Review: Leona's Tricky Adventures

The latest addition to the Dreamcast’s already overflowing library of independent games burst onto the scene earlier this year (that’s 2016 if you’re reading this in the distant future); and it’s taken us until now to finally put pen to paper - or rather finger to keyboard - and share our thoughts. Leona’s Tricky Adventures has a somewhat storied background and we’ve documented it here at the Junkyard in the recent past, but in the name of simplification I’m happy to remind you. The game originally started life as a Kickstarter back in 2013 but unfortunately didn’t make its funding goal.

Due to the rules of launching a project through that particular crowd-funding site, it meant that the whole project was cancelled and the developer KTX turned to funding the game using donations and pre-orders instead. It took almost three years for Leona’s Tricky Adventures to finally come to Steam and the Dreamcast, but eventually the game landed and here we are. If you’d like to know more about the development of the game, make sure you check out the recent Developer Interview we did with KTX Software’s CEO Thomas Musal, and Chief Technical Officer Robert Konrad.
But what of the game itself? What if you’ve never even heard of Leona or the particularly tricky adventure she finds herself embarking on? Well, you’re in luck as two of the finest wordsmiths known to mankind (yes, I stole that from hip hop artiste Labrinth) are here to give you the definitive lowdown on Leona’s Tricky Adventures in this tag-team review! Allow me to (Tom), and our intrepid Australian correspondent Scott ‘DocEggfan’ Marley!
I think the developers might have an inordinate appreciation for the colour cyan.
As this game is aesthetically quite ‘retro,’ we thought it only fair that we did a retro-styled review. To really drive home how clever and avante garde we really are, we’ve split it into several paragraphs, each with an equally antiquated heading such as graphics, sound, gameplay etc. We might even give it an arbitrary percentage at the bottom...but you’ll have to wait and see. Let’s saddle up and join Leona on her adventure!

Tom: Leona’s Tricky Adventures is actually more like two games than one, as the gameplay is split into distinct styles. Neither mode is the dominant because without one, you couldn’t really do the other, or rather, you’d have no reason to do the other...if that makes sense. Initially, the game appears to be a standard top-down 2D RPG where you move your tiny Leona sprite around a Zelda-like map and interact with NPCs, picking up maps and offering assistance where you can.
The thing is, you can’t really deviate from the paths that are opened up for you, so you’re pretty much stuck to taking a predetermined route through the game. That’s not to say there aren’t forking paths and multiple routes and areas to visit, but you are literally stuck to the paths and cannot meander from them (apart from during one humorous interaction near the start of the game where Leona wanders off the path and is chastised by an NPC for doing so). As stated, the paths need to be opened up and doors need to be unlocked and you do this by accessing the ‘other’ game mode - the puzzles. At this point, I think I’ll let Scott take the floor and guide you through how the puzzles play and how they fit into the adventure...

Scott: Thanks Tom, I see that you skillfully dodged having to explain the puzzle mechanics (would I do that?! - Tom). I can assure you, gentle reader, that they aren’t difficult to come to grips with once you’ve played it a bit, however they are difficult to explain using words, but I’ll give it a go.

I’ve been reliably informed that the game apes an Amiga era puzzle game called Gem’X, though it’s a game I’m not familiar with, nor have I encountered its unique gameplay style before. The game is kind of like Picross, where you have to match the pattern of coloured jewels on the right side of the screen. You do this by changing the colour of the jewels on the left side of the screen using your cursor. The jewels come in 5 colours - red, yellow, green, blue and purple - and when selected, they shift in only one direction along the visible spectrum towards purple, there is no way to make them change back towards red. If they are selected enough times to shift past purple into the ultraviolet range, they shatter, and the jewels above fall down to fill the cavity. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as destroying jewels is sometimes part of the solution to match the pattern on the other side.
Things are complicated further by the size and geometry of your cursor. For the majority of the game, your cursor is shaped like a plus symbol (+), and encompasses 5 jewels. The jewel in the middle of the plus will shift 2 colours along the spectrum (e.g. from red to green, skipping yellow), and the jewels in each of the four cardinal directions will shift one colour. This makes things tricky, as you need to find a way to only change the jewels that you want, without any unintended changes around the edges.

Initially, I wasn’t too happy with this idea. I was expecting more typical puzzle antics, where ♫ I am the man that arranges the blocks that descend upon me from up above. ♫ They come down and I spin them around ‘til they fit in the ground like hand in glove ♫… ahem, sorry got a bit nostalgic there. I’m more used to this frantic, twitch style, snap decision puzzle solving, whereas Leona’s is far more sedate and considered and thoughtful and strategic, and I didn’t warm to it straight away. Whenever I got frustrated, I would just prodigiously exploit the undo and redo buttons until I stumbled upon the answer by chance, which I didn’t find very satisfying or enjoyable. However, the game soon worms its way into your heart, not only through the charming characters and setting, but the puzzles are supremely well designed and the game teaches you how to appreciate and celebrate its unique approach to puzzling.

There is one memorable group of puzzles where the left side is always the same small pyramid of jewels, with a very limited number of legal moves. The game then takes you through 8 different permutations of the same puzzle, each with a different end pattern on the right side. It teaches you how to carefully select the order of your moves, and how varied the results can be, even when your options are very limited. It’s at this point that I fell in love with Leona.
The puzzles are accessed along the overworld paths in terminals called sockets. Each socket has a number of puzzles to solve, with primary and secondary quotas opening up new paths or activating changes to the game world. For example, a socket with 8 puzzles can be activated after solving the first 6, which opens a new path to the next socket, but if you keep at it and solve the final 2 puzzles, an alternative route might open up, or something good might happen to make one of the furry woodland creatures happy. Only by solving all the puzzles in a socket does Leona reveal pathways to hidden treasure chests which contain gems. Collecting gems is the ultimate goal of the game, and when you have enough you can exchange them for the 'key' to open the 'final door,' but I don’t want to give too much away.

By using this overworld approach, the puzzles can be tackled in any order. If you get stuck on one, you can give up on it for a while and let it percolate in your subconscious while you take a different fork in the road to other puzzles. This allows you to stay friends with Leona, as there is always something else to do, rather than getting stuck on one point and start cursing her in your sleep-deprived puzzle mania. There was two or three times I was convinced certain puzzles were impossible to solve, and that the game must be broken and poorly tested, but I persevered and with enough patience the solution can always be found.

The game can be played with either the control pad or a mouse, but I didn’t see the point in even testing out the mouse option. The fine level of control offered by the mouse isn’t really warranted when selections are snapped to the grid. The game is much better suited to the pad, as having the undo and redo buttons mapped to the X and Y buttons is much more convenient than swinging the mouse pointer to the top of the screen. The option is there if you’re really fond of your Dreamcast mouse though.

Scott: I could be churlish and make the blatant observation that the graphics aren’t exactly pushing the Dreamcast hardware anywhere close to its limit, but I wouldn’t dare do that, would I Tom? Insulting our dear readers with such clichéd mundanity, heaven forfend. Instead I’ll comment more on the game’s aesthetics, and in this regard it pulls off its retro chic with aplomb. In the overworld, everything is nicely detailed and colourful, and evokes memories of the early era Zelda games, but still retains a distinctly Euro/Amiga-ish flavour. When lost deep in solving the puzzles, the visuals are economical but not utilitarian. The gems are distinct, transitions and movements are animated both subtly and pleasingly, and it’s virtually impossible to lose the pieces in the background (unlike a certain fruit-based competitor). 
If I have any complaints, it’s that the overworld characters could have been animated a bit more. Leona has a wonderfully adorable victory dance, which reveals a great deal of skill with the pixel arts, but this effort isn’t really applied anywhere else. The woodland creature NPCs generally remain statically standing, or might shift up and down a bit when excited. Even Leona’s walking animation looks a bit stilted when analysed closely. While this isn’t incongruent with the retro style and doesn’t detract significantly from the experience, I’m looking to fire potshots at an otherwise flawlessly polished graphical design. What did you think Tom?

Tom: I totally agree with pretty much everything Scott has said. This type of game really benefits from a retro aesthetic because it really doesn’t need anything more for you to be able to enjoy the experience. Furthermore, the whole ‘top down’ Super Nintendo styling really makes you feel like you’re playing an old skool RPG. The numerous environments you travel through are nicely varied and each has a pleasantly different theme, and the artwork used when a character is having dialogue are very well drawn. I’d also echo Scott’s comments on Leona and NPC sprites - they are functional rather than especially lavish, but then what would you want from a game of this type? Never once did I actually sit there and think ‘ugh, I don’t like the way this mole person is just standing there.’ 
The puzzle sections again, are totally what you would want from a colour-based puzzle board. The basic primary colours are vibrant and bright and everything is totally clear. For me, the slightly basic yet charming aesthetic is what makes Leona’s Tricky Adventures such an eye-pleasing experience. It isn’t overly cluttered nor visually threadbare - the mix is just right.

Tom: The music was the first thing that really struck me about Leona’s Tricky Adventures. It really is of an exceptional standard, from the intro music to the menus to the in-game jingles, everything is composed to a level that you just don’t expect from an indie title. Don’t get me wrong, I thought Ghost Blade had a fantastic soundtrack (and the bundled OST has been in my car stereo multiple times!), but Leona’s hummable and inoffensive background tunes are so cheerful it’s hard not be be enraptured by their infectiousness. Case in point: while I was playing the game, I received a phone call and had to pause it. I was on the phone for a good 15 minutes with the same jingle playing in the background and by the end of the call I was happily whistling that little loop. It’s odd - the music doesn’t get old even after hours of play, so I must pay tribute to veteran composer Chris Huelsbeck.
I think another mention must go the the little sound effect that chimes when you select a gem in the puzzle sections. It’s such an insignificant noise, yet it sounds so right - like you’re tapping an iron nail on a piece of glass or something. It reminds me of how in Tempest 2000 on the Jaguar, when the ‘shapes’ get to the top of the web and start ‘walking’ around, the sound effect is so clear and sharp that is cuts through the music. While I’m not for one second comparing Leona’s Tricky Adventure to Tempest 2000, it’s these tiny little audio details that stick out.

Scott: Yeah I agree. They manage to pull off one of the near impossible feats in video game design - puzzle game music that somehow doesn’t grate on your nerves after 5 minutes of repetitive ear bleeding awfulness. While I wouldn’t go out of my way to find rips so I can appreciate the compositions on my walk to work, they suit the game and perfectly complement the on screen action, whether you’re exploring above ground or shifting gems around below. The whole experience wouldn’t be nearly as good without the quality music, and yet it doesn’t overshadow the other elements, it’s just spot on.

Scott: Okay, here’s where my opinion of Leona gets a little sour. The back of the box claims that there are 'countless' puzzles to solve. After playing the game to the very end, I can reveal that this claim of an uncountably infinite puzzles that stretch on forever into eternity is a little exaggerated. As far as I can tell, there are 457 puzzles in the game. If you average about 1 minute per puzzle, that’s about 8 hours of gameplay. I think I spent closer to 10 or 12 hours over several weeks, including all of the overworld exploration and backtracking along pathways. So, it’s by no means a small game, and is assuredly well worth the price of entry, but don’t go expecting a 40-60 hour J-RPG style epic. And this is where the game kind of disappoints a little.

By marrying the puzzle game with an RPG-style interface and evoking fond memories of those 16-bit classics on the SNES, I was lulled into a false sense of expectation. The game is so polished and the storyline is intriguing and (potentially) deep, and a lot of the graphical cues are just so reminiscent of a certain Nintendo dungeon crawler, that I mistakenly thought I was playing a game in that same league. My lofty esteem for the game was ignited further by explicit clues later in the game that reminded me of the moment just before you discover the Dark World in A Link to the Past, and I was expecting the game to grandiosely open up in the same way, with a whole new world to explore and hundreds more puzzles to solve. And then I encountered the game’s ending like this sentence encounters the full stop.
Needless to say, I was disappointed and just a little bit angry about how the game ends. I would have gotten over it more easily if it was just me being stupid and expecting far too much from an indie title. But the game has all of these references to things left to do and mysteries left to solve, but it’s actually impossible to go any further. For example, there is a locked door labelled with the number 100, which presumably can only be opened once you collect 100 gems. However, there are only 57 gems available to find in the game, so the door remains closed. There is a pathway visible on the map that can’t be accessed, and in the middle of the path stands the sword-wielding frog knight from the game’s cover, who you don’t actually get to meet. There are many ancient carvings and tablets written in an unknown language dotted around the landscape that can’t be read, and I was expecting to find a way to decipher them before the game’s end. One character goes to great lengths to describe a snow covered village in the mountains, seemingly as a prelude to another area to explore, but it doesn’t actually feature in the game.

There are some posts in the Steam community forums in regards to that version of the game where KTX explains that these incomplete elements are just hints towards their grand vision for Leona, but they won’t actually be realised until potential sequels are developed and released. A small part of me hopes that maybe this isn’t also the case for the Dreamcast version, and that maybe further work was done to make this release more complete. However, my futile efforts to find more hidden pathways or puzzles to solve has proved fruitless. If anyone out there finds a way to get further in the game, be sure to get in touch, but I don’t hold out much hope of that happening.
As it stands, once you get over the abrupt ending, there isn’t much else left to do. The game suggests that you can go back and redo the same puzzles with a 'time attack' mindset and try to set records for solving the puzzles in the quickest time, but the static nature of the puzzles mean that once you memorise the required moves to solve them, there isn’t really much of a challenge involved. I haven’t bothered, and Leona now sits on my shelf in the “done” pile, with a small pang of regret. *sigh* What did you think, Tom?

Tom: I can totally appreciate the points raised by Scott as the unrealised promise of these extra locations and mysterious unreadable messages means that a game that could potentially have been utterly huge actually isn't the sprawling adventure you're lead to believe it will be. That said, for a game in which you get to wander around a cool fantasy realm and solve puzzles...I'm not really sure I'd want to play it for the 40-50 hours Scott alludes to. Once you get the gist of the puzzles and the game gets going properly, it does get a little repetitive for someone like me who generally plays more 'quick fix' titles on the Dreamcast like Crazy Taxi et al. What I'm trying to say is that 8 hours of gameplay is more than enough for me and if you tend to play your games in short bursts of say, half an hour here and there, I don't think the length of Leona's adventure will disappoint.

Tom: I think it’s pretty obvious from everything I’ve said here already that I’m a fan of Leona’s Tricky Adventures. The puzzle mechanics are almost identical to those offered in that other recent indie title Fruit’Y, but there’s a lot more here than a set of puzzles. There’s a nice story, great music and hours of adventuring to be done. It’s clear that a lot of love has been lavished on Leona and the production values are second to none - if this had been released in, say, 2000 then it would have fitted right in with the rest of the Dreamcast library no problem.  I must say that this really isn't the type of game that naturally appeals to me as I'm more of an arcade racer or action/adventure game player, but Leona's Tricky Adventure is a great puzzler-cum-role playing game. If you’re looking for a fresh challenge on the Dreamcast, you should give this a go.
Scott: I’m in two minds about Leona. On one hand, I loved every minute of my time in Leona’s world, and I really dug the game’s style and got really addicted to the puzzle solving mechanics, especially towards the end when the game starts to experiment with its own rules by changing up things you take for granted, like the size and shape of your cursor. On the other hand, I can’t help but feel a little cheated in how the game’s mysteries are left unsolved. In many ways, while the game’s puzzle mechanics are flawless, there was a lot of squandered potential with the game’s overworld mechanics. Many of the forks in the road lead to dead ends without consequence or purpose. 

It would have been nice if there was more 'cause and effect' when interacting with the game world’s denizens, whether it be through some karma system where you help them out with a problem and they help you out down the road, or some kind of fetch quest where you exchange helpful items between different characters who need them. But even as I say that it would have been nice to have these additional features, it doesn’t actually mean the game is poorer for not having them. I don’t think the game is bad, far from it. My reaction to the game ending is a reflection of how much I was enjoying myself and how much I wanted it to continue. It just could have been better if there was more, because I wanted more. I really do hope there is a sequel in the near future (or maybe a downloadable SD patch to unlock hidden content, eh KTX? *hint* *hint* *nudge* nudge*). I’ll be there, waiting first in line to pick it up.

Arbitrary 90s games magazine percentage award: 89.978%, highly recommended, or a CVG-style 4 hands out of 5. If you're looking for a new game for your Dreamcast, you should invest in a copy of Leona's Tricky Adventures.
Leona's Tricky Adventures is available on both Steam and Dreamcast, and can be ordered from the official website for just €29.99 (that's around £23 or $34) plus shipping. The Steam version costs just €9.99 and can be ordered here.


DCGX said...

I agree with pretty much everything both of you said, especially the music and the ending. I used the mouse to play the entire game, and really enjoyed that control style. Of course, any excuse to use any Dreamcast peripheral is a plus to me.

doceggfan said...

Thanks DCGX for the comments. And thanks for the research about the steam community stuff about the ending. I think you and I might be the only ones who have finished Leona on Dreamcast.

DCGX said...

That could be, at least from what people have said on Dreamcast Talk. Some of the last puzzles (mostly optional) can be very tricky (heh).

Simon Early said...

Great review chaps. I'll definitely be purchasing this title!

Simon Early said...

Great review chaps. I'll definitely be purchasing this title!