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Bramble: The Mountain King Review - Beware The Beasts Of The Mountain

EDITORS' RATING : 8 / 10
Pros
  • Enchanting storylines drawn from Nordic lore
  • Beautiful, moody design
  • Easy, undemanding combat
Cons
  • Gore might be unsettling for some players
  • Gamma brightness adjustment was inconsistent at times
  • Controls are sometimes ambiguous

A PC review code was provided to ZaaZ for this review. "Bramble: The Mountain King" is now available on PC via Steam and Epic Games, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and Nintendo Switch.

As intelligent as humans may be, there is one lasting sense of primal awareness that we can't escape — and that's the awareness of something much larger than ourselves. Mountains, animals a dozen times our size, the ocean ... all command a respect and compliance so gripping that the feeling is blurred into fear. Phobias of such things are rooted in logic, not irrationality. With boats, planes, and zoo enclosures, humanity has at the least found comfort in the allusion that insurmountable forces of nature can be outsmarted.

But what about a world where the boot wearer becomes the ant, a world where a couple of unsuspecting humans are shrunk to a size where the bullfrog commands as much respect as the elephant? How do humans achieve the upper hand then — or can they, even? This is the reality of "Bramble: The Mountain King," a gloomy horror adventure developed by Dimfrost Studios that follows two children lost in the dark and twisted landscape of Bramble. "Bramble" honors a collection of Nordic fables, stitching the tales together as the many challenges the young protagonist must face in order to rescue his sister from the hideous troll that snatched her. 

A content warning is in order for the review and play of "Bramble: The Mountain King." This game depicts scenes of infanticide, suicide, violence on children, and general scenes of horror and gore that may be upsetting and disturbing to some players. 

A murky backdrop and creeping menace

"The Mountain King" begins with the younger of the two children, Olle, waking in the night to find his sister, Lillemore, missing, with a quite telling still-open window and rope of bedsheet hastily fastened to the sill. It is quickly clear that little will be shared about Olle and his sister, their family, the cottage and surrounding land that they reside in, and why Lillemore has scampered off despite clear indicators that this was strongly inadvisable. The land that Olle must navigate in order to reach the mountain where his sister is imprisoned is being choked by the dark force of Bramble, a thorny and hostile thicket with deadly flower blooms.

The environment, overlaid by an emotional and exquisitely curated instrumental score, alternates between an innocent forest full of buttery sunshine and a black, sinister wood. In the first few moments of gameplay, you're plunged into the latter scene, and gaining a sense of footing and orientation is quite difficult. The game's fixed-camera approach insists that you follow clear, linear movement paths — as tantalizing as the thought may be, there's no diverging into the thickets and brush that surround you — but those paths are not always easily discernible, for a number of reasons.

For one, there's no sense of mission-based guidance; the narrator, who surfaces semi-frequently to share a nugget of lore or give some omnipotent insight to Olle's feelings, is mostly useless in terms of guiding the player through the plot.

Fixed-camera play isn't always intuitive

There's a lot of trial and error in figuring out how to move through the world around you as you wonder which pieces of the environment can be climbed or interacted with, or where the preset linear path goes when you're spit from one scene into the next. In the early chapters, playing "The Mountain King" could be compared to shooting down a waterslide in pitch darkness — you're bound to a set course, with a sense of flailing helplessness.

But you can get used to this. Once you've relinquished the desire to turn every stone and peek behind every tree as modern open-world games may have spoiled you with the privilege of doing, "The Mountain King" blooms into a cinematic masterpiece. You have to surrender the desire for full control, because this is not something "Bramble" ever intended to give you. The many, many perils that Olle faces — scaling massive trees by gripping the cascading vines, tip-toeing across an open chasm on a fallen branch, fighting for life in the froth of an angry river — are not meant to be tests of tactile skill on the player's part. These scenes of danger may lack the sense of accomplishment after a button-mashing flurry that some crave, but try to appreciate them for what they are: Cinematic intermissions carefully implemented to deliver a spectator-like experience of Olle's story.

That said, with the fixed-camera perspective that often spins and shifts of its own accord, depth perception is a common struggle. There are a number of instances where you think a jump is lined up perfectly, but the perception has tricked you. Or, Olle is running along a floating wooden path in a swamp, and the camera spins without warning. If you don't update your directional control in time, you run right off the planks.

Friend or foe? The integration of Nordic lore

From a pair of eyes glimmering in the foggy darkness to the charming, fairytale-esque gnome village, the ups and downs of "Bramble" are truly captivating. The dark themes, while expected, are intense. Even if you believe you're fully immune to horrific themes such as suicide, infanticide, and the bloody, graphic deaths of children — proceed with caution. Wading through a lake of eviscerated innards and having your head bitten off by a troll bring thematic value but also some mental distress. The changes in mood don't cause whiplash, but rather are executed with an understated elegance. At face value, these emotional twists are just the to-be-expected consequence of a young, defenseless boy encountering the beasts of the land as laid out by the Nordic fiction. 

At first, the combat mechanics implemented to fight the enemies among these beasts may seem a bit oversimplified. Olle happens upon a magical stone of light, and — logically, considering he's a meager human eight(-ish?) year old — his only form of self-defense is brandishing or throwing the stone at adversaries. But this is complemented by a lot of obstacle-based challenge to create a comfortable level of difficulty. For example, at one point, you must dart from rooftop to rooftop, hiding behind chimneys, to escape the disintegrating light blast of one of the Bramble flowers. This strategy is applied to quite a few scenes, and distracts from the absence of more hand-to-hand, high-stakes conflict. 

And further, as a sort of peace de resistance, the developers included one scene of battle where chucking the stone isn't enough to bring down the foe. Olle instead plunges a blade, repeatedly, into the fallen enemy's back. The tonal shift as the knife falls one, twice, half a dozen times, 10 times is palpable; the child is no longer exactly that. His anger, fear, and exhaustion bubbled to the surface creates a sense of incredible discomfort to witness.

Art outweighing faults

While "Bramble" is not a complex game from a mechanics and control standpoint, there is some frustration at the ambiguity of the controls that are there. It's often unclear if certain keys should be held down, mashed repeatedly, or tapped once to execute a command, like rowing a boat or swinging a blade, for example. Not only are there never any directions provided for this, but it also seems to vary from action to action. The gamma brightness needs to be updated frequently, otherwise the night scenes can be indiscernible and daytime scenes are blown out. There is also more clipping than initially expected, but these early collision detection vulnerabilities very well be addressed at a later date.

Despite it's ending that could be a bit more climactic, the careful attention to detail in the environmental design cannot be understated. From moonlight falling on a toadstool to the grime on a swamp-dwelling troll's face, it seems clear that Dimfrost wanted to celebrate this game through its cinematic art and storytelling. The use of occasional interactive storybooks to share snippets of Nordic fables is enjoyable, but there could be more explanation of the wooden totems that serve as the only achievements/collectibles in the game.

Relying on storytelling for a lasting impression

There are no fight scenes or other accomplishments in "The Mountain King" that will leave you with a lasting sense of sweet victory after the credits have rolled (which happens after roughly seven hours). Dimfrost probably lost the approval of some players for not reaching a level of harrowing, sweat-inducing combat in this game, and by opting for a passive observer role of the player during the most perilous encounters with the environment, but others will hopefully see it as the movie-like journey it is meant to be.

If you take advice before playing "The Mountain King," let this be it: Don't forget to use the magic stone as a source of light, use Google Translate for some of the signs and paintings you encounter, and don't hesitate to pause the game and do a bit of reading on the fables and creatures mentioned throughout the game to add a bit of substance to your experience. As long as you go into "Bramble" with the right expectations, this game will serve you well in the short time that you're a guest in its universe. 

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