Reviewed on PC (itch.io)
The Bottom Line: Understated yet majestic, this delightful adventure game rewards resourceful players with layers upon layers of secrets.
It’s 2022. Smartphones, Twitter, and cat videos have devolved our brains, turning us into goldfish. Meanwhile, games like Elden Ring and Final Fantasy XVIII Nomura’s Fever Dream ReDeluxe demand hundreds of hours of our time. Given these unprecedented circumstances, I could hardly blame you if you stopped reading right now and returned to watching YouTube felines while battling demons. So I’ll get straight to the point.
Polymute is brilliant.
It’s not the sort of game that will wow you immediately. The premise and screenshots piqued my interest but didn’t really tell me what I was stepping into. Upon playing, however, I discovered a game rich with subtle world-building. It felt like I’d attached myself to a drip feed of tantalizing little secrets, perfectly calibrated to keep my attention-deficient brain fully engaged. The more I played, the more I fell in love with the world of Polymute, and as I neared the finish line I found myself doggedly scouring itch.io comments to solve the game’s mysteries and reach the true ending.
In Polymute you assume the role of a purple-clad wizard who can transform into any form he/she has seen. You wander the world and explore the crumbling ruins of the Crystal Spire, using your magical abilities to overcome obstacles. In terms of actual gameplay, Polymute most closely resembles classic point-and-click adventures, with puzzles that range from mundane to mind-boggling. Early puzzles have obvious solutions – transforming into a worm to crawl through a hole, or into a broom to sweep up piles of dust – but as you delve deeper into the ruins you’ll find the answers less forthcoming.
A Peculiar Ratio
From the very outset, Polymute sets itself apart by adopting an unusual aspect ratio, close to 1:1 but slightly taller than it is wide. (I believe it’s 180 by 194 pixels. Don’t worry if that sounds tiny – you can blow it up to fit your display.) Although it has no direct bearing on the gameplay, the choice of aspect ratio does seem to reinforce the game’s exceptional atmosphere. It’s as though playing in an oddly proportioned box fosters a deeper connection with the game’s universe.
Polymute’s unique art style, with its limited color palette, also charms and delights. Characters and objects are drawn with only one or two colors each, and the game’s primary areas all have distinctive color schemes that make them easy to differentiate from one another.
Between the weird aspect ratio and colorful presentation, Polymute’s visual style has few points of comparison with other games. Strange as it may sound, to my eye it looks like a lo-fi version of Super Mario RPG that’s been stripped of most color and detail. Moreover, unlike most sprite-based games that limit movement to four or eight directions, Polymute’s characters each have animations for sixteen directions of movement. This, I feel, lends the game a vaguely isometric vibe despite the fact that it’s played from a strictly top-down perspective.
Backing up the visuals is an understated yet pleasing soundtrack. You’ll be treated to whimsical tunes while exploring gardens and villages, and mysterious ones while braving towers and dungeons. Although most of the soundtrack is quite mellow, the final confrontation is accompanied by a rousing piece that caps the game nicely.
Who Slayed the Spire?
Though light on plot, Polymute abounds with lore. When you arrive at the Crystal Spire, it already lies in ruins. You’re left to talk with the spire’s denizens and glean what you can about past events. While this may sound vaguely post-apocalyptic, the world of Polymute is the opposite of empty. This is a realm densely populated with interested characters, still teeming with life. When I wasn’t trying to solve the mysteries of the spire, I immensely enjoyed chatting with the frogs, chess pieces, noses (which I swear look like ducks), and other residents.
The lore also ties in to the game’s riddles and secrets. Puzzles are mostly fair, and the game generally provides enough guidance to stave off the feeling that you’re wandering aimlessly in search of clues. Furthermore, while the large, interconnected environment seemed overwhelming at first, with time I recognized the logic behind the spire’s layout and uncovered plenty of shortcuts. By the end of the game, I could quickly move between any two locations with ease.
Polymute is not a long game; speedrunners can finish it in under half an hour. On your first playthrough, if you’re adept at solving puzzles and refrain from completionist tendencies, you can probably reach the credits in two or three hours. Uncovering all Polymute has to offer, however, can take twice that amount of time or even longer. And let me warn you, the riddle you need to solve to uncover the best ending is a real brain-bender. Without spoiling too much, I will just say that it breaks the 4th wall in a novel way. I never would’ve figured it out if not for the trail of hints left by commenters on the game’s itch.io page.
Despite my gushing praise, Polymute isn’t without niggles. For instance, the menu of polymorph options is entirely visual, which sometimes makes it difficult to tell certain creatures and objects apart. Tool tips with names would’ve ameliorated this. Also, the final confrontation requires a level of speed and precision that’s out of line with the rest of the game. While I found it invigorating, some players may find it overly punishing.
Look, I get it. This is an obscure indie game. You won’t find it on any “Best of 2020” lists. But I’m dead serious when I say it’s in my short list of the best games of that year. Polymute may not be for everyone, but it sparked a sense of wonder and curiosity in me like few game have before or since.