The Lion’s Song review

The Lion’s Song: Episode 2 - Anthology review
The Lion’s Song: Episode 2 - Anthology review

Take me straight to Episode 2!

Episode 1 - Silence

Few developers are brave enough to take on subjects like the struggle for creative inspiration, particularly as it applies to classical music. But with the free episodic debut of The Lion’s Song (with three more commercial instalments to follow), indie studio Mi’pu’mi Games manages to show that video games are more at home in Austria’s twentieth century musical world than one might expect. Notwithstanding a few notable problems, already this looks set to be one of the most unusual – and potentially impressive – game series around.

In this first episode, Silence, you play Wilma, a promising young music student in early 1900s Austria. Her tutor, Arthur, is convinced that her music is radically unlike anything before, so he sends her off to a remote cabin in the Alps so that she can finish composing her new work, “The Lion’s Song”. And if that doesn’t make her anxious enough, he tells her it is to premiere as the grand finale in an improbable programme of Schoenberg, Mahler and Berg.

The graphics are very much suited to the setting. It’s the sort of low-res 2D art familiar to adventure gamers, but stylised with a striking sepia-toned palette that cinematically depicts each scene. In one dream sequence, Wilma stands at the bottom of a well looking up, paralysed, as torrential rain falls down and the water looks set to drown her. The rain and splashing water are beautifully done; indeed, the animation all around is quite detailed for pixel art. Characters tend to take up much of the screen, so it is immersive to notice breathing and blinking, or the way in which Wilma turns her head as she looks out the window or taps anxiously on the desk.

Gorgeous though the graphics are, the presentation limits the gameplay somewhat, as characters do not usually move around the screen and a lot of time is spent in conversation. The game opts instead for a more cinematic format, somewhere between The Walking Dead and Kentucky Route Zero. You move from scene to scene quite quickly, and in most cases there is little more to do than click a couple of hotspots or explore conversation choices. The entire experience is less than an hour long, though, moving so fast that I was never bored or distracted.

Fundamentally, The Lion’s Song is a point-and-click game, but there are no puzzles to speak of. You may, for example, need to block out noises around the cabin to help Wilma concentrate, but the ‘solution’ is to find these distractions (no hard task) and simply click on them so that Wilma can focus her mind to block them out. Other times it’s simply a matter of surveying the screen in an effort to help inspire Wilma, at which point the cursor will transform into musical notes. At times I found this part of the gameplay underwhelming, perhaps too simple in light of the actual complexity of composing music.

Much better are the game’s conversations, which feature prominently. This era marks the advent of phone technology, and isolated in the Alps Wilma is relieved to pick up the phone and hear from a sympathetic old man, Leos. He is a stranger who intended to call his niece, not Wilma, but they strike up a friendship that becomes a central inspiration for her work. You can sense their mutual amazement at how this new invention is allowing them to share each other's burdens – I couldn't help but be warmed by the joy each phone call gave to an increasingly lonely man like Leos.

All conversations are text-only, with the text shaking or waving subtly to better convey moods. The player can also make various choices during these talks, as well as outside them, that could potentially affect the series later on. Do you call Leos a last time before you leave to premiere the work? And who or what will you dedicate the completed score to? At the end, you’re presented with a Telltale-like summary of the decisions you’ve made and what percentage of players chose similarly. These choices only made a minor difference in this episode, so I am eager to see how they will impact future episodes, if at all.

Considering this first episode is about classical music, I had certain expectations as to what the soundtrack would be like, but for much of the game there is little music at all, just rain and birds and other sound effects. The occasional gentle chord might chime when Wilma is inspired, and sometimes you hear a subtle melody play out in dull electronic tones, a sort of embryonic form of the motifs that will make up her work. When you finally hear the piece at the end, with Wilma playing solo violin in a grand concert hall, it sounds more like a simple Einaudi cover than anything remotely early twentieth century and groundbreaking. Even being generous, it is little more than a minimalist electronic impression of an actual orchestral score. I could not help but compare it to the fully-scored and staged aria at the end of Gabriel Knight 2, and see it as quite the anticlimax here.

Nevertheless, this sequence is at least visually grand. The screen fades between all the scenes leading up to that performance, and then gives you an intimidating first-person view of Wilma on stage, looking out to the audience in its hundreds. Afterwards you’re treated to a charming credits scene, in which each developer is graphically represented in an upmarket bar, chatting away, with the composer perched over the piano. By this point, despite some flaws along the way, I was very much enamoured by the game.

Given that the series’ namesake creation is completed by the end of this first act, I am especially curious to know where the game will be going next. Silence has set the stage for two interesting characters in the form of the young composer Wilma and her newfound friend Leos, and its setting in the world of early twentieth century classical Austria is refreshingly unusual. The soundtrack is admittedly underwhelming, and the gameplay can be somewhat static, but since the episode is free and barely an hour long, these lesser quibbles should not stop anyone giving it a go. Indeed, when the game hits on the right mood, it is a remarkable experience.

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Adventure games by Mi’pu’mi Games

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