Enter a vibrant fantasy world and exit Existensis inspired.
Developer: Ozzie Sneddon
Publisher: Ozzie Sneddon
Release date: 19 July, 2021
Some games are about concepts rather than skills, and Existensis falls into this category. It’s an existential journey exploring causality, empathy, and other deep but abstract ideas. Immersed in the game’s beautiful fantasy universe, you may be sad when the story ends, left wanting more, but in the best of ways, in the way that you know that the experience was meaningful, impactful, and changed you. Although I can in no way do Existensis justice, hopefully my prose brings attention to this gem of a game.
Our journey begins on a train with Mayor, an artist and an architect with peacock fashion and a long braid, leaving his hometown of Varish on a quest for inspiration. He’s creatively blocked and seeking the meaning of life to inform his magnum opus, a tower. Mayor travels through 15 richly imagined locales, each with unique local economies devoted to different creative disciplines, spanning from tattoos to engineering and from meteorology to agriculture. This wonderfully detailed universe is populated by a diverse plethora of original fantasy creatures and captivating characters, many of whom embody qualities such as kindness, truth, wrath, and grief. From these characters, Mayor asks the meaning of life and death and is inspired to build a Tower of Life.
Gameplay and Mechanics
At its foundation, Existensis is a 2D side-scrolling platformer, with the gameplay and mechanics that implies. In each level, the player (as Mayor) needs to collect enough snippets about one of two possible next destinations to fill in that location’s sigil in Mayor’s journal. This will pique Mayor’s interest enough to travel to that location. The narrative branches in this way until you reach the terminal destination of each branch.
In each area, the player must direct Mayor through the platforms to discover inspiration for a Tower of Life and find The Poet to receive a codex page for Mayor’s journal. While maybe not challenging enough to entice some players, those who prize narrative and exploratory aspects of games will probably feel Existensis provides a satisfying amount of problem-solving in determining the best route and figuring out the navigational peculiarities of each place.
After finding inspiration for my first Tower of Life, I was confused when it appeared that all of my progress with the sigils up to that point had been lost. I eventually figured out that this was what was supposed to happen, but it would have been nice to have that either be made clear beforehand or explained afterward to avoid worrying that something was wrong with the game. It is a bit of a bummer having to backtrack and replay at least a bit after each Tower of Life is inspired, and if you accidentally choose the wrong level to reload on the selection screen, you’re out of luck.
Art Style and Graphics
Existensis is unequivocally the most beautiful game I’ve played in a long time. Each location is lushly animated, richly colored, and unique, yet together they form an artistically and stylistically cohesive whole. This becomes even more impressive when you consider it was all hand drawn and hand animated by one person on paper. As a personal example, Ozzie Sneddon’s rendition of red rock geology at Illithican is visually stunning and brought pure joy to my geologist heart. I took over 500 screenshots while playing the game, which is over 5 times more than I usually take.
Mayor’s journal, with its sketchbook qualities and sometimes-hard-to-read-just-like-real-life handwriting font, is an art form unto itself. I only wish that The Poet’s codex pages actually had text that was meant to be read by the player as part of the game’s worldbuilding and lore, because some of the entry titles sound so intriguing.
Sound and Music
The art is frequently lauded in reference to this game, but the soundtrack is also brilliantly done. Whether a harmonious pleasure to the ear or purposefully dissonant, the music is as perfectly themed and distinctive to each place as the art. It borrows from the relevant musical genres that will best evoke the ambience, be that a sea shanty or rock-and-roll guitar. I was fascinated to note in the credits that Ozzie Sneddon did the music in addition to all of the hand-drawn art and animations, showing that he’s an exemplary artist musically as much as with paper.
Depending on player skill with platformers, Existensis can be completed in as short a time as 2.5 hours to a more leisurely paced 4.5 hours. Even for players on the more speedy end of the spectrum, Existensis is well-worth buying at full price ($14.99 at the time of review) for the beautiful experience provided by art, music, and other components smoothly linked together. Gamers looking for a philosophical exploration to engage the brain and/or who enjoy high fantasy are in for a treat.