My biggest gripe with walking simulators is that they, more often than not, take themselves too seriously. The Shattering, for instance, tried its damndest to tell a story that ultimately never went anywhere. With that said, exceptional titles in this genre do exist. Firewatch is a great example, which tells a thought-provoking story with some of the best-written characters I have ever experienced within such a short timeframe. Thanks to its innovative design, level of interactivity, and its aforementioned story; it has become the benchmark of the walking simulator genre. With all of this in mind, I would like to bring your attention to Paws and Soul; a brand new walking simulator that may very well have usurped this genre’s throne.
Paws and Soul is the latest game from developers Arkuda Inc. and Electro Stalin Entertainment. It is a third-person adventure game where you play as a wolf who rekindles his memories and finds clues about his past life. Upon receiving code for the game, we were repeatedly told that Paws and Soul was “not just some roguelite”. Well, now that I have played the game to completion, I can wholeheartedly attest to the fact that it is nowhere near even being a roguelite, even if it tried. The game is one of the most relaxed video game experiences I have played in a very long time, and it felt particularly linear – two traits that contradict what roguelites are all about and it is all the better for it.
The roguelite genre is a saturated mess with side-scrolling and top-down games. The walking simulator genre, however, still has room to breathe. In the opening moments of Paws and Soul, it is quickly established how you are a wolf and you are experiencing these first moments in this new body. Your inner monologue explains how you feel comfortable in your new skin, and then the game sets you off to explore the world.
According to the game’s blurb, Paws and Soul is meant to tell the tale of rebirth and karma. While largely true, I must say the story told throughout is rather simple and less nuanced than the blurb would have you believe. As you make your way through each of the gorgeous biomes, you slowly unravel the mystery of who the wolf was in his past life, and how a character called David factors into it all. As such, the game starts during David’s first memories as a newborn baby and spans parts of his lifespan, giving players the opportunity to essentially grow along with him and experience all the tragedies that so many children in real life do. These include having parents who have stark contrasting opinions on how to raise their child, a rocky school life, and a young adult life that contains more heartache than one would think possible.
The game is not all sadness and moping, however, as every glimpse into David’s life also comes with some hope. To further complement David’s story, the wolf will also monologue and attempt to decipher what he must be going through during emotional moments. While the main narrative follows an increasingly predictable path, it is told in a way that keeps you hungry for more and it is not afraid to tease you with this insatiable need either.
While rekindling the wolf’s memories and following David’s story is one thing, an entirely different facet of the game’s narrative comes by way of the completely optional side stories. One of the most memorable deviations from the main narrative is a story of a little girl named Michelle and how she is upset over wanting to go to the park with her parents.
A wonderful aspect about these optional stories in Paws and Soul is how you can opt in to assist Michelle out as a helpful spirit. If you choose to help her on her journey, the game will ask you to “sacrifice” some of the spirit you have collected (more on that below). Doing so awards you with a cute little monologue from the wolf and offers the chance of potentially witnessing a much happier Michelle later on in the game. These beautiful little narratives serve to enhance the story through breaking up the heavier narrative into easier to digest snippets, and it does so with aplomb.
As you explore and find various altars [for lack of a better descriptor], you will be asked to sacrifice spirit to proceed. Spirit is the game’s only resource and comes in the form of little balls of energy that float just above the ground. Collecting a single orange orb will net you a single point, while the occasional special coloured orbs will award you with a tiny bit more. Spending these at altars lets you influence certain narratives in a positive way, such as Michelle’s want for some attention from her parents or, later on, helping her get motivated to study.
Throughout Paws and Soul, you will come across little platforming or puzzle segments. Here, the game requires you to do a bit of jumping, speeding through open fields, or perhaps even swimming, to activate objects. These objects will take many forms throughout the game, such as coloured gems early on and as fallen crystals later. Most of these segments can be completed easily and without wracking your brain thanks to special butterflies within the game. Orange butterflies give the wolf the ability to jump very high for thirty seconds, while the blue butterfly will let him open secret paths. There are also butterflies to increase movement speed. To successfully get past puzzle segments, you will need to rely on a combination of critical thinking and useful butterflies.
Other than puzzle and speed segments, the gameplay in Paws and Soul is extremely straightforward. What helps to break it all up and encourage more exploring, however, are the existence of fireflies and the discovery of hidden items (these come in the form of objects from David’s past). Finding them is not difficult as fireflies often hint at their whereabouts. There are also other hidden objects strewn throughout the game. These allow you to solve environmental puzzles, each of which tells their own stories. In addition, the aforementioned altars also have stories to tell, other than David’s. In essence, the core gameplay revolves around walking somewhere, doing a bit of exploring and puzzle-solving, and then moving on.
Fortunately, the exploratory facet of the game is incredible. As you venture through the game and reach various chapters in David’s life, the world around you will take on the form of biomes depicting the kind of challenges and/or good times David is experiencing. With this in mind, the game starts in a peaceful forested area with a big open are for exploration. Exploring the entirety of this area leads you to a particular light puzzle. Without spoiling too much, it serves as a beautiful way of incorporating the video game world into the narrative of David’s early years as a child. Later on in the game, you reach a troubled and dark state of David’s life. The world then reflects this as a dark and gloomy area with bioluminescent plants and mushrooms. Further on, you will reach a biome where entire chunks of the land are floating with a beautiful snow-covered area beyond even that. Each and every location reflects the overall narrative, thus intertwining gameplay with David’s life.
As beautiful and reactive as the world and narrative are, Paws and Soul could do with some addition polish. While the game world is spectacularly done, certain aspects bring it down a notch. Audio, for instance, is a huge part of the game. There is a constant drone in the background that ebbs and flows depending on what you are doing. This drone will, depending on the area or challenge, more often than not loop itself amongst three or four audio tracks [from what I could tell]. While the music is beautiful, and while I hardly noticed the repetition, I must say that the game audio would sometimes bug out completely. Whenever a speaking segment comes on, the music turns down to make way for the vocals. When I first arrived at the end of the first area, the audio would continue playing as if there was no speaking. After this, two music tracks played over one-another and completely soured my experience and immersion.
In terms of polish, I feel the game is still extremely rough around the edges – literally. There are not many graphical options and the few that are there do an amicable job of making the game as pretty as possible with whatever hardware configuration you are running. However, even at “Epic”, the highest graphical setting, there was noticeable aliasing around edges. The game also suffers from a bit of bad optimisation, which surprisingly only rears its ugly head whenever you enter the long caves in-between biome changes. Whenever I entered one of these longer caves, I immediately knew I would be in for an extreme lag session. The game would sometimes hang for minutes on-end. I will tell you this, however, when it seems like it is not responding, just let it rest for a bit. In two minutes or so, the frame rate will pick right back up where it left off. While not as game-breaking as it would seem, it is a jarring experience pulling you from the incredible music and environment of the game. Fortunately, I have it under good authority that these slowdowns are being looked at by the developers for a future update.
It is clear Paws and Soul is still very much an indie experience, and the developers rely on active bug reports from players to improve on their game. I commend this, as there are triple-A titles out there with developers who seem negligent, at the best of times. Thankfully these technical issues are few and far between, and I encountered no other bugs throughout my time with the game.
Even with some poor loading and occasional reminders that this is still very much a video game, and not some out of body experience, Paws and Soul holds up as one of the better “walking simulators” I have played. The game conveys a beautiful tale of rebirth and karma, and lets you experience it all first-hand, from the perspective as an outsider who slowly realises how he may have a much larger role in the unfolding story than initially thought.
Paws and Soul may not be some triple-A action spectacle, but it is a beautiful and colourful display of what it may be like to explore and reflect on memories of a life long lived. It does so with aplomb as well, as it showcases wonderful and easy puzzle segments that never hurt the brain. The music helps to immerse you while the gameplay lets you embody the game’s literal spirit. Paws and Soul successfully accomplishes what it is set out to be, a beautiful tale with ethereal ideologies to make it an experience worth enjoying.
|Time played||<10 Hours|
|Platform||Microsoft Windows (via Steam)|
|Acquisition||Review code courtesy of PR Outreach|