Wooden Sen’SeY is an action-platformer, and those adhere to a different set of rules than normal platformers. If platformers live and die on level design and difficulty curve and tightness of controls, then action platformers have to balance on top of all of those things a fun, competent gameplay experience and a strong, fun to engage enemy to attack. It is a true razor’s edge to walk upon, and if you slip even the slightest bit your entire castle can come crumbling down around you…but if you succeed, well, there are few joys in gaming like it. Wooden Sen’SeY is frustrating because in-between moments in which it is very clear Upper Byte totally nails it, they are bogged down by shoddy controls, mindbogglingly poor pieces of level design, repetitiveness, and sudden left-field spikes in the difficulty curve that left me recoiling and mourning the loss of potential on the screen.
The hero of Wooden Sen’SeY is a village chief named Goro, an adorable little drunk of a ninja who awakens one morning to find his village under attack from some unidentified dark force that is very limited in diversity but a curiously large amount of awesome air ships. This dark force proceeds to jack all of Goro’s SeY bottles, and he goes off on a roaring rampage of comic revenge against all the creatures of the dark across 9 different levels, collecting these bottles as he goes and wrecking everything in his way.
Goro is a simply controlled character. He moves left and right on a 3-D plane, can look up and duck, and has access to a primary attack, a swing of what I think are axes on chains A la Kratos, a secondary attack that accounts for item based range attacks with shurikens or bombs, and a grapple ability that allows you to swing from wood and other soft materials using your axes like grappling hooks, and doubles as a skyward attack for airborne enemies. You can combine the primary attack and duck mid jump for a powerful downwards thrust attack with both axes…and you’d better get the timing down, because this one move is relied upon for about 50% of the gameplay.
That downward strike is not only often the only way one can efficiently attack enemies larger than the default round, harmless, stationary balls of darkness floating about every level doing nothing, but it also is a substitute for a platforming staple; the double jump. It is a necessary part of environmental navigation, which, theoretically, would be fine. One could level the same criticism at the Mario series for relying on jumping, but in Mario, the levels are well designed and the jumping actually controls smoothly.
Not controlling smoothly is perhaps the greatest sin of Wooden Sen’SeY, because everything else it at least gets half right. Level design only falls apart after the first two unbearably easy chapters and even then only in spots (with the exception of the game’s fourth level, which is basically a conga line of awful). Enemy encounters only become egregious and repetitive in two or three standout locations that are supposed to stand in for boss fights. Controls, the general gameplay of Wooden Sen’SeY, are consistently its downfall. For every moment of fun there are two moments of incredible frustration. For every legitimately fun platforming sequence is a moment in which that damn downward strike doesn’t come out and you go plunging into a rotating spike for two, three, four times in a row. When it comes to the grapple, even when the axe lands you have to rely upon it sticking into the surface, or not just randomly detaching you. For every clever enemy design there is a sequence in which your attacks don’t harm enemies because SURPRISE, your basic attack cannot actually harm them without them harming you, and since you have so little health, and they are coming at you in waves this becomes a never ending cycle of unwilling hara kiri. Upper Byte claim to have beaten some of these levels in under three minutes. They, in my opinion, must be wizards.
And all of this is a shame, because what works in Wooden Sen’SeY works like gangbusters. What Upper Byte understands better than any other independent platformer developer in recent memory is how to build a sense of atmosphere. Their art direction is absolutely unflappable, building a fucking gorgeous “Japanese Steam Rock” universe. Colors pop in all the right places, environments perfectly combine steampunk with stylized Japanese iconography, and all the characters and backgrounds seem equally like they popped out of a painting of the era of the Shogun as they do a punk rock comic book.
And the soundtrack…oh my lord, the soundtrack. A pitch-perfect remix of traditional Japanese music you imagine going right along with ninja battles in old films blended with electric guitars and modern dryms to create this delicious metal-esqe sound that fits perfectly with the world. Wooden Sen’SeY is truly beautiful to admire and listen to.
Unlocked by progression through Wooden Sen’SeY is a Time Attack mode, and here is where the game hits something resembling a stride. While it still struggles with unwieldy controls, the 30 levels of Time Attack are rid of issues with level design, which allows it to be a great deal of old-fashioned arcade fun that allows you to plan your runs ahead of time and go at them in search of more medals. Time Attack accomplishes something that I imagine Upper Byte was aiming for all along; being ungodly friggin’ hard, but in the rewarding, fun way like Dark Souls. I was able to clear 14 of them, so hats off if you can do all 30.
In the end, I suppose that is the main disappointment of Wooden Sen’SeY. It wants so badly to be a classically minded platformer that champions difficulty and challenge, but it gets there the wrong way. Instead of constructing a curve that constantly challenges the player, by making a few fatal mistakes Upper Byte has crafted a promising but ultimately disappointing imitation of those classic experiences. But the potential is there, and that and Time Attack prevents it from gaining a lower score. While that may make it bittersweet for now, we can hope Upper Byte solves these problems and capitalizes on their obvious talent next time around.
[+Absolutely jaw dropping art design] [ +Brilliant soundtrack] [+ Excellent Time Attack mode solves level design problems and speeds up pace] [ -Poor pieces of level design in main story] [ -Controls are incredibly sluggish] [ -Very repetitive combat and platforming in main story] [ -Drastic and unfair spikes in difficulty mar pacing in main story]