Dimfrost Studios' Bramble: The Mountain King initially released on consoles back in April of this year and, now that it's headed to Xbox Game Pass, we're diving in for a review of this dark and brooding Limbo-like set within a fantastical Scandinavian fairy-tale world.
If you're already au fait with your Nakens and Skogras, Gnomes and Nokks, you'll be at a slight tactical advantage (well, at least in terms of how many times you get a fright) as you jump into this slice of dark fantasy, taking on the role of a young boy, Olle, as he climbs out his bedroom window in the dead of night to go searching for his sister. Ignoring all warnings in an effort to save his dear sibling from the clutches of a troll, Olle ventures forth on a journey that expertly layers on the horror as you move from verdant meadows to blood-soaked butchers' lairs, plague-infected villages and more besides.
Taking notable cues from Playdead Studios' superlative Limbo - and with a definite hint of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice to boot - players find themselves almost entirely defenseless, save for the ability to chuck a glowing rock from time to time, and will instantly come to a very sticky end should they be detected and caught by any of the game's fantastical array of folklore freaks. You know the drill; sneak around avoiding lights, hide behind objects, time your movements and indulge in some light platforming and environmental puzzles as you go.
The biggest change to the well-worn formula here is Dimfrost's decision to rock a slick dynamic camera style that shifts through various planes, moving the action from side-scrolling 2D to 3D segments and drawing you into its creepy world by making effective use of depth of field effects. For a small indie game such as this, the results are often mightily impressive in terms of how the game looks and sounds. Indeed, beyond the often wonderful visuals and a couple of truly memorable sequences full of rather startling imagery, the sound design really stands out.
The compounding dread of Olle's situation is matched by a score that slowly builds and intensifies as you progress, and a couple of sections that feature sung lyrics, as well as one late game sequence that incorporates a very well-known piece of music, really helping to accentuate the bleak mood. This is also a surprisingly dark and adult affair once things really kick into gear. Check out our screenshots and you'll get the gist of the vibe, it's a bloody and traumatic trip that deals in some disturbing themes, and shifts deftly from foreboding to full-on gore in places. The narrative too, although straightforward, is effective and features a couple of rather haunting and emotional moments that make you question your violent actions.
Dimfrost has also done a rather wonderful job of capturing the essence of what makes folklore and fairy-tales so uniquely unsettling. You'll often spot disturbing figures lingering in the background as you fumble through the game's environments, they're all hunched backs, crooked noses, dark hoods and the sort of character design we remember all too well from poring over these types of stories in old books. Several traditional Nordic folklore creatures have been brought impressively to life too, in a few key sequences that see the game at its very best. A battle against a violin-playing Nacken - who looks as though he's been plucked directly out of Koji Suzuki's Ringu Trilogy - is a standout, but almost equally effective are face-offs against a truly creepy Karrhaxan and the Mountain King himself.
The effort that's been expended in bringing these nightmare creatures to life is the game's biggest draw and in this regard, alongside the overall eerie tone and atmosphere, it's a resounding success that really does become more and more fascinating as its short tale progresses. However, and it's a rather big however, there are some notable issues. From a pure gameplay perspective, Bramble: The Mountain King feels as though it needed more time in the oven, or at the very least a couple of patches.
There's an overall jankiness to how Olle jumps and moves through environments, some weak platforming, clumsy camera angles that obscure the path forward from time to time, and a general lack of polish in your protagonist's animations. Boss fights and battle sequences, which occasionally require you to aim and fire a glowing stone at your foes, are let down by loose aiming and design that errs more on the side of trial and error than it does any sort of skill. There are also a few niggling framerate issues here and there which should really have been smoothed out by now. Put all these things together and there's a level of frustration that's unfortunate. If the movement and aiming were tightened up just a little bit, if the animations were slightly more polished and if the game did more to remove some unnecessary frustration borne out of insta-fail trial and error segments, we'd genuinely be looking at a bonafide indie classic here.
As things stand, and especially since it's now on Game Pass, Bramble: The Mountain King is still worth getting stuck into, despite its issues. It may not reach the heights of its most obvious inspirations, but make peace with the technical shortcomings of this indie effort, focus on the story, the atmosphere and the menagerie of twisted beasties and fairy-tale freaks on offer, and you're in for a rather delightfully dark four hours' worth of otherworldly adventuring.
Bramble: The Mountain King is a dark and brooding slice of Nordic folklore that's well worth digging into, despite some notable technical shortcomings. There's an inherent jankiness to the gameplay here that permeates its platforming, boss battles and exploration. However, if you can make peace with these rough edges, you'll find a tale that's still dripping in atmosphere, packed full of wonderful details and a menagerie of foul fairy-tale beasties that draw you in and keep the short campaign well and truly interesting.