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There’s something perverse about having two main characters – the titular wizard and the slug – and choosing the slug as the one you control. The wizard can fly, has almost god-like powers, and – to all intents and purposes – is the character that the plot orbits around. But no. Let’s play as the slug. Cheers, The Wizard and the Slug.
Slug has no name – you’re not intelligent enough to burble out words – and you wake from your slug-burrow to a new day. As you slime across the forest, you come across a wizard named Charm who has crash-landed, gouging a crater out of your favourite path. The wizard asks you to find their misplaced leg and arm, and then enquires about whether you want to go on an adventure. Charm doesn’t quite wait for an answer, and hops into your body with a possession spell. Average day.
This leads to a spot of 2D platforming, which isn’t exactly conventional. Sure, there are enemies and platforms, as well as a push to go from left to right, screen to screen, but jumping and fighting are unusual beasts. You can jump, but you can also double- and triple-jump too. But with each expanded jump, you shed a bit of your body, until you’re nothing but a pea at the end. In the proceeding couple of seconds, you regain the body mass and return to being a slug.
It’s a similar story with combat. Slug can fire arcing blobs of goo at enemies, but that, too, reduces slug in size until they become a tiny sphere. What these two mechanics mean in combination is that you have a limited number of things you can do before you become a tiny blob and can’t double-jump or attack at all. You have to conserve them, using them in moderation until you are back to full size.
It might seem like it’s there to slow you down, but the main reason is to toss in some difficulty. If you get damaged when you’re at your smallest size, then you lose one of two health pips. Lose both, and you’re dead, restarting at the latest checkpoint. There’s something of the rhythm-action to the approach, as you are pulling off moves and then stopping to regain size, as well as a constant swing between going on the offensive and then running away, regaining your size.
It’s certainly imaginative – we’ll give it that. On the positive side, it demands precision, as you need to nail your attacks and jumps, because you’ll quickly transform into a sitting duck afterwards. There’s a kind of thrill to unleashing hell and then quietly hiding in a corner. But it’s also incredibly messy. Combat in particular is problematic, as you’re lobbing balls that look, unfortunately, a lot like you. You are often smaller than they are, getting lost in the melee. It’s impossible to tell where you actually are in certain instances, and – particularly on the last flipping temple level – this becomes obstructive.
Levels are reasonably well designed, if not staggeringly inventive. They’re straightforward, without any keys, locks, switches or Metroidvania aspects to them at all. In a way, it’s kind of refreshing.
But this is the only way in which The Wizard and the Slug is conventional. Because what makes it remarkable is its tone, and its approach to both humour and story. If you’ve enjoyed games that absolutely drench their 2D platforming in artful, kooky narrative, like Wandersong and What Lies in the Multiverse, then you are going to find a £4.99 treat in The Wizard and the Slug.
We’re struggling to recall a bitesize platformer that has done as much Tolkien-esque worldbuilding as The Wizard and the Slug. There must be stacks of ruled notebooks back at the developer’s house, full of backhistory for the game. It’s a tale of titans, immortals, creator gods, warriors and priests, all in a struggle for control of the world. But they’re mostly related to each other, so there’s a soap opera aspect to it too. The wizard is powerful but also a sibling, and that personal connection to most of the bosses and characters makes for a strong dynamic.
Then there’s the determination to keep messing with the structure. It’s what we love most about The Wizard and the Slug: it can’t go more than a few screens without doing some crazy antics that border on self-sabotage. Suddenly, you’ve gained a dog sidekick, and they’re throwing enemies up into the air for you to blob in the face, before the enemies stop completely and challenge you to a game of yarn-based volleyball. You play as different characters; appear in a bartering minigame; experience a rain of penguins; and play a game of punch club (don’t talk about it). It feels like someone in the development team kept asking ‘what if…?’, and – instead of saying no – everyone went along with it. The result’s a bit fab.
Layering over all of this bonkersness is a thick soup of humour and deadly serious mythologising. It’s a tough blend to swallow in places, and The Wizard and the Slug can be a bit windbaggy at times, talking longer than it really should. But mostly it works, as a large proportion of the jokes land (a psychotic banana and its feud with a sensible orange is a highlight), as does a large chunk of the serious stuff. Think Undertale and you’re somewhere close to the tone that is being achieved here. Not quite as sublime as that comparison makes out, but very good nonetheless.
Which is, as you might have noted, not how The Wizard and the Slug presents itself. A £4.99 2D platformer from Ratalaika that looks reasonably attractive, but not overly so, should never have been as good as this. We were in the queue for quick, easy achievements and a throwaway bit of entertainment. What we got was a freewheeling, inventive little platformer that made us think and chuckle in equal measure. Bravo.
You can buy The Wizard and the Slug from the Xbox Store