Throughout your journey, collectible icons are hidden around the environment, representing journals that help complete a series of images, one section at a time. It can be challenging to find these journals, as they are sometimes barely peeking out from behind buildings or other parts of the landscape. While they don’t have any actual bearing on gameplay, they show the world as it was before the catastrophe and reveal additional detail for players who take the time to learn and decipher the alphabet, as a sizeable amount of “robo-text” is superimposed on each of the three images.
The third-person controls are entirely keyboard-driven and intuitive for the most part. Arrow keys are used to navigate the environment, while various alphanumeric keys are mapped for actions like pushing or using objects, and swapping between Wanda and Red. Wanda forgoes a proper tutorial in favor of a full-screen dialog box that appears whenever you are introduced to a new action, making it easy to understand. However, it neglects to indicate how to go back to the main menu, an action mapped to the F12 key. It’s a bizarre omission, because there seems to be no other way to exit the game properly.
Saves are another odd aspect of the interface. Saving is performed manually, but in order to do so you must first activate a checkpoint icon, shaped like a floppy disk, that appears floating above the ground. Usually, these appear near the beginning of a puzzle, and are frequent enough that very little backtracking would be necessary if you quit playing before saving at the next checkpoint. Saves appear to be unlimited in number, but the game is small enough that I only used nine, one at each checkpoint.
Graphically, Wanda possesses the crisp precision of hand-painted art, though the characters are slightly more blocky, imbuing them with some old-school pixel art charm. There are a variety of environments, from chrome-clad indoor scenes to dusty-brown outdoor views punctuated by hints of color, such as neon-green light strips on buildings or red planets in the sky. Overall, the graphics have a very “friendly” feel, which is appropriate in a game starring two robots who wouldn’t be out of place in a Disney film. While there’s no single scene that will blow you away, it’s incredible to me how well the art style feels like a visual representation of the characters’ naïvety.
Cinematics are numerous throughout this game. These usually occur after transitioning to a new scene or upon encountering a new puzzle, one of which happens very frequently, usually after no more than two or three intervening scenes. In many ways the cutscenes serve to make an already linear game seem more like a puzzle-punctuated interactive movie, and I suppose in some ways that is exactly what Wanda is. Given that each scene to explore is fairly small, I was annoyed at first with having my explorations constantly interrupted, which surprised me considering that some of my favorite game series of recent years have been the Telltale titles.
However, unlike in Telltale's games, there’s literally nothing for you to do during Wanda's cutscenes except to watch what happens. On the other hand, the control you lose enables the characters to do things that normally wouldn’t be possible for you to make them do, a privilege the developers have wisely employed in order to increase the narrative depth. Much of the emotional weight involves complex character actions and interaction that would be impossible to show if players remained in control. There’s only so much I can say about this topic without spoiling what should be surprising, poignant moments, but suffice it to say that my initial skepticism at constantly being asked to passively watch the game paid off in the end with a cinematic depth that I wasn’t expecting.
Much of Wanda’s cinematic potential is enhanced by the music. If there’s a game soundtrack that deserves to be called a score, it’s this one. For such a compact game, David Lister has composed one of the most emotionally-sweeping video game scores I’ve ever heard. It is entirely orchestral in texture, containing everything from upbeat and lighthearted tracks to awe-inspiring themes to doleful string compositions, changing to fit the necessary mood. Incredibly, it appears that the tracks accompanying the in-game cutscenes are actually composed for, and timed with, events that take place on-screen. Triumphs are marked by swells of music, melancholy moments punctuated with sad tunes. And the tracks that accompany the puzzles and the times when you can freely explore the environment are equally masterful; even though they play on a loop, I never tired of hearing them.
Sound effects are also well-done, consisting of things like electronic beeps and boops when interacting with objects and vocalizations from the two protagonists, among various other noises. Much of it is largely functional in purpose, but the vocalizations provide cues to the robots’ emotional states, such as inquisitiveness, excitement, or fear.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Wanda: A Beautiful Apocalypse before I began, but I certainly wasn’t prepared for how emotionally moving the game would be. Even though it’s fairly short, it packs a lot of very good content into a small package. While the keyboard-based interface and manual save system are a little idiosyncratic, the minigame-like puzzles are challenging and surmountable with practice and time. It may be fairly linear, but the story succeeds at exploring universal themes such as friendship through the lens of its child-like protagonists. This drama is enhanced further by one of the most sweeping game scores I’ve ever heard, running the full emotional gamut. In short, for a game set in an apocalyptic wasteland and starring two robots, Wanda: A Beautiful Apocalypse has more heart and soul packed into its bits and bytes than I’ve seen in a long time, and I completely recommend it.