Mable & The Wood has glimmers of potential, but they're buried under heaps of frustration thanks to unfriendly exploration and clunky controls.
Quality Metroidvanias are in no short supply these days, making it harder than ever to rise above the pack. Mable & The Wood attempts to stand out by giving players the ability to transform into various forms, from a spider to a ghost, relying on their unique skills to progress. While a cool idea, the execution leaves much to be desired thanks to clunky controls, bland design, and unfriendly exploration.
Right off the bat, the game’s painfully slow movement speed kills any motivation to play beyond the opening moments. Mable always drags her heavy sword at a snail’s pace; an infuriating decision for a game - and genre for that matter - built around exploration. It’s an intentional choice, but a head-scratching one that sacrifices functionality for storytelling. Instead of feeling more connected to the narrative, you’ll be screaming at Mable to get across the screen.
Things improve a bit once players acquire the first transformation: a fairy. The diminutive form may seem weak, but it quickly becomes the go-to power for movement and basically everything else. It allows players to fly reasonable distances, becoming the default mode of transportation. A stamina meter somewhat limits that freedom however, which can become an annoyance when trying to quickly get from point A to point B. As a fairy, Mable becomes anchored to the sword (which remains stabbed into the ground), but recalling the weapon causes it slice anything between you and it. This creates a unique and mildly entertaining form of combat. Still, the fairy form isn’t necessarily great as it the least problematic feature compared to the more flawed abilities she acquire along the way.
Transforming into various entities is supposed to be the game’s centerpiece feature, but every ability feels largely useless and/or suffers from some kind of mechanical flaw. Shooting webs as a spider can often be frustrating due to a clunky aiming system. Tunneling underground as the mole feels needlessly finicky. Outside of obstacles that require their use–and there aren’t many–you’ll be hard-pressed to use any non-fairy forms. Furthermore, many of the less-than-stellar bosses can be easily felled using just the fairy power.
Mable & The Wood may be a Metroidvania on paper, but it lacks engaging reasons to explore. Going off the beaten path may result in paltry health or stamina upgrades but nothing of interest otherwise. The infuriatingly vague map doesn't help either. Similar to games like Hollow Knight, players won’t have any guidance unless they manage to locate NPC’s possessing maps. Even then, it displays a rough outline of the area with no marker to indicate the player’s position. You can’t even tell where you are once you get the map, dulling the sense of relief. The only waypoints represented on the map are scarce symbols etched upon rocks, but you'll still have to find those to get your bearings.
Hollow Knight got away with taking an identical approach by having an alluring world worth exploring (even blindly) on top of enjoyable platforming and combat. Mable & The Wood feels like it’s going for a “hardcore” feel without the design to back it up. These navigation problems combined with how irritating simply getting around is makes thoroughly poking around almost out of the question. More often than not you’re accidentally finding “secret” rooms in a desperate search for the level’s exit.
Plaguing things even more is a general lack of refinement. Attacks don’t have any sense of impact and sometimes even lack sound effects. Mable can sometimes find herself glitching into floors and platforms after using certain powers. The controls overall have a hitchiness to them. It’s a shame because glimmers of potential can be found under the mountains of frustration. The inventive combat, for example, could be something cool with more polish. Mable & The Wood feels closer to a rough proof-of-concept than a finished product, with its flawed execution killing its potential faster than a flying sword strike.
Mable & The Wood is available now on Xbox One and PC and arrives to Nintendo Switch October 10. Screen Rant was provided a digital Xbox One code for the purposes of this review.