmed. Others might provide a shield to protect the seed or summon a poison cloud that dispatches enemies in a matter of seconds. Each one is cleverly designed and remixes the player’s approach creating a wealth of replayability and building on the solid gameplay foundation of the basic abilities.
In particular, the starting ability to set new checkpoints from at almost any location on the map makes hitting an enemy or falling into a hole much less impactful. It won’t save the player from running out of hearts (they’ll still have to restart if that happens) but not erasing all progress at every wrong turn is welcome.
Later in the game weighing the effectiveness of abilities against one another at different points complicates the gameplay. Using any of the seed’s abilities requires gems that can be found throughout each map but they are typically placed in perilous locations.
These choices require strategy. Should you take on an enemy in tight quarters (likely leading to demise) for two or three gems that might allow you to activate your shield ability? Or play it safe and trudge up the mountain only collecting the most low hanging gems to create checkpoints and equip the seed with meager spikes for a basic defense. Early in the game these choices are easier as most enemies can be avoided. When the game gets deeper the need for stronger abilities becomes greater as resources become more scarce. This is when finding and doing side quests becomes crucial.
Along the way there are smaller challenges presented to the player that always promise a return on investment.The return might be a little bit of flavor text about the world or some additional resources. These tertiary quests aren’t always the most enjoyable but the player will complete a handful of them just by interacting with the game and they’re worth completing to make the game a bit easier. For instance in one stage banker seeks investments; donating will increase the chance of finding rare gems that lend double the loot. In other instances npcs will tell you about the mysteries hiding in the mountain, a bit of lore, or a little joke.
These touchstones of world-building and exploration scattered throughout Tumbleseed help to solidify the charm of a game that is fun to look at, listen to, and explore. Though it is deceptively cute, that’s a good thing. The depth of challenge that Tumbleseed offers does the roguelike genre proud even if the controls are a bit of a bear. Embracing the learning curve is well worth it. While it isn’t without its pitfalls it recovers well from its stumbling points if you give it some time.Once players get on a roll, Tumbleseed will charm and challenge.