Version tested: Wii
Considered by many to be the premier WiiWare launch title, it's not difficult to see why Frontier's LostWinds has garnered such an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response during recent sneak previews. Knocked up in little over three months, it's a reminder of the kind of offbeat creativity UK development talent is capable of when given an outlet, and when publishers don't interfere. Combining elements of Klonoa and Okami, it's a disarming British love letter to Japanese game development which embarrasses most Wii titles at a stroke. Or waggle.
Before we got down to playing the finished article, Frontier founder and chairman David Braben told us that the decision to self-publish the game via WiiWare rather than the PlayStation Network or Xbox Live Arcade was a decision borne out of the lead designer being a "massive Nintendo fanboy". It also gave the Cambridge-based company a rare chance to cut loose and come up with the kind of quirky game concept that many publishers would have considered too big a risk to put out as a boxed product.
Frontier describes LostWinds as "an enchanting adventure bursting with new gameplay ideas that embrace the innovative controller of the Wii". You could even say that the way the game gives the player control over the wind breathes new life into 2D platform-puzzling, although I wouldn't recommend that because you'll make people cringe. Instead, perhaps you'll say that Frontier has come up with a unique wind-assisted control system that encompasses platforming, combat and puzzling without ever feeling cumbersome or confusing, and with its own visual style that steers comfortably away from anime clich.
LostWinds concerns saving the beautiful land of Mistralis from the wrongdoings of an evil spirit named Balasar. Tasked with finding four chests hidden away throughout the land, you must guide spiky-haired pocket-rocket Toku with the assistance of 'wind spirit' Enril and negotiate a series of beautifully rendered environments, gaining new skills along the way.
Perhaps the most interesting facet of LostWinds control system is how quickly it becomes second nature to pull off complex-sounding actions. With basic left-right movement assigned to the nunchuk, and an auto jump system whenever you reach the edge of a platform, the more complex manouevres are given over to the remote. Rather like Okami, you must physically draw actions on the screen - in this case controlling gusts of wind by holding down the A button and drawing the wind you want to create.
In a basic sense, drawing a vertical line through Toku makes him jump up, and a diagonal line in the required direction to make him leap left or right. Initially, you'll find yourself wandering around, chatting to locals and heading off to shrines to augment your abilities. Along the way, you'll realise that the ability to create a gust of wind isn't purely a cunning jump mechanic, but a puzzle-solving tool which can help whip boulders up onto pressure pads, or direct flames onto wooden doors. Even in combat, gusting becomes useful too, allowing you to smack the little Squawks or Glorbs against the scenery (or drag flames onto them if you're feeling especially evil). Crucially, all of it feels instantly intuitive, and adding extra abilities does little to derail your progress.
Once you're familiar with gust, the addition of the hugely useful Slipstream lets you draw wind around corners, making it simple to, for example, guide flames around to nearby torches, or send a trail of water to a patch of ground to grow a Poyok plant. These, in turn, might help propel you upwards to a previously inaccessible area - possibly to activate a switch or grab a seed you need to reach somewhere else. Later on, the power of wind Vortex allows you to draw a circle around an object, suspend it in mid-air and then gust it towards a barrier to smash your way through, while the final ability, the Jumbrella Cape, allows you to draw a path and seamlessly glide around the game world. Within the space of a few hours, LostWinds demonstrates one of the most brilliantly realised control systems ever seen in a 2D platform game. As with the very best Wii games to date, it utilises the control system in a manner that's incredibly accessible but extremely clever at the same time.
But while it's easy to wax on about the superbly logical puzzles and the excellent control system, just as impressive are the visuals. While downloadable titles on other platforms have a tendency to 'go retro', LostWinds surpasses all expectations by somehow managing to be one of the most delightful-looking games around - not just in terms of the Wii, but full stop. With a continually shifting camera perspective giving you an ever-changing view of the action, and the action moving at a rock-solid 60 frames per second throughout, it's a style many will instantly fall in love with.
Built using Frontier's existing in-house 3D engine, it brings to life the delightfully rich art-style, and frames the action perfectly at all times. We've been saying it for the best part of the last ten years, but this '2.5D' compromise between the precision of 2D with scalable 3D is definitely a technique more developers should explore. As is the case here, it's an absolute dream when it comes off. A special mention for the cut-scenes and often hilarious sound effects too - there's barely a single element of the game with which you won't be thoroughly enamoured. Even the decision to shy away from voice-overs seems like a sensible idea once you play it.
The other thing to mention is the price of LostWinds. At 1000 Wii Points, it absolutely shames most full-price releases, and, weighing in at just 37MB, it won't hog the limited storage space on the Wii, either, or take forever to download. True, the gameplay length at 3 to 4 hours (on your first play-through) isn't that big, but for the price you can have no complaints whatsoever. If more games of this quality emerged at this sort of price point, I doubt too many of us would mind - in fact we'd doubtlessly play more of them rather than get bogged down in epics. You're left wanting more, but in a good way.
LostWinds is a great example of what can be achieved on WiiWare. By combining a few simple gesture-based controls within a tightly focused platform-puzzling framework, Frontier has created a mini-masterpiece at the first attempt. From here, we can fully expect to see a lot more of Toku and Enril, and hopefully a slew of similarly innovative and fresh new ideas on Nintendo's proving ground from other like-minded developers ready to break free from the shackles of modern development cycles.
9 / 10