To call The Great Tree an anomaly would be an understatement. Combining New Age mysticism with arcade-style, mouse-thrashing mayhem, it’s a formula that, by all rights, shouldn’t work. However, created under the loving auspices of Reflexive Entertainment (Big Kahuna Reef, Ricochet Infinity) and featuring stunning visuals by the same artist as Wik: Fable of Souls, the game’s sure to leave you enchanted nonetheless.
As revealed in a series of periodic, lengthy cutscenes blessed with gifted writing – albeit awful voice-overs, seemingly phoned in by a female development team member – here you’ll take on the role of a collector. Or, more specifically, a winged sprite whose duty it is to save benevolent race of pixie-like forest dwellers the Wren from the evil Ixies and their plans to destroy the life-giving Great Tree. While the tale’s sure to prove a tad too fey and verbose for some, you can always skip the gorgeous, hand-drawn movie sequences and jump right to the action itself, sure to please all comers.
Basically, each stage – a single screen set atop a static, computer-generated image such as a castle wall, petrified goblin or eye-sporting branch – is a self-contained scenario. Your goal on all: Collect magical pollen, depicted as glowing motes of light, by floating over them (which causes each to be added to your ponytail) and then deposit the payload at a "transient star," or glowing portal, located at the top of the display.
Challenge is provided by mutant insects which randomly buzz onto the playfield and adopt different speeds/flight patterns, who cause you to lose chunks of health and drop any pollen being carried on collision. (If your health drops to zero, it’s game over, though you can always pick up right where the adventure left off.) And, in a nice touch, seemingly innocuous background characters or objects that suddenly spring to life, such as tongue-firing toads, face-bearing mushrooms who’ll try to inhale you or man-eating Venus flytraps. Moving at a fast clip, the surprisingly engaging action therefore revolves around frantically dodging opponents, quickly grabbing the random spores that float about, then dropping them off as fast as humanly possible. Fill a meter by collecting enough pollen, and it’s off to the next level you go.
Nonetheless, despite the seemingly straightforward concept, addictive twists are also afforded that add significant personality and seriously extend the title’s replay value. For starters, filling your ponytail allows you to attack enemies with "ancient fire," an expanding circular attack which kills them, awards you points and potentially generates power-ups. (Not to mention builds a nifty score multiplier.) Build a full inventory, and you’ll also enjoy collection bonuses when it’s dropped off, making stages pass much faster, creating a constant risk vs. reward dynamic that’s downright irresistible. (Do you chase that last spore in hopes of seeing victory sooner, knowing there’s a chance of getting hit and losing all progress made in the last few seconds?)
Options to collect liberating spheres carried by certain enemies then use them to free imprisoned critters known as Swee further complicate matters too. Why? For starters, rescuing them often gains you special weapons and abilities like foe-freezing blasts of ice, instant ponytail fill-ups or baddie-frying bolts of lightning. In addition, the more Swee you save, the sooner you’ll gain access to star points tradable for boosts in four performance-enhancing attribute categories: Agility, Health, Strength and Magic. Speaking of role playing game-style upgrades such as this, every few levels, you’re also granted a new pair of wings that bestow bonuses that add to these scores, defer damage or regenerate lost health.
Certainly, the adventure has its faults. The range of power-ups and opponents isn’t particularly impressive. Various core abilities, e.g. Ancient Fire, don’t prove especially useful in practice. Background scenery’s mostly lifeless, and isn’t swapped out frequently enough. The sound effects when you get hit ("ow," "shoot," etc.) detract from the title’s ambience. Opponents lack charisma… and prove strangely silent. What’s more, of its "100 wondrous levels," many are simple rehashes on past environments.
Regardless, between the outing’s beautiful soundtrack, eye-catching visuals and – most importantly – addictive gameplay formula, it’s easy to forgive and forget. One of the more inspired casual computerized jaunts in recent memory, make no bones about it: The Great Tree wholeheartedly deserves to take root on your desktop.