Warden: Melody of the Undergrowth is an action-adventure game developed by Cardboard Keep, a small up and coming game developer based out of Canberra Australia. In Warden, you begin the game as Tavian, a young prince separated from his father during an intense battle. During his travels he meets an ancient forest spirit known as Nyona who seeks to freed from her imprisonment, informing Tavian that he is destined to be a Warden, a protector of the forest and its creatures. On his mission to free Nyona and reunite with his father he teams up with two other Wardens, who each have their own skills and abilities to bring to the table.
Warden is played in 3rd Person with controls that operate much like you would expect for this type of game. You can jump, slide, and sprint around the map. There is falling damage, and it can often account for a large percentage of your lost health. You will also be collecting glowing blue flame looking objects called Motes which serve as the game currency as well as the method by which you unlock access to new areas of the world. Initially I was concerned about this, since it could theoretically be possible to buy enough weapons or health upgrades at the random shops to block yourself out of an area with mixed uses of the Motes. However, you find an abundance of them throughout the world and the shop’s items are relatively cheap in comparison to the cost of the doors. In addition, the grass contains Motes as well, which would be a plausible, albeit slow, method of opening doors if you spent too much somehow. As you travel through the map you will come across campfires that allow you to rest and heal, as well as travel between campfires you have visited previously. This quick travel system is actually quite handy with the map being as big as it is.
A big part of Warden is solving puzzles and overcoming platforming obstacles to progress further. Though the puzzles were touted to be challenging, most times they were fairly simple in actuality, usually involving moving around boxes with a joystick located handily within the room. There are rooms spread throughout that will give the player extra permanent health or special weapons if you can enter the correct passcode to open the door. These doors were similarly easy to figure out, usually having something to do with the lore of the area you are in. What was challenging however were the secret riddle rooms. In these rooms, there would be a series of lines and dots scrawled upon the wall, with numbers assigned to each configuration with the idea that you would figure out the code and enter the correct number sequence, but this turned out to be seriously non-trivial and left me sitting around with a whiteboard and a marker looking like a was trying to crack the enigma code. Take this with a grain of salt however, as I freely admit I am not a master code-cracker and to others this may be much easier. The platforming was actually pretty fun and required a decent amount of dexterity and finesse, such as requiring Tavian to jump from stump to stump above treacherous poisoned waters. There is one major issue with the platforming and that is getting knocked off of platforms near walls or other semi-vertical surfaces for seemingly no reason in particular. I assume it is a prevention measure to make sure players do not get stuck in walls, but when you jump into a wall and the game thinks you are spending a few milliseconds longer on the wall than you should, you get force pushed away from it. Normally this feature would be welcome, no one likes randomly inhabiting walls. But in this case, since there are some platforms that are very close to walls, you will most likely fall to your death several times “for your own safety and consideration”. It is also possible to get stuck in an area, requiring a restart to get out.
Once you meet and free the other two wardens you gain access to their skills. Tavian has the ability to use a sling in certain locations to activate buttons that are otherwise unreachable. This proved to be quite awkward to use since you had to lock on to a special object to aim it and sometimes the buttons would be above your perspective, requiring some guess and check shots to be made. Mediera can grow flowers out of pods placed around the environments that can be used as platforms. Bitt can jump into potion vats to enable him to blast out into the air and propel himself forward using very Iron Man-esque hand jets. Warden does a pretty good job of giving each of the characters a unique personality and feel to the way they play, and make sure that their abilities are useful and fun.
In battle you are able to lock on to your target and dodge/roll out of the way of incoming attacks or to get around an enemies attempt to block your advance, though this will often end in you rolling so far you end up right back in front of your target or in particularly odd moments perched upon their head. The weapons you use are constantly in flux, as the weapons have durability and can break mid-battle. This can be a tricky aspect to get right, as weapons that break to easy make it seem like you are swinging around a glass sword, and if they are too hardy you wonder why the durability mechanic is even there. Luckily, Warden managed to find the right level where it keeps you trying new weapons, but also makes it worthwhile. Unfortunately, however, the weapons themselves are fairly mediocre and don’t seem to have much personality. There are spears, swords, clubs, hammers, axes, etc. but with the exception of weapons like the spear where your attack is a thrusting stab instead of a slash, most of the weapons feel the same. They also tend to be sluggish and feel like you are swinging around a sledge hammer even when wielding a light sword. This can sometimes interfere with dodging, as you can be caught in the long swing animation. The ability to lock onto enemies during combat is useful, but it is possible to play without using it. It might even be advised. A strange effect occurs when you kill an enemy while locked on, it’s almost as if there is a slow motion effect that doesn’t occur when not locked on. When you are fighting multiple enemies, it feels less like a cool effect and more like the game is stuttering and slowing down. Enemies can damage each other, and in one confusing instance, the enemy killed itself with its own attacks. Overall, the combat is very lack luster between the poor choice of sound effects (discussed later) and lack of hit feedback. Considering the game tells you that it is best played with a controller when booting up, it is strange that there is no rumble feature available. I played the game using both keyboard and mouse controls as well as a controller, and it is very clear that the controller is the best option. The controls weren’t terrible on the keyboard, but were by far better on controller.
Warden’s musical score was a nice mixture of whimsical and serious, doing well to evoke a truly adventurous feeling. The title music was a mixture of sadness, a feeling of hopefulness, with a hint of mystery and wonder. Each major area has its own music in the background, with variations on the overarching song played in the various subsections of each level. I really enjoyed this, as it kept the levels coherent but still managed to give each area its own character. The music fit the motif of the environment well, tying the aspects of the level design together. It also gets better as you go through the game. It starts out a bit basic and utilitarian, but soon enough gains confidence and begins to incorporate more elements and elevate in complexity of the melodies.
The sound effects on the other hand were disappointing to say the least. If you were to strike hardened steel with a sword in the midst of battle, one would assume there would be a metallic clattering noise. Not in Warden, it is a resonant “Thump” of a drum smacked with a mallet. Battle doesn’t sound like a symphony of steel so much as a bongo players practice session. This is one of the main reasons combat lacks any feedback in the hits; there is such a cognitive dissonance between the what you hear and what you expect to hear that you don’t really feel like you hit the enemy despite the red-flashing and depleting health bar. What limited voice acting there is in the forms of the random damage noise or action grunts your character makes doesn’t quite hit the mark either, seeming slightly out of place. Some of the weapons don’t make sense sound wise either, such as getting a sword clank sound effect for hitting something with a wooden hammer. Warden definitely could use some tender love and care put towards improving the quality of the sound effects, it would go a long way to bettering the experience.
A stylized cartoon style of art is used in Warden, similar to the design and look of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. I am a fan of this art style and found the characters endearing and environments enthralling to explore. Tavian, Mediera, and Bitts clothing and hair would respond to their movement, which was a nice touch. The character animations were decently smooth, but suffered from a relatively limited pool of them. When idle the characters would move around or sway a little in place, which is fairly typical, but I would say that in Warden the model seems almost anxious with just a bit too much movement in the idle animation leaving them looking like they are almost swaying in place to the background music. Your character will often be holding a torch to light their way through dark areas or to ignite the campfires. Sometimes when lighting the torch it will not fully ignite and looks like someone tied a Zippo to the end of a stick. This doesn’t happen frequently, but is still noticeable. The depth of field feature does a lot to bring depth to the areas you are exploring, blurring things a long distance from the player and bring things into focus in the near field. Though I am normally in favor of this graphical feature, it is a bit much in Warden at times. If you have ever wondered what it is like to be near sighted, you can get a pretty good idea from playing the game. The range at which the blurring effect starts to occur needs some adjustment, it often far too close to the character and looks out of place. Your character carries their weapons on their back or hip and they will often be blatantly clipping through the side of your head or through your pelvis. At one point it looked like Tavian had an axe embedded in his temple after picking up a large axe from a defeated foe.
Warden: Melody of the Undergrowth was more or less enjoyable to play. The environments were fun to experience and explore, and the characters and enemies were varied and unique. The story wasn’t too bad either. This being said, it needs a lot of work. The sound effects leave you wanting as does the less than pleasant combat portions of the game. Add in some major bugs and map design issues, Warden seems like it is an early access game despite it being fully released. The developers are working to fix things and improve the game, as evidenced by their frequent patches and highly involved presence on the community forums. The game has a long way to go yet, but it has a pretty good start towards being really good one day. For now, though, its forest bongos aplenty.