Having played the intriguing and innovative demo for Ary and the Secret of Seasons, my interest in Exiin’s baby was piqued. Almost as a homage to Mulan, Ary sets out to save her homeland in place of her father and rewrite traditional gender norms along the way. A beautifully told coming of age tale of our fearless heroine, Ary stands out due to its unique gameplay. However, this charming story is marred by several issues, some, leftover from the demo.
The best part of the game would be Exiin’s enchanting story. Players can look forward to multiple twists as nothing is really as it seems. Drawn out by her desire to help her family overcome a tragic personal loss, Ary is quickly sucked into a quest to restore her world to its natural state of balance. Facing down numerous enemies and challenging puzzles, Ary deals with rude surprises and revelations with wisdom and maturity well beyond her years.
However, even the best stories are not without flaws as Ary’s reason for setting off on her journey in the first place is never adequately addressed and resolved after the first act. Finally, the journey’s end uses a mechanic that has become somewhat clichéd, especially in the current Hollywood scene. It is impossible to judge if this twist will be used to elevate the story to greater heights, but that is for the sequel to tackle, if or when it happens.
Game Mechanics and Design
As mentioned in the preview, Valdi and its inhabitants are beautifully designed. With access to the entire region of Valdi, I was able to appreciate how the architecture of each region, and the dressing of their residents, reflects their living situation. This has allowed each region to stand out, showcasing the efforts and attention to detail Exiin’s game designers have put into the game.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the gameplay. Many issues that plagued the demo are still present in the final game. Repeated cutscenes, jarring water reactions and easy to miss trigger points were still present. Concerningly, new bugs, not present in the demo, were also present. For example, phasing through the floor after a cosmetic change, pick up prompts for quest items already collected, and invisible water.
There also seemed to be certain design oversights present. For one, I was also able to purchase key equipment, essential for ‘unlocking’ new regions, from the store rather than receiving it at the end of the first temple. Imagine playing the Legend of Zelda and realising the master sword was purchasable from the store! Also, at the beginning of the game, you can change Ary’s regular clothes for her ‘adventurer’s clothes’ – which also changes her hairstyle – before the game even progresses. This has led to in-game cutscenes showing Ary in her starting outfit, before transitioning back to gameplay in her ‘adventurer clothing’.
Furthermore, due to the upheaval of Valdi’s natural order, it is understandable that the level designers wanted each region to feel slightly out of sync. Regrettably, this resulted in a level that felt like I was running through the fog-covered streets of silent hill. The ‘fog’ was so problematic that a few minutes were spent in adjusting the brightness and gamma on the monitor giving up and before playing through it.
Ary also plays out like a game where developers could not decide how much help to give the player. In the initial areas of the game, players are handheld through their controls and abilities. Still, as I progressed through the game and unlocked certain new items and abilities, no indication was given as to how these items or abilities were used. Fortunately, most of them were more passive upgrades, allowing players to unlock new traversal methods or the ability to destroy certain materials. While this does not overly hinder playthroughs, having to spend time trying to figure out the functions of new abilities and equipment was pretty annoying.
Finally, like the unresolved portions of the story, certain objectives whose importance were played up in the beginning acts of the game ended up not being an endgame requirement. Close to the start of the 2nd half of the story, Ary gains the ability to restore the natural order. Given that the disruption to Valdi was a major catalyst to the beginning of her adventure, it would be normal to assume that a major requirement of the endgame would be for her to restore Valdi to rights. However, it seems completely unnecessary to do so unless players are attempting to complete every bonus objective in the game.
The main redeeming factor, as in the demo, are the puzzle challenges. Every dungeon is different. While the core mechanics of platforming and clever usage of the season spheres are still required, each dungeon has a different spin. From the creation of ice structures to disappearing water, learning the new twists is essential to completing the dungeon and reaching the reward at the end. Exiin masterfully controlled the length of each dungeon to make it a rewarding challenge, while toeing the line of being draggy.
My first reaction to Ary was one of cautious excitement. I concluded that much of what could make Ary great was already present. The game and gameplay itself just needed some optimisation to make it a hit. And in general, Ary and the Secret of Seasons was a fun game to play. With a charming heroine, compelling origin story, and new and versatile gameplay mechanic, it is not hard to see a franchise being built around Ary.
Unfortunately, I feel that Exiin has dropped the ball in terms of the overall quality and polish of the game. With its numerous bugs, a user-unfriendly map and inventory system and UI, and some questionable gameplay choices, Ary became a very frustrating game to play about midway through. As someone who likes to explore, collect every collectable possible and try to discover as much as I can hidden in the game, it was very telling that by the time I’d reached the second region, I had given up on exploring the frankly mysterious world of Valdi, and decided to speed through the storyline.
As it were, playing Ary and the Secret of Seasons, felt like a beta being disguised as a full game and it was a very frustrating experience. This soured the experience of going through Ary’s journey somewhat.
Exiin should be more than able to improve, as there are many similar titles to learn from, for example, Breath of the Wild. And if they can do so, Ary’s story has the potential to fuel multiple sequels. In the meantime, Ary’s exciting origin story, while making for a fun and action-packed game, is let down by unpolished and unoptimised gameplay.
Nonetheless, maybe you can prove me wrong and if so, check out Ary and the Secret of Seasons on Amazon, since they’re currently having a sale for the game!
Additional visuals courtesy of Exiin.