Version tested Xbox 360
A gel-spitting dragon and a teleporting pixie, an invasion of flowers from outer space, a fight where you clamber around inside someone else's hand... It can be hard to tell whether Islands of Wakfu is a game or an over-evolved seventies concept album.
It's certainly a unique adventure. You get to explode statues by singing to them and beat up a tree. Towards the end of the affair you enter a mystical realm through a gateway which looks like a head of lettuce, before abusing a bear who owns a pirate ship. I'm still moderately surprised that, when the game's final boss shows up, it isn't Brian Wilson.
But IOW is definitely a game. It's the latest offering from quietly prosperous French outfit Ankama. The company's specialty is developing games which blend delicate cartoon visuals with intricate mechanics, and slapping them with names which sound like the intestinal disease you might catch from consuming a reheated sausage roll.
Dofus took the MMO world by surprise, stealthily creeping up on the biggies with its whimsical, bucolic environments and turn-based combat (often against crabs). Now Islands of Wakfu has arrived on consoles to trade all that for a little real-time brawling (also often against crabs).
The game is pitched as a distant prequel to Dofus. A world is ending and cutesy forces of darkness are gathering. The last of the dinky Eliatropes embarks on a quest to sort things out.
IOW is full of details for fans to spot, and even for newcomers it always seems to be juggling interesting themes involving politics and religion (albeit fantasy politics and fantasy religion). In the end, though, the denseness of the fiction and the constant, smothering embrace of bizarre terminology may serve as barriers to your engagement.
If this is your introduction to Ankama's worlds, you're likely to find it deeply imagined but rather impenetrable. It's safe to say that accessible storytelling is not one of the team's more obvious strengths.
Luckily this doesn't really matter all that much, as Islands' real aim is to look beautiful while offering a cheerily incessant stream of enemies for you to bludgeon. (Occasionally the designers toss in a puzzle, too, and these grow in complexity towards a sweet duo near the end - but such moments are the exception rather than the rule.)
On the first count, Ankama is typically confident when it comes to piling on the prettiness. Drafting in a range of fantasy locations, from dense, glittering forests, to wind-swept stretches of sand and a kind of beanstalk-riddled patio garden nested amongst the stars, the art team creates some spectacular set-pieces.
The storyline has you escaping stampedes of unlikely cattle one moment, then racing up a shuddering mountain to reach a cyber-citadel the next. As with Dofus, it's another world filled with sweet-natured detail: look closely at the backdrops and you'll spot coffee mugs on the floor next to rocking chairs or strange little tools lined up on work benches.
Such elements help a lot when it comes to grounding a game in which every fifth word is a knotty sprawl of fantasy nomenclature. It's all aided by a soundtrack which is genuinely excellent, even if it does sound like mirror-world versions of David Byrne and Tori Amos have got together to write a Broadway musical about their Feelings.