Apocalyptic fiction tends to revolve around mankind’s desperate attempt to survive in a chaotic environment full of violence. Any sense of hope that does exist tends to be short-lived, lost amid the threat of immediate danger. Often the destruction results from our conflict with machines that have grown too powerful to control. Indie developer Kodots Games has taken a different approach with their end-of-the-world tale Wanda: A Beautiful Apocalypse, however, and the result contains a surprising amount of humanity for a game about a pair of robots.
The story begins with the eponymous robot waking up in a stasis facility with others of its kind. After a futile attempt to communicate with your apparently dead comrades, you strike out alone in search of both answers and companionship. Indeed, hope is a recurrent, uplifting theme throughout the game, and rather than a sense of dread, entering new environments provides the possibility for exploration, the primary motivator of your journey.
What makes Wanda so charming is the child-like temperament of the two main characters and the truly impressive emotional scope packed into such a small story. The first time you encounter puddles of a purplish, steaming liquid, Wanda jumps with curiosity into this new experience before leaping out again when the liquid turns out to be painful to touch. Attempts to wake up the numerous inactive robot bodies littering the environment are accompanied by a heartstring-tugging vocalization. And it is genuinely comical when, upon first stumbling across a little red robot who is even more child-like than Wanda (and who becomes your friend from that point on), the pair initially run away from each other in surprise and fear.
There are numerous examples like this throughout, where the characters are humanized in a way that allows for an exploration of the universal need for companionship and hope in troubled times. When a storm brings frightening lightning and thunder, Wanda and Red (whether he has an actual name is unknown to me) huddle up inside a building together to wait for it to pass. During periods of rest, the pair play games and draw pictures in the layers of dust and debris that cover the broken walls and shattered buildings.
There is a sense of melancholy underlying the proceedings, perhaps appropriately, especially when the nature of the tragedy that has befallen the world is finally revealed. Even so, the fact that the bittersweet emotional notes do not extinguish the sense of hopefulness, but are rather bolstered by them, is an impressive achievement that I don’t recall experiencing from any game in recent (or not-so-recent) memory.
The universality of Wanda’s themes are enhanced by the decision to not have the protagonists use human speech. Instead, emotions are indicated by speech bubbles displaying symbols, and, occasionally, facial expressions. When the robots do speak, they do so through a series of electronic grunts and squawks accompanied visually by fictional alphabetic characters, a feature highly reminiscent of the Alienese alphabet used for hiding message-based Easter eggs on the TV show Futurama. The similarity doesn’t end there, either, as Wanda’s alphabet can be deciphered since each character is a 1:1 substitute for its English equivalent. As I played, I became familiar enough with the robo-alphabet that I was able to understand certain words like “hello” or “OK,” similar in effect to the way one becomes able to decipher simple foreign words and phrases through repeated exposure to them. However, I avoided deliberately translating most of it in order to keep the “alien language” effect intact.
Gameplay-wise, Wanda is a very linear experience, with a series of self-contained minigame-like puzzles blocking progress at several points throughout the 4-5 hours of playtime. With no inventory, all puzzles can be considered of the logic variety. Even though there aren’t that many – seven or eight at the most – the ones that are present are actually quite fun, and for the most part provide just the right amount of challenge before you master the task confronting you. There are a variety of activities to perform, many of which showcase the cooperative nature of the game. Such activities include making a path through a field of large boulders by moving them around, and navigating a maze in which certain parts are inaccessible to one robot or the other. There’s even an interesting Portal-inspired sequence involving the use of portal-generating weapons to assist each other in reaching a particular goal.
These tasks are made more difficult by the inclusion of an “energy meter” on each robot that begins full at the beginning of a puzzle and depletes as you perform certain actions. Although there’s no inventory, power orbs found at strategic points throughout each puzzle can, and often must, be picked up to replenish the affected robot’s energy in order to complete the puzzle. If the energy meter on either robot is completely drained, a brief “power-down” animation is shown, followed by an automatic restart of the puzzle. You may also restart a puzzle manually using the ‘Q’ key. The resulting “yes/no” confirmation dialogue uses the robo-alphabet, but is easily decipherable in this context.
A few puzzles allow you to make two or three mistakes before restarting, such as getting zapped by moving electrified barriers that must be avoided. However, there are several occasions when a single mistake leaves an insufficient amount of energy to succeed. This frustration is particularly acute when combined with a series of button-pressing sequences in which you must press the right keys, at the right time, in the right order. While I was able to finally get past the obstacle in which these Quick Time Events occur, for less-dextrous players this puzzle may be too challenging to master, even with repeated attempts. Luckily, after restarting any puzzle a few times a small “skip” icon will appear somewhere near the start of the offending puzzle. While I never needed to use it, it’s a great gesture for those who might otherwise be permanently stuck.Continued on the next page...