The Lion’s Song review
Take me straight to Episode 3!
Episode 1 – Silence
By Steven Watson
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.
Episode 2 – Anthology
By Steven Watson
This episode begins as the last did, with a train journey. The grand old-fashioned train anticipates what’s about to follow: the rich, busy world of early 20th century Austria, in which you play Franz Markert, the local artist who is likely to be the next big thing. You spend the game in search of Franz's artistic breakthrough in portraits, and in doing so have to navigate the Austrian high-society. With such a promising premise, it’s a shame that the luscious style of this instalment, titled Anthology, is seldom more than superficial.
Franz is looking for the next model to paint, and in his search he attempts to uncover people’s ‘layers’, his own slightly-pretentious version of what constitutes a person’s being. Events are set in the same fictional world as the last episode, and you may hear the violin concerto premiered in Silence being played on radios in the game. However, this is essentially a separate story with few obvious overlaps.
Instead of heading off to a cabin in the Alps this time, you explore a busy Vienna in a lengthy pursuit of models to paint, a hunt that mainly involves a lot of choice-based conversation, none of it especially stimulating. But Franz’s search is always an inward one as he struggles with a vague concept about the artist and the way he perceives the world and his subjects. Just why does he paint and what should an artist be searching for? The game also weaves in a few romance stories, one of which involves Franz, though they are forgettable and all too quick. However, at least you are able to affect both Franz's and other romances through conversation.
And really conversation is the only means of gameplay, whether it be choosing which Austrian coffee to order or interrogating potential models. You can click to move your character across the screen, but I never had the opportunity even to pick up an object. You do get visual cues: for instance when you talk to potential models, silhouettes appear behind them, offering insight into Franz’s perception of them, showing you in what way he might paint these people. You can't in any way manipulate these layers, however, nor are you involved in the painting process when a new model is chosen. Combined with mostly mediocre writing you have a rather dull, limited gameplay experience, as much a visual novel as an adventure game.
This episode does really shine in one particular scene: your session with Freud – yes, that Sigmund Freud. You are referred to him after experiencing a series of blackouts ostensibly tied to artistic fatigue. Trying to discover what Franz gets up to during those blackouts is one of the central mysteries (though not in the end an especially interesting one). You end up in Freud’s office, a lone double bass plucking away in the background as Sigmund smokes his cigar and you lie down on his couch. This Freud is an amusing character. He is written with a very blunt, dry humour – that is, when he stops being totally oblivious and lost in himself. He also has a habit of kicking furniture after patients leave.
Freud is refreshing because it’s here that the game finally becomes a bit self-effacing. At times it is agonisingly pretentious, with Franz suffering from an awful case of Tortured Artist Syndrome. The game portrays a hackneyed version of the artist, one who’s the discoverer of inner truth, the sufferer, the complicated man. An art critic criticises him for being too ‘obvious’, for creating ‘expressionism without expression'. Franz regularly talks of finding ‘layers’ and uncovering his models’ ‘true selves’. His mission is to paint people 'as they really are', and the main task in this game is to search for so-called 'REAL people'.
During this process, Franz gradually visualises these layers as he talks to potential models – a talent apparently unique to him, almost like an intellectual superpower – and somehow incorporate them into his paintings. The layers are really just visual, however, and as such don't tell you anything insightful about the characters Franz is in conversation with. Not only does this make the gameplay not terribly interesting (after all, what can you do when all the mental energy of the protagonist is pointed inwards?), it also makes the game seem somewhat ridiculous and humourless. It desperately wants to be profound and highbrow but just scrapes the bottom of the barrel when it comes to its understanding of art and psychology.
The problem is made worse by very shallow character writing. This was less a problem in the first episode, as there were far fewer people and each was explored in greater depth. These characters are nearly all bland stereotypes: the withering art critic, the tortured artist, the aging actress losing her looks, the obstinate and absent-minded psychiatrist (though, as noted, this stereotype is written rather well). The only other interesting character besides Freud is the money-obsessed banker who turned out to be a very genial, generous man – a subversion of a kind. As the writing is unremarkable, I was left desperately wanting voice acting, which could have given the characters some colour and depth.
Though the story falls short, the game’s stylised visuals still give it a strong sense of personality. It keeps the same sepia-toned palette from the first chapter, though this episode feels a bit more cinematic with larger rooms and shots of the cityline. When you have to travel around Vienna, there’s an impressive overhead map of the city, showing all the locations from the market to the cafe to your apartment. There are even some non-accessible locations, such as a park and a church, which you can nevertheless click on for a brief reflection by Franz. The river running through the map is crudely but stylishly animated, and busy little rectangles bustle through the city streets, with birds occasionally flying over and the distant sounds of horse-drawn carriages. The layout of the buildings and streets is admirably detailed, making it quite interesting to watch your little rectangular Franz dash from location to location. It makes Vienna feel like a real expansive city, despite the fact that there are only six or seven locations to actually visit.
The music is sparse and unobtrusive, though its rarity makes it more memorable when it occurs. Admittedly much of it is seemingly recycled from episode one, consisting of either synthesized orchestral sounds or purely electronic music. But while this may sound like a bit of an anachronism for twentieth century Austria, it is abstract enough to suit the game. A vague electronic shimmering melody is sounded at crucial moments, which makes for a very effective motif. When there is background music, it is quite often a very distinctive combination of what sounds like synthesized accordion and strings, contributing to the game's unusual flavour. More often than not, however, there is no background music at all. You're more likely to hear birdsong or chattering crowds at appropriate times, and this makes for a reasonably immersive setting.
When the end of the episode comes, a scene is played in which you see all of the models you painted. All the choices you’ve made will apparently impact future episodes – but it doesn’t stop there. Your choices in this instalment also affects the first episode if you play them out of sequence. It’s a novel idea, but I can already see the inevitable confusion: in which order should one play the episodes, and what chronologically makes sense? Completionists will doubtless be driven mad by all the possibilities, and narratively it could become something of a tangled web. Just as with the overbearing highbrow aspirations of this episode, I am beginning to fear that this game series is attempting too much. I can only hope the next episode is more modest.
Episode 3 – Derivation
By Jack Allin
If you’ve never spent long dwelling on the subject of derivation or theorizing about “the functions of change, in conjunction with time and states,” chances are you’re a woman with a domestic mind rather than a logical one, incapable of dwelling on such complex matters.
I assume you’re thoroughly offended by that sexist introduction (and you certainly should be), so you’ll have a good idea of what to expect in the third episode of The Lion’s Song. While the first two installments dealt with the inner turmoil of its protagonists, Episode 3: Derivation turns its questions of identity outwards. Twentieth century Vienna may seem like a progressive place filled with liberal ideas, but it was not yet an era when women were deemed equal to men. (We still aren’t there yet, but by comparison we’ve come a long way since then!) That was especially true for a female trying to crack the exclusive field of mathematics, as Emma Recniczek is attempting to do here.
Not surprisingly, after barely managing to finagle her way past a scoffing maitre d' and waiter to the inner sanctum of an elite mathematicians’ club, Emma finds herself the brunt of her would-be colleagues’ condescending insults (I was merely quoting them above) and laughter. Not only won’t they consider allowing her to join their esteemed company, they refuse to even listen to her latest math theory, so ill-equipped is she (they believe) to have anything of consequence to contribute. So what’s a highly capable, motivated young woman to do in this arrogant area of men’s self-proclaimed expertise? Well, if they can’t see past her gender, perhaps they’d be much more receptive to a disguised Emil Schell instead.
Dressing up as a man may get Emma/Emil past her first hurdle, but there are others to overcome as well. For one thing, the math group leader’s frail ego is threatened by a brilliant outsider in their midst, even one from Berlin who convincingly sports a top hat, long coat and glasses while besting the other members at their puzzles of the week. There’s also a personal tragedy to deal with out of the blue. More importantly, how can the protagonist prove her mathematical theory about change and distinguish herself? And then there’s the matter of balancing her two outward personas between home, a part-time job at the library, and of course the male-dominated club for math geeks, The Radius.
The third episode’s presentation offers little change from its predecessors apart from a few small new locations and music tracks. Same sepia-toned pixel art, same map, much of the same score, same sound effects, and even several repeat scenes. Unlike my colleague Steven, who reviewed the first two episodes, I decided I’d test the game’s claim that the episodes can be played in any order, so I started with this one first and was quite impressed with the art and sound design. I particularly enjoyed the one mathematician in The Radius whose head was silhouetted in a permanent cloud of cigar smoke, and the different crowd murmurs of a packed café and bustling marketplace. It wasn’t until afterwards when I went back and played the first two chapters out of sequence that I noticed the reused assets, primarily from episode two.
I couldn’t tell for sure if any of my choices in Derivation actually impacted the earlier installments (I only played through each once), but there are definitely connections between them that are fun to spot. As I chatted with Nenner, Emil’s lone reasonable-minded (though still oblivious to my secret) math colleague over coffee, an eager young painter approached me with a request to do my portrait because he was fascinated by the “layers” of a hidden duality. Unfortunately, the entirety of my modeling experience took place off-screen and did not end well. (Apparently he saw through my disguise!) Later – at least for me – I was able revisit that café exchange as the painter, who turned out to be Franz Markert, of course. Other elements in earlier episodes made more sense this way too, or at least had a bit more meaning. The books and letters in Arthur’s mountain cabin felt much more personal knowing the people behind them first, knowledge I wouldn’t have had if I’d played the episodes in proper numerical order, and it was interesting to discover after the fact who my young neighbour Nikol’s uncle really is.
The third episode is a much more substantial experience than its predecessors (or successors, in my case) – still not long at under two hours, but it’s about the same length of time as the first two installments combined. That’s not to say there’s a whole lot more gameplay involved, though. This is still very much an interactive story rather than adventure game proper. You’ll travel from location to location in a fairly linear fashion, though you do have the option to make side stops, such as picking up some food from the market that you never end up eating. In each scene there are limited hotspots to interact with, and clicking them all will generally advance the story without much effort from you.
The only thing resembling a “puzzle” comes whenever Emma is on the verge of a new discovery to support her theory. New revelations occur as you relate real-world experiences to the principles of change, and when that happens a mathematical chart or graph or formula is overlaid on the screen. This may sound intimidating for those who hate math, but really you don’t need to be Einstein or even Matt Damon to work it all out. Instead of doing real calculations yourself, all you need to do is maneuver the mouse around a bit – probably more by blind luck than real understanding – until something noticeably changes, at which point you can click to test your hypothesis. If you’re wrong, the idea is simply dismissed for you to try again until you get it right. There’s no way to fail, so the only real challenge is that the controls are annoyingly finicky during these sequences for no apparent reason.
As the game progresses, the question of personal identity becomes more and more prevalent as Emma/Emil grapples with the deception, but I can’t honestly say it raises any particularly thought-provoking points on the topic. There is a welcome sense of humour running throughout, however, never making light of the subjects themselves, merely adding a bit of levity to the overall mood. The treatment of Emma by her contemporaries is uncomfortable to endure, but that too is mostly abandoned after she dons her male disguise (though you have the option to change back and forth at certain times if you so choose). Fortunately, the larger issues come nicely to a head in an engaging final act, cramming all of the episode’s earlier themes and mathematical principles into one rousing denouement that reminded me more of Japanese game theatrics (think Phoenix Wright) than a 1900s Austrian adventure, which came as a pleasant surprise.
Regardless of the order in which you play the episodes, Derivation is a solid addition to The Lion’s Song, offering just enough… well, change to keep the series fresh. The math problems didn’t interest me as much as the painting from episode two, but at least they’re more involved than simply clicking on hotspots, making you work a wee bit for your success. I enjoyed Emma/Emil as a protagonist, and looked forward to my all-too-brief visits with Nikol, a lonely child left to the care of her taskmaster governess in her parents’ regular absence. The portly Radius club leader Zahler, on the other hand, provides a suitably formidable foe, even though he’s no ultimately match for the protagonist’s superior intellect.
Having come this far with just one episode left to go, I’m certainly intrigued by the promise of what’s ahead in the series finale. (Episode four is out already, but I haven’t yet played it at time of writing.) I do hope the stories converge in some fashion, as I’m a sucker for synchronicity and it is called Closure, after all, so it would only be fitting for The Lion’s Song to go out on a high note.
Episode 4 – Closure
By Jack Allin
Given its title, I was naturally expecting Episode 4: Closure to be all about endings. But while that’s true of the last few moments – gut-punchingly so in some cases – most of The Lion’s Song finale is surprisingly more about beginnings – or at least additional middles.
Each previous installment began with a seemingly random scene of a different man boarding a train. At long last we learn just who and what these gentlemen are when they congregate as strangers in the same compartment on a trip going “all the way to the end of the line.” (Ominous.) The group includes a young farmboy, a newly-graduated student hoping to get into politics, an art forger, and a journalist – the latter is the game’s de facto playable protagonist, though you’ll spend much of your time experiencing the others’ playable memories as well.
It’s the connections between these new characters and the three protagonists we’ve gotten to know so far that link each episode together. Otto (the farmboy) turns out to be composer Wilma’s younger brother, who recounts several stories – in backwards chronological order – about his sister’s mastery of music and their own close-but-not-entirely-harmonious relationship growing up. Theodor is an enterprising former university student of “Professor” Recniczek’s who fondly recalls his acclaimed female teacher, both for her expertise and her winning sense of humour (that apparently only mathematicians are likely to get). The reticent Paul, meanwhile, is an artist who had a run-in with Franz Markert – quite literally – on the streets of Vienna, all while secretly trying to get a sneak peek at Markert’s latest creation for his own selfish purposes.
You are Albert Vogl, a writer – or at least you would be if your father, the baron, allowed it. Your own story is quickly summarized only in text, as the main focus of the episode is on the other three men. Through Otto’s flashbacks, you’ll see scenarios such as young Wilma’s response to boorish male advances after a packed tavern performance, as well as the time she was gifted the family violin in front of an envious younger sibling. Theodor’s tale includes recollections both inside and out of Emma’s classroom, culminating in a precious group photo between teacher and students. It turns out Paul isn’t above a little dress-up deception (this time as a man above his means to impress the artistic elite, rather than gender-swapping) or unwanted flirtation of his own, as we see in an exchange between him and Nikol’s lovely mother.
I say “see” because perhaps even more so than the previous series installments, Closure rarely involves more than the most rudimentary gameplay elements. With few minor exceptions, there’s no exploration and very little to do here besides click through dialogue or available hotspots. There is still a significant focus on player choice, an element that becomes increasingly important as the journey nears its end, but those still holding out for a little actual adventuring will find even less of it here. A math notebook “challenge” (surely the first in recorded human history to include animated dog pee!) is quickly resolved in the same awkward what-did-I-do? manner as episode three’s, while a brief police chase across the same old city map and the world’s easiest stealth sequence provide at least a little variety. A test for the right to enter The Radius club showed promise, but it too quickly devolved into simply selecting the available options.
Several assets are once again re-used, so count on revisiting the familiar café, market, university classroom and art salon you’ve seen before. There are some welcome new locations introduced, such as the scenic Doerfl family farmstead and Vienna storefronts with horse-and-carriage out front, but these are over so quickly they barely even have time to register. The artwork and music are still admirable, but I’d have loved to spend more time in the places I hadn’t been to before rather than those I already had or stuffed into a cramped train compartment with only the passing scenery outside to look at.
When closure finally does come, it comes with serious consequences as Austria is on the cusp of the first World War. I won’t give anything away, but suffice it to say that you shouldn’t expect a happily-ever-after across the board. Each of the protagonists, both old and new, are given a final non-playable summation of what became of their lives. Some left me gutted, others more hopeful, and at least one outcome involved a little of both – which is probably pretty accurate in any time of war. It’s bittersweet stuff, but because it’s all non-interactive, it didn’t have the same emotional impact that leading them to their fates myself would have.
It’s conceivable that some of my choices along the way actually did affect the way the characters’ lives played out – certainly my earlier decisions were reflected in the close-up newspaper headlines encountered here. But if so, I can’t say I’m swayed by that possibility. I felt comfortable with most of my decisions throughout, except for a few that seemed to go in a different direction than I could have anticipated. Some of the post-game percentages also seemed a little undeserved, like how much I was able to motivate my train companions. I made what seemed to be perfectly responsible choices, only to see them rebuffed and end negatively. Sure, I could go back and make different selections if I want, but I’d have to experience all the same things just to “game” the outcomes more favourably. There’s not enough replay value to bother doing that, so I’ll just let my actions and the fates of those involved stand. Isn’t that more realistic anyway? We do the best we can with the information we have available, but still can’t control how life will end up.
Overall, The Lion’s Song is a hard game to characterize. It’s certainly more along the lines of an interactive story – far closer to modern Telltale than a traditional adventure, despite its point-and-click sensibilities. It’s stylishly presented, with its sepia-toned pixel art that feels suitably historic for a turn-of-the-20th century drama. Voice acting would have helped personalize what amounts to a multi-protagonist character study, though the text is never overbearing to read through, while the string- and piano-based music feels appropriate to the period and generally immersive, even if long stretches give way to silence and effective ambient audio. But the dearth of actual gameplay will be a deal-breaker for some (and perhaps a deal-maker for others), as there’s generally only the barest hint of player interaction beyond clicking to advance the story.
For those willing to forgive the complete lack of challenge, the narrative itself is at the heart of The Lion’s Song experience, and it’s here that the game largely distinguishes itself from its contemporaries. Its choice-and-consequence system can feel a little unintuitive at times, and it’s not nearly as deep or insightful as it seems to want to be, given how insistent it is on repeating its pertinent points, but it’s still to be commended for presenting an anthology of intriguing character struggles in a rarely-explored setting. Ending in the devastating shadow of war may not have been wholly earned, but it’s certainly a powerful coda that is sure to leave a lasting impression. At about five hours all told, this four-part series won’t keep you busy for long, but if you’re into story games a little off the beaten track, The Lion’s Song provides an intriguing window into a unique bygone era in the City of Music.