Author Topic: Surmount (Switch) Review  (Read 797 times)

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Offline lolmonade

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Surmount (Switch) Review
« on: May 17, 2024, 05:50:32 AM »

Three slopes and you’re out.

Publisher Popagenda has built a body of work with independent developers working on quirky experiences, catchy gameplay loops, clever humor & wordplay, and a storytelling style that is sometimes simple with darker undertones.  They’ve been behind some of my favorite gaming experiences in recent memory, including Grindstone, Bugsnax, and Nobody Saves the World.  Months back I took the opportunity to test out the demo for Surmount during a Steam Next Fest and it managed to capture my attention.  With that context, the main question is whether the Switch version is an ideal home for the game.  

Surmount is the story of an aspiring mountain climber, embarking on a journey of Mount Om.  A long bus ride brings a gaggle of people to New Tully, a small tourist stop on the way to the base of the mountain that’s filled with friendly townies who warn explorers of its shifting landscape, making it impossible to use cartography and plot out a map.  This makes Mt. Om–the three tiered, largest peak in the world–all the more daunting for potential hikers.

The act of climbing plays similarly to Heave Ho, an indie party game released in 2019, with a focus of grabbing, climbing, and flinging yourself through an obstacle course.  Point in a direction, hold down one trigger button to hang onto a spot with that hand, use the left stick to keep pointing in that direction, then use the other trigger to grab with the corresponding hand.  If grabbing onto a spot like a slab of wall, holding down a trigger and using a circle motion on the stick can build momentum that can propel you across farther distances.  A small radial stamina meter slowly depletes the further you go without either planting your feet back on the ground, foraging for berries scattered about, or fastening a hook to intermittently placed pieces of wall.  That circle also is a health meter–if you fall far enough, it’ll get cut to pieces, also lowering your total stamina to use. Fall enough times and you’ll collapse and be sent back to New Tully.

Conquering Mt. Om requires a mixture of plotting out the most climbable path, managing stamina, and mixing conservative path-making with big risk-taking maneuvers.  There are too many gaps in grabbable spaces; you can't take a hand-by-hand approach to every meter climbed.  Thankfully, Surmount provides ways to find and use assist tools like rocket pads and a rope with hook you can fling to create a safe point nearly anywhere and rocket pads, which aren't abundant so you’re forced to use them sparingly.  The more daring swings and last ditch jumps to reach a walkable space have a sincere sense of danger–there are intermittent camps with checkpoint markers, but one wrong move can send you tumbling all the way down to ground floor.  The farther up you go, the more terrain hazards you’ll encounter.  Bugs that cling and weigh you down, cracks on the mountainside that are nearly impossible to swing from, ice fragments that freeze the character and shake off like an avalanche, and unclimbable walls are just some of the deterrents to efficient wall scaling.  They’re a nuisance within reason and not a detriment to the experience.

If the big boy mountain is too daunting, New Tully has a bulletin board where denizens post special requests.  Some examples include helping put out a fire, investigating a shrieking sound, and climbing what one person claims is the “hardest mountain”. These bite sized missions can act as mini tutorials but are also fun little diversions from the bigger picture. Not only that, but you can find currency in these spaces more easily than Mt. Om that can be used in shops in town.  I especially enjoyed going to the store where you can buy gacha to unlock articles of clothing and change not only your outfit but your character’s appearance.  My bland character quickly turned into a bad cosplay of Gargamel, and who doesn’t want to see him fall down a mountain?  The town itself is entirely climbable, too; the developers smartly understood to make the area a space to play in as well, with toys to play with and other little surprises.  You’re encouraged to explore every nook and cranny.

The co-op mode is as easy as connecting another controller, and your partner will be dropped into the world at the click of a button.  Teams can participate in the bulletin boards or tackling Mt. Om straight on.  Being tethered by a rope, we slowly started unraveling its limitations.  If one of you goes off screen, a small window pops on screen to show that player’s position.  If that player moves TOO far, the screen abandons the other player and shifts view to the overzealous one.  Players are also at the mercy of each other, as if one tumbled down the mountain the other will be pulled down too.  The mix of confused camera focus and being tethered to each other is a painful difficulty increase that is bound to frustrate, especially if there’s a gap in skill between players.

Unfortunately, one obstacle Surmount couldn’t hurdle is its performance on Switch.  In my time playing, I encountered three separate game breaking bugs.  One time at the first section of Mt. Om, my bargain bin Gargamel started rolling into a corner and teleported to the hidden bottom part of the landscape unseen, with a horrible buzzing and popping sound that I couldn’t escape without restarting the entire game.  The second time I was exploring an icy underwater space and as I grabbed onto the cold ledge to get out and figure out my next steps, I was caught in an endless loop of frame skipping.  The third time during co-op we tumbled after some egregious camera jumping and I got stuck in a loop while my son sat and patiently waited for the game to snap out of it.  With how long in the tooth Switch is, I do expect some compromises on visual fidelity and frame rate–it comes with the territory of a console over seven years old–but these examples stopped me dead in my tracks.  Surmount’s silly veneer aside, this game has too much opportunity to lose meaningful progress without the game punishing me on a technical level.  It’s a bridge too far, and while the developer has promised patches to address these issues, none so far have served as a deterrent to me picking it back up.

The story of Surmount on Switch is a sad one, a pleasant, cute, challenging, uncomplicated, and fun bite-sized adventure that gets completely cratered by insurmountable show-stopping bugs that completely throttled my momentum and made me ask several times “what am I wasting my time for?”  I have to balance giving the developer a chance to produce a minimally disruptive experience and a guidepost of whether to spend hard earned money on a game.  Regretfully I have to recommend you find your sense of adventure elsewhere, whether giving the PC version a flyer or turning to a much more serious title like Jusant.