Artistic Platformers (or plARTformers as I affectionately call them) have become increasingly popular of late. It seems that platform developers are no longer content to stick to the run-and-jump niche that the genre has carved out for itself over the years. We’re beginning to see platformers which focus on story, atmosphere, inventive gameplay mechanics and eye candy. Whether this paradigm shift comes from a resentment of the ways of the past or merely the desperation of developers to stand out in an otherwise saturated genre is unclear; what is clear is that the platformer is no longer “all about the jumping”.
The game opens rather unceremoniously with the line “Harmonia, where are you?” This is the only context or purpose the player is given, and this sense of displacement and uncertainty permeates the whole game. The player controls the eponymous heroine Au Sable, who descends into the dark woods only for it to transform into a nightmarish netherworld. Players fight off the eldritch inhabitants of the forest with a shotgun found early in the game. Au Sable is quite a fragile character who can only take one hit before she dies, and this delicate mortality combined with the rapid attack patterns of enemies makes for exhilarating moments. Controls are intuitive, which is fortunate given the deliberate lack of tuition. However, the most memorable aspect of the game isn’t the core gameplay; rather, it’s the atmosphere exuded. The grotesque creatures of the forest start off as quite conventional horror fare, with earlier areas dominated by pale, masked men that ominously stalk around. However, this soon escalates into pits of disembodied hands, men with guns for faces; for lack of an eloquent description it’s messed up. It’s this level of dark imagination which makes this game so haunting yet simultaneously so endearing.
Graphically, the game sticks to a refined color palette centered on reds, whites and greys. It adopts a retro style, which at first is quite abrasive given the subject matter but this soon fades away when the competent use of graphic effects becomes apparent. Flashes and apparitions are used to great effect, heightening the tension at critical points. The soundscape is just as low-tech, with harsh sawtooth tones forming the ambient “music”. As the story escalates these tones are intermixed with inaudible whisperings, a well executed flourish that heightens the impact of these critical moments.
However, Au Sable is not a game for everyone. Whilst longer than most plARTformers Au Sable is a short game, and whilst the story is clearly the focus the core gameplay isn’t anything you haven’t seen before. This type of style over substance experience is quite polarizing; some people see games such as this inherently pretentious and Au Sable won’t be the one to convert them. Nevertheless, if you enjoy this type of game, or you’re merely looking for something a little left of centre, Au Sable is a memorable, evocative trip through a hellish underworld that burns brightly for as long as it lasts.
Download Au Sable (.zip, 9.21MB)