Review for Embracelet
For a quiet, somber indie game, Embracelet has a lot going on. The second game from Machineboy’s Mattis Folkestad is quite a bit different than his debut release, Milkmaid of the Milky Way. This short, low-poly 3D point-and-click adventure is a coming-of-age story. It is a tale of awkward teenage romance. It is a saga about a magical bracelet and an epic quest to return it to a faraway island. Embracelet is a parable about the environmental and economic dangers threatening small Norwegian islands by industrial interests from the mainland. It is a ghost story. It is a fable about capitalism's effects on towns throughout two eras of history. It is a generational tale about connecting with the past. And it is incredible.
You start out playing as a 17-year-old boy named Jesper during the summer holiday in a large Norwegian city. You're struggling with school, your grandfather is sick, your father is out of the picture, and your mother is a bit overwhelmed with all of this. To complicate matters, your ailing grandfather gives you a bracelet that grants the wearer magical powers and asks you to embark on a quest to return it to a small island village in the North, against your mother's wishes. You know, standard stuff. Shortly after, a terrible loss shakes your family even further, inspiring your mother to let you go on this adventure she refers to as a Bildungsroman. (I'll revisit this later.)
The story takes off from there. You make your way to the village of Slepp, and as you learn about the island, you also learn about your grandfather's past and why both this village and the bracelet were important to him. It's an effective exploration of the idea that there are huge things we don't know even about the people closest to us. There was a point when Jesper was standing in his grandfather's old house, looking at his records and discovering just how little he knew about him, that I admit got me thinking about my own late grandfathers and feeling loss at missing out on more background about their childhoods. The game is full of moments like this, where a simple description of an object in a room or a line of dialogue can dredge up emotions and concepts that stick with you long after you stop playing. This is how Embracelet can be about so many things without feeling busy or overwhelming.
You walk around the island, testing the powers of your magic bracelet, helping folks and meeting people, and you eventually make two friends: Karoline and Hermod. These two cousins serve as romance-able options for Jesper. The choices you make as you interact with them can change the ending and a handful of small occasions throughout the story. Hermod is sick of the small-town life; he's angsty and funny, with big dreams of moving to a city and beginning a career in art. Karoline, on the other hand, is kind and optimistic; she loves her village in Slepp and sees a future for herself in it. By deciding which one you value most, you can control the conversations and experiences you have based around what you are personally more interested in. There are a lot of dialogue choices that come down to “Do you want to hang out with Karoline or Hermod?” These decisions are so heavy-handed at times that the characters themselves joke about it. While this can be jarring and awkward, they are almost always followed by heartfelt scenes that make you glad of the choice you made.
So you've arrived at Slepp, you've met your friends, you've just begun testing the abilities of your magic bracelet, and you've learned a bit about your grandfather and his past. Of course, no epic tale is complete without some hardship. During your time on the island, Slepp is visited by a commercial boat surveying for offshore oil drilling sites. The ship interrupts the peaceful bucolic atmosphere by literally blasting seismic cannons into the ocean floor. The captain and his crew prove to be the main antagonists from this point on. They torment and threaten your friends, including a fairly abrupt bit of sexual harassment that made me recoil. While you're still learning about the bracelet and strengthening your new social connections, the game takes a turn toward becoming a thriller of sorts about you and your new gang standing up to these villains.
As this conflict escalates, you also make some deep discoveries about the island and the bracelet's history that lead to what I think is the story's only real misstep: a lengthy flashback that interrupts the game's very measured pace in a way that I found off-putting. Right as the ramp-up to the third act begins, you're transported to a different character and a different setting for a depressing little sojourn in the past. I'm thankful to have gotten the extra backstory, but I wish it would have been delivered in a way that had me as intrigued as the rest of the game.
If it seems like all this is a lot to jam into one game, it is, but aside from the flashback, the way it all fits together into one cohesive narrative is impressive, and it was only in retrospect that I became conscious of how many subjects and ideas the game tackled.
Embracelet encourages you to play with a controller, and I suppose I agree. Navigating Jesper around the island is definitely easier and more intuitive with a thumbstick and a trigger to make him run than with a keyboard. But this game is still a point-and-click at heart, and console adventure gamers have known ever since Maniac Mansion released on NES in 1988 that a controller is not the optimal way to move a cursor around a screen. I even forgot a few times and stood in front of people or objects for an embarrassingly long time wondering why they weren't becoming interactive before remembering, “Oh! The cursor, dummy!” Removing verbs and inventory, opting instead for a simple one-button interface, relieves this somewhat.
The game has a bit more than that going on mechanically, however. There is... wait for it... a SECOND BUTTON! You can always Look At/Interact with any hotspots, but you occasionally have the option to use your magic bracelet on an object, causing any number of predetermined effects like providing power to a broken appliance or lifting large objects into the air. I would caution people to check out their surroundings before using the bracelet, though. I found myself getting excited whenever I saw the option pop up and leaping at it before I looked, skipping the opportunity to understand and plan out what I was actually doing and why. It didn't ruin anything, but it's definitely more enjoyable when you stop and take everything in more strategically.
The bracelet mechanic itself is pretty simple. You click the secondary button and two concentric glowing rings appear on-screen. As the smaller ring gets bigger and the bigger ring gets smaller, you have to time a button press to catch them as they overlap. This mini-game (for lack of a better term) is very forgiving, for those of you that have trouble with twitchy sequences. There is even a setting to make it easier or harder, to further tailor it to your abilities. Using the bracelet is easy enough, but I still found it incredibly satisfying to get it exactly right when the chance occurred. It was a nice little break from the otherwise pretty straightforward gameplay.
If you’re worried that every puzzle will be solved by “Use Bracelet on Object,” do not fear! I also had that concern about twenty minutes into the game, but Embracelet does some pretty clever things with this conceit. That’s because the bracelet has limitations to its power. Oftentimes, to achieve your goals you'll have to use some creative thinking to get past an obstacle. If you want to move a big boulder, for example, it could be that it's just too heavy and you'll need to look around the environment and figure out what else you can manipulate to get that pesky rock out of the way.
Even with the need for some out-of-the-box thinking, the game is never difficult. If you're looking for a challenge, you're not going to find it here. Personally, I feel like the simple-to-medium challenges really help the story move along at a relaxing but compelling pace. The one thing Embracelet does do poorly in this regard is giving you any sort of direction as to where to go. You always know what you're supposed to do next; there is even an “Objectives” tab to help you keep track. My issue was that the game rarely explains in a clear way where the next thing might be or how to get to it. I often felt like I was wandering around aimlessly, not knowing if I was on the right track. It took about half the game for this feeling to fade away, when I realized that more often than not my wandering led me to interesting places that I may not have seen otherwise. The island is sparse and there are around a dozen characters to meet across it, but every interaction is pleasant. As soon as I'd start to get restless roaming around, I'd run into something so satisfying that I'd forget about it until it happened again.
I did encounter a few bugs along the way that could be frustrating. These were almost all related to clipping through things and finding myself stuck in between walls or objects. This happened to me about half a dozen times, and for all but one of them I was able to wiggle around until my character was free again. Unfortunately, in the other instance I had to backtrack about five minutes to an old autosave checkpoint as I fell right through the floor of a building and couldn't find my way out.
Apart from the visual glitches, the island is a beautiful place to wander. Embracelet is rendered in a bright low-poly style. Each object in the 3D world is comprised of polygonal shapes coated in flat solid colors, giving it a clean look. While lacking any kind of fine detail, the world feels alive: the papery grass bends as you run through it; the bulky trees pulse with the wind; birds and clouds fly overhead; the sea rolls and glitters in the sunshine. As you walk and run through it all, the environment pulls you in and makes you almost feel the cold, salty air of northern Norway, despite it looking in no way realistic.
The game makes some smart artistic choices with its palette as well. As you begin in your dreary city world, the colors are muted. You're surrounded by grays and browns, and the sky is cloudy and rainy. Yet as you arrive in Slepp, things brighten up. You see a bright blue sunny sky with verdant greens all around. And as you approach the final act, the sky turns dramatic shades of sunset-golds and oranges as you find yourself on a harsh red and white boat. This game knows how to elicit whatever feeling it wants you to have through both graphics and sound.
The music, for the most part, is light and airy. The score does a great job of fading into the background as you explore and swirling up around you as things get intense or emotional. The horns and pianos and acoustic guitars usher you through the adventure in such a way that you barely notice they're doing it. But if you pay attention, you'll hear familiar themes rising in and out, underscoring each moment perfectly, and the piece in the final scene swelled and made me sit up in my chair, a smile broadening across my face.
Embracelet is something of a masterpiece, doing so much and doing it seemingly effortlessly. It looks and sounds great in its own distinctive style, and though it won’t provide much in the way of gameplay challenge, the bracelet is fun to use and there’s plenty to make you think and keep you entertained. The true jewel in its crown, however, is its surprisingly powerful storytelling. Early on, Jesper's mother mentions a word I had to look up: Bildungsroman. It's a German term that describes a specific subgenre of coming-of-age tale in which the character begins lost and immature, at odds with society and lacking a place in the world. Throughout a series of hardships and failures, the character gradually learns answers to their questions about life and the world, emerging as a mature adult who understands their place. The story of Jesper certainly fits this mold. You watch him struggle, you see him fail, you learn with him and help him grow – and each of these moments is a delight to play through, culminating in a highly satisfying ending you’ll feel you truly earned. This is a standard that many games and movies and novels try to live up to, but few manage to nail as completely as this.