It’s always bittersweet to find a free game that you want more of. Such is the case with Mandagon, a 2D exploration game set in a Tibetan vision of limbo. You don’t know why you’re there or what you’re doing or why you’re a cheeful-looking stone head that can jump, but all will be revealed as you wander the serene temples and ruins of this magical place. There’s no real puzzling to do, other than sussing out the story from the cryptic rhymes shared by ancient statues, but the exploration is more than enough to keep you engaged for as long as it lasts.
The heart of Mandagon’s appeal is its environment and atmosphere, which would be remarkable even for a full-priced game. The graphics are finely-detailed pixel art, showing off every crack and bit of moss on stones and every groove in the pillars holding the place aloft. You’ll start your adventure in a stony valley of pools and cliff dwellings, but soon your adventure will take you to etherial ruins floating in the sky, their banners and wind chimes tossing gently in the breeze. With no enemies to harangue you and no challenging platforming to speak of, the art turns Mandagon into a peaceful trek across a gorgeous and fantastic world.
It’s not a big world, of course, and you should be able to see all its sights in 30 minutes or so. Your goal is to place six tablets back in their proper places, and there aren’t a whole lot of places where they could be hidden. The arches where the tablets must be placed also serve as the fast travel points, making it easy to get back to where you need to be at any time. You won’t find any abilities or upgrades, just shortcuts to activate and one special travel method high up in the ruins. There are a few little secrets tucked away that also build on the excellent atmosphere as well.
The story’s not bad but it’s told in terribly vague terms, so unless you want to really puzzle out the rhymes you’ll just be here for the journey. And it’s an absolutely lovely, imaginative journey for the short time it lasts, so there’s no reason not to give it a go if you like exploring. This feels like a title for people who loved the Knytt games, because it definitely pushes a lot of the same buttons for me. Here’s hoping Mandagon’s creators are hard at work on a full game, because this little slice of heaven left me hungry for more.