The Bottom Line: Featuring an endearing cast and splendid visuals, this island-spanning narrative adventure is one you shouldn’t miss.
The bildungsroman, better known as the coming-of-age story, has been around since the early days of the printing press. Yet despite being such a well-tread story form, it still has the power to delight and inspire when molded by a talented teller of tales. Luckily for us, solo developer Mattis Folkestad, AKA Machineboy, has proven himself to be more than up to the task: Embracelet is one of the finest story-driven adventures I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying in recent years.
The story begins in medias res, with the protagonist, Jesper, falling into the open sea. Just as soon as Jesper has told us he can’t swim, the game rewinds five weeks, to a scene between him and his grandfather. Jesper’s grandfather shares a story about Slepp, the village of his birth, on a sleepy little island off the coast of Norway. When he was a teenager, he discovered a bracelet with magical powers – powers which ultimately caused him to leave the island in shame. Though he rarely talked with his family about his time on Slepp, in his heart he always wondered what had become of the island and the friends he left behind. He entrusts the magic bracelet to Jesper and encourages him to visit the island.
And what a lovely island it is! Though Embracelet’s visuals are simple, they perfectly translate the essence of this secluded Norwegian locale to the screen. Green hills wrap around the island’s rocky central peak, and blue ocean and white clouds surround it on all sides. Having visited a few isolated islands myself, I can attest that Slepp feels like the real deal – a gorgeous destination that’s ripe for exploration.
Embracelet’s gameplay features a little bit of everything. There are puzzles to solve, platforms to maneuver around, and dialogue trees to navigate. The game frequently asks you to make decisions, not only in dialogue but also in how you choose to interact with the world around you, and I often found myself deeply considering what course of action would be best.
Early in the game, I had to decide if Jesper should be considerate of his mother’s wishes or if he should push forward with his own agenda. That these trivial family matters feel like real dilemmas with choices that have a real impact is a testament to Embracelet’s presentation and writing. Later, I found myself making even weightier decisions: At one point I used the bracelet’s powers to rescue a beached whale. Had I made the right choice? It seemed like it at the time, but morality isn’t always as black and white as it first appears.
Above all, what I appreciate most about Embracelet is the earnestness of its storytelling. The characters feel like fully composed people with their own dreams and fears. Even when the plot introduces supernatural elements, it never forgets that the characters are the ones driving this story. In this way it’s much like the best Studio Ghibli films, its magical elements adding flavor to a story that’s firmly grounded in authenticity. Magic serves the story rather than the other way around.
It’s rare that I stumble upon a game like this, in which the visuals, music, and story all work in service to each other. Machineboy has created a gem of a narrative adventure, and if you have any interest in this genre, you shouldn’t skip it.