First impressions are everything, and Effie makes a terrible one. Opening with a limp tutorial in a flat and uninspired castle environment, the game finds significant time right out of the gate to highlight all of the things it does badly before it starts to show the things it does…not as badly. By the time I was done, I’d had a better time than expected, but within the first thirty minutes I was ready to write the game off entirely.
The game follows the adventures of a cursed man named Garland as retold to his granddaughter, the titular Effie. Once a young layabout, Garland finds himself cursed to old age by a witch named Melira and must travel through the land of Oblena finding ‘evil gems’ and restoring the peace that he may restore himself. It’s total generic fantasy naff, but that’s the least of Effie’s narrative problems. Beyond just lacking creativity, it’s full to the brim with horribly acted narration and painstakingly awkward dialogue. A lot of that can be attributed to the fact that the developer Inverge Studios is located in Spain and so aren’t native English speakers, but it sticks out like a sore thumb throughout. The subtitles rarely match what’s actually being said on screen either, and at one point the narrator pronounces Melira’s name two different ways in the same scene. It’s unfortunate because I’m sure I would’ve cared a little more about what was going on if I wasn’t shamefully giggling at the broken English the whole time.
‘Galand had survived to the fall’
Back to that opening. Effie’s gameplay starts out in a temple environment that serves to teach players the ropes of adventuring as Garland. The problem here isn’t so much that this first area feels rote, or basic, because it’s the very beginning of the game and so that makes sense. The problem is that without the context of the larger world and deeper gameplay to come, all of the game’s shortcomings come to the fore from the get-go. Stiff platforming, janky combat and derivative design are complaints that can be levelled at any part of the game but they’re worse here. There’s no better way to highlight the disappointing fundamentals of your game than to start players with nothing but those fundamentals. Something like the ‘taste of power’ trope, where a video game character starts off with their full repertoire before having it taken away, would probably have worked well here.
Once Garland makes his way out of the temple and into the Red Plains of Oblena things get significantly better. This open ‘hub’ area isn’t huge by any means, but it’s a refreshing break from the cramped interior that came before. Visually, though borderline garish with its bright red grass and foliage, it’s at least a far sight more interesting than the temple’s simple architecture and stark, textureless walls. Best of all, Garland gains the ability to ride his magical shield (which doubles as his only weapon in the game) like a hoverboard across the plains. If I had to describe the feeling in a relatable sense, it’s like that moment when you finally break out ahead of the bogan white family with seven kids that’ve been walking painstakingly slowly, in shotgun formation, in front of you in the shop aisle. Pure bliss.
Once out in the Red Plains, Garland’s quest is simple; travel to each of the towns and conquer their dungeons to find the three Evil Gems. Each has their own visual theme and each introduces a new gameplay mechanic that features heavily in its ‘dungeon’, drawing clear inspiration from the likes of The Legend of Zelda. Dotted around the plains are also a dozen or so much smaller, bite-sized encounters that earn Garland some extra loot and experience, but the towns are the main draw. I was pleasantly surprised with how distinct each looks and feels while remaining grounded in the greater world. My favourite of the bunch is definitely The Vineyard, a town built from giant barrels of ‘grape juice’ (read: wine) in which Garland explores what amounts to a tour of a booze-themed Willy Wonka factory.
Willy Plonker and the Grog Factory
That was bad, I’m sorry
The dungeons themselves are pretty good too, offering up basic but satisfying puzzles and plenty of hidden secrets. They’re never too long or too repetitive either which is nice to see. It’s just unfortunate that the combat sucks so hard. It gets better around the third dungeon, once Garland has acquired his full suite of combat abilities and can pull off sweet moves with his shield, but there’s no escaping the pervasive feeling of jank. Animations and hit detection are wildly unpredictable, and any attempts to target a specific enemy or direction on purpose are as futile as aiming for the urinal after an extended visit to the Vineyard town. It’s lucky that the combat rarely approaches anything resembling a challenge or the complete lack of fine control would have sent me into a rage. I do like the fact that any attack that requires holding down a button to charge also slows down time slightly while charging up, that’s a nice touch. Boss battles all boil down to either defeating a bunch of mobs or traversing environmental hazards, aside from the final battle which, while not a complete success, actually does a half decent job of pulling together the game’s disparate visual and mechanic elements one last time.
As far as presentation goes, aside from the obvious issues with story and narration, Effie does a respectable job of displaying a unique identity. While simple and low in detail, most environments have a great, whimsical look that comes up better than the sum of the parts. A heavy dose of depth-of-field and some great lighting contribute to making the world feel nice and tangible. Enemy character models are the lowest point, comprised of the same Pac Man-esque ghosts and four varieties of goblin that look straight out of a stock 3D model catalogue. Garland and the other main characters, on the other hand, have strange, squat figures that will likely either put people off or work as a cute nod to old-school 3D platform/action games like Maximo. Character animations could use a lot of work too, but it’s hard to criticise that stuff too much in a decidedly ‘indie’ effort like this. I just wish more time had been spent mixing and balancing the sound effects, which often vary wildly in volume and make for a pretty unpleasant audio experience.
Effie is a game that starts out terrible but slowly gets better until it eventually becomes no worse than ‘middling’. There are hints of good ideas and an endearing reverence for PS2-era action platformers. I have no doubt that with greater resources Inverge Studios could put out something legitimately great, but Effie’s concessions are too high a barrier to enjoyment.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher