This is the fifty-second entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
Dark first-person stealth strategy game across a surreal archipelago.
I’m listening, Quantum Soup Studios. Go on.
Annwn, which the game’s itch.io page assures me is pronounced “ann-oon”, is the Otherworld in Welsh mythology. But while Wikipedia tells me it is a paradise, in the game it is rather different. Taking place across a series of islands in a surreal archipelago, players control a soul that is attempting to traverse the Otherworld without being spotted by the sinister Watchmen. The player’s soul can look around freely as is typical for first-person games, but it cannot move directly. Instead, it must teleport between totems, but first it must make some. This is accomplished by absorbing and re-emitting energy from the trees scattered across the island. Saplings can be planted on any of the checkerboard squares which adorn the level surfaces of each island, and can be grown into full trees, and then into totems, which can be raised higher and higher if needed. Once a totem is in place, aiming at it and clicking is all that is needed to swoop over and inhabit it. From the new vantage point, the player’s wayward soul can reabsorb the old totem or any other trees scattered around. Existing trees can also be built up directly to save some time.
And saving time is critical, because each island has a Watchman (some later islands may even have more than one?) perched at its summit, slowly sweeping its gaze across the hills like some sort of nightmare lighthouse. If a Watchman’s light beam alights upon a totem, it will turn an angry red, and absorb the totem’s energy until only a mere sapling is left. If the player’s soul happens to be in that totem when that happens, well… lose all of your energy and it’s game over. Stay ahead of the Watchman’s light, however, and the soul can keep climbing to higher ground, until it’s able to absorb the Watchman itself, clearing the island. [EDIT: turns out this design is borrowed from the 1986 game The Sentinel; more on that at the end of the post.]
Annwn is really all about elevation. To absorb trees or build out new totems, players must be able to aim at the ground tiles they occupy, which means they must be able to look down upon them. So in practice, each island is an exercise in getting a vantage point from which a higher totem can be built, moving constantly upwards until even the Watchman can be looked down upon. Of course, for most of this process the Watchman is the one looking down. Early on, I experimented with constructing a totem a large distance away and jumping across the Watchman’s beam, thinking this would help me hide for longer. This can be done, but only on islands with long sightlines, and in practice it didn’t buy me much time. Generally, every island must be circled clockwise, trying to stay just ahead of the Watchman’s beam and often barely escaping it.
I should say that Annwn absolutely nails the atmosphere. Its clean, flat-shaded look is easy to parse yet feels suitably Otherworldly, and the audio is simply fantastic. The music shifts from an ominous murmur to a tense crescendo when the Watchman’s light draws near, always making me feel I was in a dangerous and hostile place. The Watchmen themselves are some sort of antlered statues with glowing eyes, slowly rotating on their perch. Occasionally they built smaller watchers, stone jackals with a fixed gaze, just in case one soul-devouring entity wasn’t scary enough. I also love the gloomy islands themselves, which are sometimes blanketed in rain or snow, and always feel windswept and desolate. Annwn is a striking place to visit.
I was less convinced, however, by the process of conquering islands. Building up new totems can require annoyingly precise aim, especially if trying to build one a good distance away. On many occasions I could technically see the square in which I wanted to build, but it my mouse moved just a sliver I’d interrupt the process, losing precious time. Absorbing and building things takes time, you see, and I often found that I couldn’t move quickly enough to evade the gaze of the Watchmen. There’s an upgrade tree that speeds things up, but to buy upgrades players must finish islands with a lot of excess energy to spend, which just means spending more time absorbing things. It makes for an inverse difficulty curve, where things are hardest at the start when everything is slow, but a few speed upgrades make buying more even easier, and suddenly absorbing trees and spitting out totems is trivial.
Not that I got that far. The biggest problem I had with Annwn is that it’s hard to judge heights. I’m always trying to build my next totem at a higher elevation than the last, and to build it high enough that I’ll be able to continue ascending. If I’m building a totem at a higher elevation than my current position, I can’t tell if this new totem will be able to see the next higher elevation or not. Often, I built a totem higher than I needed to, wasting precious time and energy. Other times, I teleported to a freshly built totem only to find I should have given it another unit or two of height. Without that vantage point, I’m stuck, effectively in a fail state.
This is a shame, because there are indications that Annwn has some interesting wrinkles in its later islands. I completed ten or so islands in the branching node map of the archipelago, and a few started sinking over time, water flooding the lower plains as I climbed my way up. Another was mostly made of cliffs, with only a few spots to grow, feeling far more puzzle-like than the comparatively open islands that preceded it. Many islands have “memory stones” which can be visited for some tidbits of story. These are snippets of memories from a battle or raid, and the player can decide to condone or condemn the person’s actions. Are these memories from my own life, or someone else’s? Am I determining the fate of someone’s soul? Am I even supposed to be doing that, or is my presumptiveness precisely what the Watchmen seek to stop?
Sadly, I did not have enough motivation to continue and find out. I didn’t relish the prospect of re-doing earlier islands just to amass energy for upgrades, and without the upgrades all the available islands felt impossible to complete. But I’m sure that there are people who would love Annwn. It’s a
fresh design idea [EDIT: Actually, it isn’t! The core design is borrowed from the 1986 game The Sentinel, a fact that is not mentioned on Annwn’s main itch.io page but is discussed in its first devlog post. It really is very similar, so Annwn is more of an homage / remake than anything else. Thanks to kelvingreen in the comments for pointing this out!], and clearly a lot of thought went into the mechanics, so someone who more intuitively grasps the strategies and execution should find it enjoyable and rewarding. Even I, who ended up frustrated, was glad I tried it simply because I enjoyed basking in its Otherworld for a little while. Despite my own issues with it, I definitely recommend giving it a look, it’s one of the more memorable titles to pop up in this series. If you missed it in the bundle, Annwn: The Otherworld is sold for a minimum price of $14.95, and also features a free demo.
That’s 52 down, and only 1689 to go!