Mascot platformers are enjoying something of a renaissance. Spyro and Crash have both seen their classic adventures revitalised in remakes, and Yooka-Laylee took a second swing at life as a 2D adventure just last month. Woven tries to tap into that heritage, with limited success. Although looking every bit as whimsical as the best in its genre, Woven struggles as the result of an awkward control scheme and a disappointing lack of charm. This woollen adventure is a blend of cute and clumsy that is a little too awkward to be loveable.
On paper, Woven has every ingredient necessary for success: an arresting aesthetic, an adorable lead character, and a unique hook. The game begins as a plushie named Stuffy stumbles across a mechanical bee-like creature while exploring the wildernesses of a fabric world. The two quickly team up and set out to discover what happened to the rest of Stuffy’s kind, as well as the source and purpose of the machines that dot the landscape. The questions are intriguing, but the momentum to support them is not sustained. Woven is a non-violent adventure, but Alterego Games struggles to make the story count. What little narrative is present is dedicated to progression, with character development receiving little more than lip service. As such, the all-ages billing feels a little misleading. Children and children-at-heart will get a kick out of this simple tale, but older players will likely find themselves wanting more.
This curious duality between childish charm and spotty execution permeates the entire game. For example, the narrator is as soothing as Stephen Fry was in LittleBigPlanet. However, the lines often comprise of mismatched rhymes, which disrupts the flow of the commentary. Furthermore, the narrator’s random interjections quickly become repetitive and trite. The questionable quality of the narrations also contributes to the story feeling less engaging than it otherwise might.
Story aside, Woven’s most significant issue lies within its gameplay. Not quite a platformer, not quite a walking simulator, not quite a point-and-click adventure, Woven does not seem to have a clear identity. The woollen 3D world tantalises with a vast array of bright colours and beautiful sights. Players will justifiably want to romp and roam across the rolling hills but doing so is a chore. Rather than directly controlling the character with thumbsticks or WASD, the player has to click on the environment to move. The mechanic is imprecise and made even more so by the need to hold down a button to move the camera. This interface would suit mobile platforms, but it is disastrous with a controller or mouse/keyboard set-up. Making the situation worse is the need for further optimisation in the pre-release build played for this review; responsiveness slows to a crawl at times, and camera control suffers dramatically as a result. Nevertheless, because this fault only increases frustration rather than breaking the game, anyone able to deal with the control scheme should also be able to overcome the performance woes.
[Editor’s note: This review was conducted using the default mouse-only control scheme on PC. Alternative direct control interfaces are available on consoles and by switching to mouse and keyboard or gamepad on PC. These options significantly improve the moment-to-moment experience, but the character’s default speed remains sluggish and awkwardness continues to plague the context-sensitive actions.]
Doing so is worthwhile. Despite the faults, Woven is good. The visual design is gorgeous, and the puzzles within are often thought-provoking without being obtuse. Credit must be given to the main gameplay hook. As in LittleBigPlanet or Puppeteer, players are able to make changes to the protagonist’s appearance almost at will. In Woven, these alterations take place at loom-like contraptions, with additional body types and fabric patterns hidden throughout the world. Unlocking additional customisation options is a treat in itself, and transforming Stuffy into an irredeemably adorable combination of pink elephant, green dog, red-nosed reindeer, and checkerboard bird is totally worth the price of admission.
Moreover, the customisation has tangible effects on the gameplay. Body parts confer special abilities, so mixing and matching is sometimes essential for progression. Activating those abilities is performed by clicking on the related icon that appears at the bottom of the screen, but they all clearly marked to avoid confusion. Similarly, some puzzles rely on the wearing of a particular pattern. Unfortunately, the game does not always recognise those patterns, which can result in unfair setbacks or an inability to complete side objectives. However, these issues do not upset the core functionality of the game, and those who enjoy this quirky game will find plenty else to absorb their time, with numerous body types to uncover and dozens of patterns hidden throughout the world.
Like its protagonist then, Woven is an odd beast. Alterego has succeeded in making something distinct—the game certainly stands out from the crowd. However, that uniqueness comes with concessions. Every charming feature is offset by a fumble: a fun premise by a non-existent story, a stunning aesthetic by burdensome exploration, solid puzzles by technical issues. Nevertheless, the game is fully functional and will certainly be worthwhile purchase for young children or anyone else who enjoys the simple pleasures.
Reviewed on PC. Also available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.