Review: Dune Sea

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Review copy provided by publisher

It’s always important to have a clear sense of purpose and direction in a game, both in terms of the narrative and the actual gameplay. The player should never be left sitting there wondering why they’re doing anything, which is how I spent most of my time with Dune Sea. I understood what I was doing, certainly, getting from one end of a level to the other without slamming into something harder than my soft, goosey body. But I never understood why I was doing it, or collecting other birds, or flying through rings, or honking, or flying through rings to drop rocks on alien flowers. And without that direction, it became harder and harder to keep going as the experience unraveled further.

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You are a goose, star of a titled game this time, and resident of a rather arid patch of land. Your usual soaring and honking are interrupted, however, by a massive explosive impact that luckily does not vaporize you. You set off on your aerial constitutional anyway to find the deserts greatly changed, with rocks hovering in midair, strange crystals jutting from the dunes, and ravenous black flowers lashing at anything in range. At least, I assume this is tied to the big boom, and not the usual state of things. The game never specifies how these events are related, or how you figure into this place.

So that’s strike one, the presence of a narrative framework that doesn’t connect at all to the player or their character. But you can surely overlook that once you take flight and soar across beautiful sun-touched vistas. The game’s ten or so levels are rendered in an appropriately chunky, minimalist style that gives boulders real weight and trees real volume. Flying is simple enough, you hold down RT to flap and stay in the air, and steer with the analog stick. You’ve got a special dive and roll which speed you along, the option to land at certain checkpoints, and a honk button that can attract other birds. Flapping drains your stamina slowly, but you can get it back by landing or nipping seeds and leaves out of the air as you cruise.

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That’s all well and good, and the stages have some fine scenery to admire along the way. They also have floating boulders and tight passages to negotiate, with a single touch being instantly fatal. At first they’ll be easy enough to avoid, even with the momentum physics of your goose, but as stages get more complex and the dynamic camera angles get bolder, you’ll end up slamming into walls you didn’t realize we walls and floating rocks that zoom at you from off-screen. The flight physics started to grate on me too, especially the awkward midair turn your bird does if you want to go back to the left. It’s such a minor thing, but when the entire game is about sailing gracefully through the skies, turning like a locomotive at a roundhouse really breaks the illusion.

Your bird friends clipping through cliffs and continuing their flight animations while parked at a rest stop break that illusion too. You’ll need them to activate puzzles where you fly though rings to cause some piece of the scenery to move. In the level where they introduce them, solving each puzzle makes a rock fall and squish an evil black flower. In the next level, there are more black flowers but apparently no puzzles? And then in the next one, a puzzle opens a secret path, but if you don’t hold the flap button during the cutscene that shows you this, you fall out of the sky and die when the game hands you back control. And the puzzle resets, meaning you have to backtrack across half the level to start it again.

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I get the feeling the developers of Dune Sea knew what kind of experience they wanted to present, but had no idea how to make it into a game. The irony is that simple, peaceful games about flying around as a bird do pretty well in the indie space, while janky games with instant death walls and nonsense mechanics tend to get overlooked. I still don’t know what those black flowers are, or how doing Superman 64 ring challenges affects them, or why you’re even on your airborne quest. I have many more questions than answers about Dune Sea, and not nearly enough patience for confusing levels and poor designs to see them answered.

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