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.
As an action RPG, IOW has been built with ambition rather than finesse. The heart of the game comes from the two main characters, each player taking one in the (local only) co-op, while a lone battler switches them in and out on the fly.
The Eliatrope's your main guy, a melee fighter with a strong and weak attack. He's backed up by a Dragon, who's slower at getting around but is able to spit ranged shots.
Actually, it's a bit more complicated than that. The Eliatrope can teleport - either by moving a cursor around and choosing a target area or by selecting a fast move which tucks them straight in behind the nearest enemy. The Dragon can (naturally) control a ghostly platypus who can pick up certain objects and lug them about.
Both characters have a range of upgradeable tricks that blossom throughout the course of the game - some of which are specials charged by combat. Success or failure in most of the hectic battles therefore centres on mastery of blocks and stuns and matters of positioning.
It's all about working your way around enemy defences, knowing when to switch from stronger melee moves to that weaker distanced assault, and when to let rip with the expensive big guns.
There are plenty of elegant moments - health orbs for the Eliatrope can be used as explosives by the Dragon, for example - and the game will smack you up and down quite mercilessly unless you engage with the full sweep of your powers.
Elsewhere there are combos to learn, and a leaderboard system that encourages you to blast through levels with an eye on scoring and style. Considering how far the developer is from its turn-based comfort zone, Ankama's done a relatively convincing job of blending straight-up fighting and shooting.
With a decent range of pitched battles, bosses and even a few light traversal moments as you teleport from one rocky ledge to another, or perform QTE dimensional jumps to boost you right into the stars, the studio's latest offers a generous chunk of adventure.
And it's chaotic, co-operative fun if you're playing with a friend (or an enemy, I suppose, but you might want to keep a weather eye on unexpected real-world karate chops).
If you're soloing, however, Islands can eventually become a bit of a slog. The lengthy multi-wave encounters, presumably balanced for two, outstay their welcome a little.
It's worth noting, that, underneath the tinkling dew-drops and wafting fairy feathers, Ankama's game offers a cold-hearted challenge but is rarely genuinely unfair. Boss battles which initially seem all but impenetrable often snap smartly into focus when you find the specific attack pattern for the occasion. The moments when bloody-minded attrition is the only means of moving forward are fairly rare.
This is a good thing, as that's where IOW's short-comings as an action game - slightly laggy input, muddlesome enemy clusters when things hot up and iffy checkpointing - can be hard to ignore.
Such rough edges hardly define a product that's otherwise been conceived with care and elegance. However, it can be difficult to forgive wooliness in a game which, by and large, aims to be so unforgiving itself.
Chances are you will forgive it, though. Islands of Wakfu has a hand-made, nutty charm that generally eases even the sharpest of aggravations. As a standalone it may not be as measured or as involving as its MMO big brother, but it retains enough character and spectacle to overcome the handful of rough spots.
7 / 10