What defines a true indie gem? In some cases, you can see a game packaging solid and engaging gameplay in a unique and wonderfully told narrative, like Celeste. Sometimes a game creates or popularizes a completely new genre. Recently, Vampire Survivor did just that. And in the case of Shovel Knight, it introduces a gameplay mechanic and utilizes it in such a manner that it innovates the platforming genre and inspires indie developers for years to come.
The Tool to rule them all
German-based Asylum Square takes no direct inspiration from Shovel Knight but definitely has that same spark of freshness Shovel Knight had when it came out in 2014. It utilizes its core gimmick so well that I sat back in amazement after roughly 8 hours of playtime.
Whereas Shovel Knight’s ‘mcgiffin,’ the shovel, was extremely random and hilarious because of that, the gimmick here, on the other hand, is an integral part of the story and the thousands-year-old Norse mythology it’s based on. I cannot remember the last time I saw gameplay, lore, and story come together in such a manner. Why did no one come up with this before, when it makes so much sense?
Let me explain the big deal here. Tiny Thor, as you might expect, tells the tale of a very young Thor, in a haze of excitement for his upcoming birthday. Unbeknownst to himself, he gets swindled into a hit job (you may guess by whom), which effectively triggers a prelude to Ragnarok. Odin, his father, has just given him his present, the legendary hammer, Mjölnir. The reason he created this mess is his youthful irresponsibility but also his willingness to help. The only way to right the wrongs is to utilize his newfound tool of the gods and return the steins that operate the Bifros. Which got displaced by his actions anyway. With the Bifrost out of order, the Gods cannot come to his aid, so Thor is all on his own.
As known in Norse mythology and popularized by Marvel, Mjölnir returns to Thor after it’s thrown. Additionally it can bounce off walls, platforms and ceilings. The game lets you throw the hammer in every possible direction (with the help of the right trigger and right thumb stick on your controller).
Trick shot heavy
Asylum Square went all the way in utilizing the things you can do with Mjölnir. Most environments are shaped in such a way that you can use Mjölnir to reach places and kill enemies that are otherwise impossible to reach. Switches can also be flipped in a similar manner. This may sound like these puzzle aspects of the level design are scripted, and in certain areas, this is the case. However, when it comes to killing enemies, Mjölnir is extremely flexible. Angle your throw right, and you can clear your path in very creative ways, as if it were a variant of Puzzle Bobble.
This sounds easier than it is, as the wide variety of enemies are constantly on the move. You have to predict their movement while utilizing platforms and tight corridors to target their weak points. Some enemies even have armor that forces you to attack from behind, using walls and ceilings to your advantage. It gets really interesting when the game throws a lot at you at once, and you have to improvise and go for Hail Marys to save yourself. Luckily, the mechanic is so flexible that you can use your hammer to set traps. For instance, if you manage to shoot your hammer up in a tight corridor it will bounce up and down very fast, destroying everything that is following you, so you can focus on the next platforming section.
Locking a boss in such a high-paced hammer bounce is very effective and utterly satisfying when executed correctly. Speaking of the bosses, the ones I’ve encountered so far are really creative, each with distinct characteristics based on the mechanics of the preceding stages. They are challenging and take some time to defeat, requiring clever strategies to overcome.
Every defeated boss unlocks a power-up that not only opens up the next section of the game but also makes previously unreachable treasure accessible if you backtrack to previously cleared stages. There is a shop where you can buy buffs that are much more useful than they initially seemed. At certain points in the game, I found myself in trouble, resulting in multiple deaths. I realized that if I had bought other upgrades, they would have definitely helped in that specific section.
Once you clear the first world or section of the game and find and buy power-ups, the level design opens up and really takes off. The stages before the face-off with the Bee Queen are some of the best I’ve played in the last couple of years. Especially the frantic prelude to the boss battle. They test your hammer and platform skills in a high-paced and exhilarating auto-scroll stage. It is simply great.
Visually pixel perfect
The visuals are also very much aligned with my personal tastes. The worlds are visually distinct, colorful, and feature great pixel art stage and character design. One of the best freelance pixel artists, Henk Niedorp, played a big role in achieving the visual style. It clearly exhibits style similarities to his other recent works, such as Xeno Crisis and Battle Axe, and it looks fantastic, with the Bee Queen stages, once again, standing out as a highlight.
The music and audio have a certain late 90’s MIDI vibe to them but are still very layered and orchestrated. The opening screen’s bombastic orchestral intro sets the tone, and it never lets down throughout the game.
You might have concluded that I’m both impressed and amazed by almost all facets of the game. The main focus is on the brilliantly executed Mjölnir mechanics and level design. They also blend so well with the game’s visuals, narrative, and music. On the mechanical side, it can rival the likes of Shovel Knight.
However, on the platforming side, it does have some weak points. It occasionally demands almost pixel-perfect timing for long jumps that require combining wall jumps with double jumps and such. These can be quite challenging to execute. Considering the game already has a variety of platforming mechanics, it makes me wonder if it’s necessary to frustrate players and disrupt the generally brisk pace of the game. I don’t think so.
Tiny Thor might be a game that, if it receives a broader release and moves beyond the overcrowded Steam store to reach consoles as well, could become the next unexpected retro-inspired indie hit. Its platforming basics are well executed, visually imaginative, and simply unique with its hammer gimmick. Above all, in an overcrowded genre, the game excels in unadulterated fun.