A Story About My Uncle Review

Developer: Gone North Games
Publisher: Coffee Stain Studios
Played on: PC
Release Date: May 28, 2014
Time Played (Steam): 3.5 hours
Paid: $2.79

Bedtime stories are whimsical, short adventures that can transport us (generally children, but hey, I don’t judge) to all sorts of magical places.  It’s fitting, then, that A Story About My Uncle takes place within a bedtime story being told to a young girl by her father.  It interleaves its simplistic story with some thoroughly enjoyable gameplay, and presents a pleasant tale of a young boy seeking out his missing uncle.

The game starts out with the nameless narrator in his Uncle Fred’s house, attempting to figure out where he’s gone off to.  Suddenly, he’s whisked away by a trash disposal system to a strange realm full of floating islands, mysterious crystals, and strange, anthropomorphic amphibians.  While the premise is simple, the vibrant world does a decent job of making up for it.  It’s not like the game has a tremendous amount of world-building or anything, but your journey takes you through an assortment of diverse environments, which manages to give a nice sense of scale to everything.  278360_20161209203200_1It was a bit disappointing how no real conflict ever arose, though.  I mean, sure, there’s the whole “track down Uncle Fred” thing, but it would have been nice if there was a bit more on the way.  It wouldn’t have even been that noticeable, except that the game teases that there could be more to the world.  During your travels, you meet a girl named Maddy (everywhere seems to spell her name differently, so my apologies if I misspelt it), who accompanies you for part of your journey.  However, at one point, you meet her father, and there’s a great deal of conflict between the two of them.  He demands that she stay in the village because it’s too dangerous to accompany you, she doesn’t want to…standard rebellious teenager fare, you know?  The issue is that after their initial confrontation, Maddy sneaks out and joins you, and then…nothing.  No real resolution or anything.  Without delving into spoiler territory, let’s just say that the game never really ties up the relationship between her and her father.

In another instance, there’s talk about how the two different cultural groups in the world use the crystals that are found throughout differently.  One harnesses their power to meet various technological ends, while the other believes the crystals to be sacred and inviolable.  Again, nothing revolutionary, but I had hoped that there would maybe be some sort of conflict arising from this premise.  For better or worse, though, apparently the two groups were each actually able to tolerate the fact that someone else wasn’t living exactly the way they did.  Apparently the real world could learn a thing or two from this game.278360_20161216212114_1Anyway, where the story largely excels is in the way it’s told.  While the voice acting can be a bit hit-or-miss, the facial animations are very well done and emotive, particularly for an indie production.  Additionally, just the way that the story is told keeps it interesting; I don’t know if I’ve ever played a game that uses the same kind of story-telling narration style as A Story About My Uncle, and I found it quite refreshing.

On to the meat and potatoes of the game, though: the gameplay.  I described the game to my girlfriend as basically letting you be “laser-powered Spider-Man”, and I stand by that.  As the game progresses, you unlock other abilities like rocket boots and a long jump.  The main “draw” (see what I did there?), however, is the gauntlet you have on your right hand that allows you to tether yourself to almost any surface and be pulled towards it.  It really is what makes the game such a joy to play around with.  Once you get the hang of it, there’s something incredibly satisfying about flinging yourself off a platform with reckless abandon, tethering to a floating island, and using your momentum to send yourself flying above it, saving yourself from an untimely demise.  It’s such a freeing experience, despite the fact that your gauntlet has a maximum of three tethers before you have to touch solid ground and recharge it.  Unfortunately, that means it’s a shame that it doesn’t always work well.  Don’t get me wrong, it was excellent the vast majority of the time.  However, there were a few sections where the tether distance was more than a little suspect.  See, you can only tether onto a surface if you are within a certain distance from it.  For some odd reason, though, this distance does not seem to be consistent throughout the game.  There were a handful of areas where it felt like I practically had to slam my face into a rock before the game would actually allow me to tether onto it.  It got incredibly frustrating when I couldn’t figure out if I was doing a section wrong or if the game really just hated me that much.278360_20161216213416_1To its credit, though, the game does a pretty good job of keeping you on the right path.  Many of the objects you need to tether to in order to progress are marked with glowing runes that make them stand out.  However, I still managed to get turned around in a few areas, and there were times where I just went through a section hoping that I wouldn’t spend five minutes discovering that I had backtracked.  

Thankfully, when it comes to making actual progress, the game has a fairly forgiving checkpoint system.  There were a couple of areas where deaths caused me to audibly groan, but they were few and far between.278360_20161209205207_1Those deaths had an unfortunate tendency to be incredibly frustrating, though.  The long jump in particular was the main mechanic that I took umbrage with.  One of the things I loved about the game was the freedom of movement it afforded, but the long jumps pretty much launch you in a set direction until you tether onto something or land; manoeuvring midair is not really an option.  This is made further aggravating by the fact that to perform a long jump, you have to jump while sprinting.  In other words, while you are already moving quickly and in a position where you have to make very fast decisions, you are expected to perform a move that can have disastrous consequences if not performed precisely.  Yeah, you can guess how well that turned out.

Anyway, beyond the platforming and story, there are a number of collectibles hidden throughout the game.  Some of them can be interacted with, and prompt a short dialogue exchange between the narrator and his daughter; these tend to flesh out Fred’s backstory.  However, the majority are data-recording machines whose results can be collected by walking up to them.  The nice thing about them is that their locations are somewhat telegraphed; they beep a bit when you’re nearby.  The problem is that they only do so when you are very close, and I found that deliberately seeking them out tended to detract from the flow of the game.  Ultimately, I hope that there’s nothing more than an achievement available for finding them all; I certainly have no desire to.278360_20161209204704_1There’s also a time trial mode available for you to practice and master speed runs on each of the levels.  Personally, that sort of thing has never really appealed to me, but I can see where some might get some enjoyment out of it.  At the very least, it could be fun to just practice a level until you can fluidly swing through a stage like a certain web-slinger.

Lastly, the presentation.  I basically have nothing to say about the music; I found it quite minimalistic, and the bits that stuck out to me were unremarkable at best.  I guess it had a bit of an ethereal, lullaby-esque feel to it, which is fitting, but it wasn’t really my style.  The graphics on the other hand: wow.  I mean, fine, this isn’t some high-budget AAA product with 4K textures everywhere.  It has a cartoony aesthetic, and some of the character models and animations can be a little bit strange, especially in contrast with their facial movements.  However, it just looks SO DARN PRETTY.  I don’t know exactly what it was, but I found every environment to be beautiful in its own way.  Each managed to feel vibrant and lively, from the cold sterility of the ice caves to the wide open skies of Star Haven.  Once I found out how to disable the HUD and enable a free camera, I had an urge to go back through all of the levels, just to play photographer for a few hours.278360_20161217150446_1To return to my bedtime story analogy, A Story About My Uncle feels surprisingly similar to the average nighttime narrative.  It’s short and simple.  There are loose plot threads that may be tied up later, or may be left unresolved.  Sometimes it can feel slightly janky or incomplete, almost like it’s being made up as the storyteller goes along.  However, despite those problems, it has heart.  You can feel the care that has gone into each sentence, and it makes it so much easier to overlook the flaws and get lost in it.  And while it doesn’t necessarily tie everything up nicely with a bow on top, you still come away feeling satisfied and entertained.


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