An Untitled Story
Yes, I know. We already included An Untitled Story in a Weekend Download last year. But there are three good reasons to take another look at developer Matt Thorson's (a.k.a. YMM) magnum opus. First, popular demand. Second, it has been re-released as Freeware, which means it's a whole one dollar cheaper. Those of you who paid for the full game after playing the demo the first time around can still sleep well, knowing that you supplied a hard-working game maker with four packets of Ramen. Third, it is the best freeware platform game I have ever played (If you just had the urge to babble furiously about bunny-people and amnesiac androids, you can relax. I like Cave Story, too.)
Now, Best Freeware Platformer is quite a lofty title for a game that looks like a drawing your five-year-old cousin stuck up on the fridge, but I'm just being honest about my feelings, here. An Untitled Story is a perfect blend of tough platforming challenges, intimidating boss fights, and cunning secrets, all wrapped up in a layer of childlike mysticism and rough-shorn beauty.
But An Untitled Story requires a certain mindset to appreciate, because it is very different in tone from YMM's other work (he is the author of the ridiculously hardcore Jumper series and recently, the even more ridiculous FLail), and indeed from other explorational platformers. "If this is a chilled-out wonderland of discovery like Seiklus," the peanut gallery cries, "then why is it killing me with spikes? If this is a hardcore action game like Jumper, then why won't it tell me where the next boss is, already?"
And the answer is simple: this isn't any of those other games. An Untitled Story is a chilled-out hardcore wonderland of action discovery, plus an unidentifiable je ne sais quoi that just makes you want to drink it down in one gulp and then spit out a rainbow.
You start out as a lonely egg in a nest. You can jump right away, but all of your other abilities must be discovered and earned. But there is no clear path to your goals, and indeed no clear goals. You will spend your time upgrading your abilities by locating blue orbs, upgrading your health meter by finding hearts, and defeating bosses by jumping on their heads when they are vulnerable. Over time, you will uncover the shattered fragments of a plot-line, find avian love, and even reveal the dark secrets of your world.
Analysis: It's hard to describe just what makes An Untitled Story work so well, and I suspect that it won't hit everyone the same way. It can be a very difficult and frustrating experience for some. Time after time, you will encounter obstacles that are impassable, either because you haven't found the appropriate ability, or because you don't yet have enough skill. But for a certain type of gamer, who is perfectly happy to turn around and work on some other area of the game, rather than butt heads with a challenge beyond his abilities, this is Nirvana.
YMM has structured An Untitled Story so that there are always three or four different regions to explore at any given time. All paths lead to a reward of some kind, and your practice in beating one area will help you with the other one, the one that initially seemed impossible. This is a game that teaches you how to play—not by forcing tutorials on you or by dumbing down the gameplay until you can cope, but by evolving organically and inviting you to grow along with it.
But what really brings it all together is the layer of mystery and purity over everything. Other than the initial keyboard instructions, you have to discover how everything works yourself. The thick outlines and sketchy style of the artwork (inspired by Matt's friend Tom Sennett at coolmoose.net) give the game an ancient, epic feeling; like it has been etched into stone rather than programmed on a computer. The guitar-driven soundtrack is amateurish, by YMM's own admission, yet it succeeds at setting an appropriate mood for a wide variety of different locations. It's a sublime thing, this game, an excellent example of how clarity of purpose can unify a game and make it memorable, more than any of its individual parts could do.
Despite the essential goodness of An Untitled Story's design, there are a few things that trip up newcomers all the time, so I'm including a few hints here to keep you from getting frustrated. Don't read these if you'd rather take the journey unaided.
You can't talk as an egg. You will reach a point where you must be able to communicate in order to pass certain gates. Here are three hints for discovering how to hatch.
You need to obtain an ability that, at first, seems useless.
You need to use that ability in a place that looks like it should be important.
There is a cave drawing somewhere that tells you what to do.
You can only pass through these when you are at full health. Usually that means you have to traverse some particularly tricky obstacle course without taking damage in order to get the prize behind the Heart Door. Keep in mind that all such prizes are optional. You can beat the game without passing a single Heart Door.
None of the orbs in the shop are necessary to beat the game except the very cheapest one. Feel free to spend money on things when you have it, but if you are stuck, you never need to go around destroying pots and killing things to advance. You will naturally collect all the money you need during the course of your travels.
Finally, if you have a gamepad for your computer, use it. The game is perfectly playable with keyboard controls, but it definitely feels better with a directional thumb-pad.
Download the free full version