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A Fading Melody (Xbox 360) artwork

A Fading Melody (Xbox 360) review


"Cast your mind back to a time when Toad could tell us that “the princess is in another castle” and we’d cheerfully scamper off through another vibrant world in pursuit of the evil Bowser. "



Cast your mind back to a time when Toad could tell us that “the princess is in another castle” and we’d cheerfully scamper off through another vibrant world in pursuit of the evil Bowser.

These were simpler times . . .



This cryptic thought is expressed at the beginning of A Fading Melody and is typical of a game that offers us very few certainties. All we know for sure is that A Fading Melody is a platformer, and so we must run from left to right across countless platforms while we evade the sinister clutches of strange phantoms. We do this in the hope that we’ll gradually learn more. It’s the equivalent of Toad’s famous words – a carrot dangled in front of the player, urging them forward – only it’s been updated for a genre that, post-Braid, wants to tell us an ambiguous, emotionally charged tragedy. This is no traditional platformer. In the words of its creator, A Fading Melody is an “artistic indie platformer with a story.”

Except that unlike Johnathan Blow’s abstract story-telling, A Fading Melody doesn’t need to be deciphered to be understood. For all its emotional weight, there’s a certain poetic simplicity to the flashes of narrative progression that appear on screen between each level. Like all iconic platformers, the premise behind A Fading Melody can be encapsulated in one sentence: guide a coma patient through her nightmares as she struggles to regain her memories. Instead of understanding the meaning, the emphasis is on unravelling this mysterious story. Melody, the tormented protagonist, is in a coma. Why is she in a coma? With each level (and there are seven in total), a bit more of the intriguing tale is revealed as it twists and turns towards a resolution that explains all.

Although the plot is easy to comprehend, A Fading Melody is significant because it unites its solemn theme and platforming gameplay in a way that proved beyond Braid. All Melody can remember about her accident is that it happened in a forest. Each level is therefore set in a surreal woodland environment, a subconscious manifestation of her traumatic memories. This imaginary forest is a forlorn wilderness populated by a few abstract trees that weave across the pale backdrop. The haunting piano melodies of Robert Schumann complete the illusion, immersing you in a melancholy dream world. Initially, this subconscious world is dark and miserable, rendered in monochrome with incessant snowfall, but as Melody begins to remember, her mind becomes infused with brightness. The trees start to bloom, with tangible branches and hints of foliage, while the subtle inclusion of colour adds definition to the forest.

Darkness is never far away, though. It’s important to continually kill the white-silhouetted monsters that haunt Melody’s subconscious, because if you don’t then the screen will gradually fade to black as she falls deeper into her coma. Every time you kill one of the ghostly apparitions, her dreams (and therefore the screen) become lighter. This gives you a few seconds to navigate the platforms between enemies before it becomes too dark to see. This is a clever variation on the old platformer trick of having an ever-moving wall hurry the player through the level (e.g. Butter Bridge from Super Mario World). Not only does it induce a sense of urgency, as you struggle to ward off the encroaching darkness by killing more enemies, it also echoes the themes that are raised by the plot. Melody must overcome her repressed fears before she can wake from her coma. When a monster is defeated it even evaporates into a puff of smoke that’s absorbed into the mind of Melody’s subconscious self. Maybe Psychoanalysis: The Game would have been a more fitting title?




In terms of style, theme and artistic direction, A Fading Melody certainly goes far beyond what you would normally expect from an XNA community game. Even the cover-art looks stylish! The sombre, minimalist tone evoked by the narrative is maintained throughout the platforming gameplay, which becomes the visual representation of Melody’s traumatic inner struggle. It’s easy to lavish praise on this sophisticated integration of plot and gameplay. For an XNA platformer to have such a mature and cohesive aesthetic is nothing short of impressive.

Although the presentation threatens to deceive, it has to be said that the rigid gameplay mechanics betray A Fading Melody’s status as an indie title. Despite its aesthetic sophistication, the core platforming action feels a lot rougher than that of more professional XBLA games, such as Braid. Collision detection and character animation can feel awkward at times, and the level design is raw and unpolished. In the last stage, for example, you’re forced to string together a sequence of pixel-perfect leaps, which is tough because you have to do them in a hurry (while you can still see where you’re going). You then have to contend with a platform of monsters. Easy, you might think! But because enemy hit boxes are fairly small, there’s a chance that you’ll die even though you swore you hit the target. It would be a lot worse if it didn’t have a checkpoint system, but A Fading Melody can still be an unforgiving experience.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. Those who are easily frustrated may want to think twice before trying A Fading Melody, but for those with a little more patience, the strict platforming gameplay actually poses a welcome challenge. Being asked to nail improbable jumps across ridiculously wide gaps is something that few “professional” developers would do. A Fading Melody seems to relish bending and stretching the laws of physics for some unusual tests of dexterity. Certain sections demand that you perform feats that are simply incredible, in the truest sense of the word. For example, you’re often forced to make a leap-of-faith from a high platform. That may not sound strange in itself. But because you can double jump at any point after the initial leap, the game then challenges you to execute a double jump right at the last possible moment of your descent in order to reach a platform that's positioned just above the bottom of the screen. Such an inventive and unconventional approach to the genre gives A Fading Melody a raw, indie charm that makes its gameplay compelling despite the technical imperfections.

Although A Fading Melody is rough around the edges, it’s possible to excuse its flaws because it’s an engaging experience that’s come from the mind of a talented, creative developer. Christian Seehausen has created a narrative-driven platformer in which atmosphere is everything, something that can’t be easy to do on a non-existent budget. When your goals are this ambitious, there's a fine line between success and failure. If the adventure wasn’t as cohesive as it is then the amateur touches might be more obvious, such as the fact that one of the enemies is a beholder (of D&D fame). Fortunately, the illusion created by the tight connection between the serious plot and the game world is so powerful that you can dismiss these flaws as insignificant. After all, maybe Melody has a repressed fear of beholders?

Melody’s subconscious struggle to remember is the foundation of the simple platforming gameplay. From the nightmarish forest landscape and encroaching darkness, right down to the shrill beeps of the heart monitor that can be heard between levels, A Fading Melody is a triumph of intelligent, integrated design. It may have its fair share of technical flaws and it may well frustrate you with its demanding challenges, but its stylish and substantial thematic concept makes it a unique adventure that's worthy of your attention. The humble platformer has certainly come a long way from the innocent rolling hills and throwaway cartoon plots of the Mushroom Kingdom.

Rating: 7/10

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Featured community review by JANUS2 (June 12, 2009)

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Lewis posted June 15, 2009:

I bought it. You made me buy it. You awful human.

So far: nnnggg.

I want to like it. It's stupidly beautiful. I love the haunting, ethereal aesthetic to the whole thing: the silhouettes, the piano music, the snow. A few things are standing in its way.

The presentation is Braid. Simple as. Running past the narrative fragments embedded into the world, written in the same font as Braid... I dunno, it seems to assume the story is why Braid worked, when it's not. It's what lifted it from "very, very good" to "absolutely brilliant" but Braid worked because of the game. The time mechanics, the gorgeous simplicity of the actual platforming bits, how forgiving it was if you just wanted to get on with stuff... those were the secrets to Braid's success. The poetry was just a welcome extra.

A Fading Melody is woefully unforgiving. The checkpointing is just horrible. There is no fun to be had in repeating the same five-minute section again and again because it's placed a really fucking nasty difficult bit right at the end of a segment, with relatively tricky bits at the start and end, so you can slip up at any point, right up until the finale, and have to go right the way back. Fundamental rule of checkpoint design, man: place them before the most difficult bits. I can do all the bits before that! Stop making me do those bits again only to slip up at the end! Especially awful just now was a bit that introduced a new control mechanic before a checkpoint. BEFORE A CHECKPOINT. NO. YOU DO THAT AT THE START OF THE NEXT BIT, AND LET ME FUCKING LEARN IT WITHOUT PUNISHING ME.

Eugh.

The story seems interesting. It's going to have to get really bloody good for me to put up with how frustrating it all is. It seems to throw too many difficulty elements into the mix. You're always against an enemy-killing time limit. The checkpoints are too far apart. The platforms are brutal. It's like I imagine Spelunky would feel if it weren't procedurally generated. It's just horrifically tough, and, y'know, why am I playing this? It's marketed as a story. I wanna discover the bloody story, not play the first few minutes of it over and over again.

I'll stick with it. I believe you that it's good. It's just not doing itself any favours so far.
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JANUS2 posted June 15, 2009:

Haha, I had a feeling you would disagree with me.

I dunno, it seems to assume the story is why Braid worked, when it's not.

Actually, it addresses the issue that I had with Braid, which is that the story and the gameplay were entirely unconnected. The designer also seems to share this view (based on his blog). If you're going to do story + platformer then make the plot relevant. I don't want to treat the two as separate, which is what Braid forces you to do (aside from one notable section).

A Fading Melody is woefully unforgiving.

This is true. In my review I said that it can be an unforgiving experience and that only those who don't have the patience to play such a challenging platformer should think twice before buying it. I don't think I disguise the fact that the game is hard (e.g. "Being asking to nail improbable jumps across ridiculously wide gaps is something that few “professional” developers would do.").

Fundamental rule of checkpoint design...

Says who?

Personally, all those things you say about the challenge are reasons why I LIKE the game! Honestly, if I could have finished A Fading Melody in fifteen minutes then it would have been such a hollow experience. If it followed all the rules then it may have been smoother and it may have been easier, but it would have been boring. Yes, I found it frustrating at times, but I enjoyed the way it tested my platforming skills in a way that games just don't do any more. I saw it as a modern throwback to Ghouls N Ghosts and Castlevania (these games are recognised as "great" and yet were far, far more stingy when it came to checkpoints). A Fading Melody is nowhere near as hard as the toughest "golden age" platformers, or even Megaman 9 (to use a modern example). I completed it over three days. Its approach is unconventional, tricky and sometimes very frustrating, but each level has three or four checkpoints and there were no sections that bothered me for more than ten minutes.

Anyway, I had a feeling you wouldn't like it as much as me. All I hope is that you don't feel I misled you in any way. I tried to be as open as possible regarding the gameplay (I'm glad you like the style - I suspected you would like that bit, at least). I might reiterate the difficulty in the conclusion, though, just to make it absolutely clear that you have to be prepared for a challenge.
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Lewis posted June 15, 2009:

Hey, for a few quid, I'm glad I bought it. I think it's very interesting and I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes. I don't feel mislead by anything you said. You portrayed the game pretty accurately.

I think games are probably getting easier (particularly this sort of game) but that's a good thing. I'm the person who plays all his games on the lowest difficulty setting. It's not necessarily because I'm bad at them - I can power through an Expert campaign on L4D - but because, in terms of single-player narrative driven stuff, I don't see how repeatedly stalling the story is sensible. I want it to flow.

Hell, I even thought Vita-Chambers were a good idea.

Braid... hmm. Did it separate the game from the story? It did on a superficial level: you read a bit, then you played a bit. But it's a game about regret, and that manifests through the time mechanics... it's all linked in an abstract way. So far, this feels less integrated if anything... it's just environmental stuff. "Here is my nightmare." A bit like Yumme Nikki. If it has a revalation like that at the end, it might all be worth it.

Cheers for the recommendation, anyway. Whether I end up liking it or hating it, it's one of the more interesting games I've played this month.
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JANUS2 posted June 15, 2009:

I don't know how far you are, but the revelation is that you learn what happens. I wouldn't get your hopes up for the philosophical "depth" of Braid. And I didn't really enjoy Yume Nikki enough to finish it... hah. I guess I'm just more interested in literal connections than abstract ones (especially when I consider them to be TOO abstract to the extent that they threaten devalue or marginalise the gameplay). But then we obviously go into games looking for different things, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

One day, we will agree on a game... maybe.
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Lewis posted June 15, 2009:

I don't mind about philosophical depths. Simplicity is fine.

I might agree yet. I'm not very far in. Played for an hour, tops. This is all very much first impression territory, and while I find the game frustrating, I'm actually looking forward to my girlfriend finishing watching Eastenders so I can get back to playing it.

Oh - Yumme Nikki is totally no-fun. It's not enjoyable at all, and a real slog to get through. Once you get to the end, well, things slot into place, and the chores were kinda worth it a bit. It's certainly a fascinating way to design the game: have it not make any fucking sense whatsoever until after you've finished it.
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JANUS2 posted June 15, 2009:

Yeah, I'll probably try to finish it at some point. I don't know what happens (after reading the first paragraph of your review I decided I would read the rest after playing it), so there's still that curiosity factor.
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Lewis posted June 16, 2009:

Was really looking forward to getting back playing this today. Live won't connect. Check on the support site and it's down in the UK for scheduled maintenance. Until tomorrow. At 8am. That's a long maintenance period, and they should fucking work faster.
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honestgamer posted June 16, 2009:

Pretty sure it's down worldwide, Lewis. They've been announcing that today that would be the case for quite some time now.
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Lewis posted June 16, 2009:

Oh I don't pay attention to things.
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honestgamer posted June 16, 2009:

I don't blame you. I probably wouldn't either if it weren't my self-appointed job, so to speak. I read about it on Kotaku, I think it was, which was referencing some posts on Microsoft's site or something.
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JANUS2 posted June 16, 2010:

Thanks seedayNeF
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pickhut posted June 16, 2010:

It's odd how this review is a hit with spam advertisers.
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zigfried posted July 31, 2010:

Not spam!

Playing Braid has reminded me that I really need to go back and finish this one. The darkening screen is a stylish mechanic that also feels inextricably linked with the story, whereas for the most part Braid may as well be a Flink knock-off that happens to have "something going on" that I may or may not find out later. It's the difference between a constant versus occasional reminder of something bigger.

Unfortunately, since this is an Indie title, I cannot play it at my house because Indie titles require internet to play, whereas Arcade titles do not.

//Zig
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JANUS2 posted July 31, 2010:

Completely agree. What did you think about the platform gameplay?
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zigfried posted July 31, 2010:

Tough but fun. I was kind of taking that part for granted in my post. It's been long enough that I don't remember any specific spots, but it felt like a new-world Jumpjoe. I liked Jumpjoe.

//Zig
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aschultz posted August 11, 2010:

Because I'm pedantic like dat:

"Being asking to" -> "Asking you to" ... or "Very few professional developers would make players [xyz]
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JANUS2 posted August 12, 2010:

I never spotted that typo before. Thanks ASchultz. I meant to write "Being asked to..."

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