Like so many things in 2020, Ary and the Secret of Seasons is a beautiful game that has some rough edges. And I love it to pieces. This game, developed by Belgian indie studio Exiin, captures the aesthetics, gameplay, and world design of classic janky PS2 action adventure platformers. It also captures their buggy nature, awkwardness, nonsensical worldbuilding, and charming characters. Warts and all, this is a wonderful little indie game.
Ary and the Secret of Seasons blends the map design, world building, character and story traits, and platforming elements of games like Jak and Daxter, Sly Cooper, and even Ty the Tasmanian Tiger (classic) with the combat and exploration of Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker. Beginning in a Chinese-inspired village before moving through European and Mediterranean settings quicker than It’s A Small World, the game should capture the hearts of any nostalgic fan of action-adventure platformers, despite being an undeniably janky mess.
Not only does the initial setting and character design of Ary and the Secret of Seasons pay homage to classical Chinese design; the story does, as well. This game begins very familiarly, with its protagonist – a young girl – stepping into the shoes of her father, who is sick and grieving, and her older brother, who is missing in action. Ary cuts her hair, dresses in her brother’s clothes, takes up his wooden sword, and ventures out into the world. So, yes, it’s Mulan. At least, to begin.
One of the most pleasant aspects of Ary and the Secret of Seasons, however, is the fact that it takes some surprisingly bold risks with its story. While much of it still comes off as sweetly 90s Disney nostalgia, it offers enough surprising twists and turns to keep the narrative engaging throughout.
Aryelle (Ary for short) is also a very likable and plucky young girl. She betrays an awful lot of confidence, positivity, and gumption early on and that doesn’t ever let up. She carries the story by being an enjoyable companion for the player, bolstered by excellent voice acting and adorable character design. The game makes great but sparing use of cutscenes to add even more character to Ary and the game’s other heroes and villains.
As for why Ary sets off on an adventure at all, the game begins with her reading a folktale to her toys while playing in her room. The folktale tells the story of a selfish villain who stole the seasons from the land. Soon enough, that folktale starts to bleed into reality as the perpetual winter that her home of Yule enjoys is suddenly switched for a colourful spring season. The same has happened to each of the world’s lands, and it’s up to Ary to stop it.
We also come to learn that Ary’s brother is missing, presumed dead. When Ary finds her brother’s sword, being wielded by a hyena (the henchmen of this game), she begins to hope that her brother remains alive somewhere. This gives Ary double-motivation for setting out on her journey.
Ary and the Secret of Seasons is an ambitious little indie game. It tries to juggle a lot of different inspiration, and it mostly succeeds. The game is linear, but you move through several decently-sized open environments: rolling hills, densely-populated towns, detailed dungeons. It has the feel of Ocarina of Time or Twilight Princess in that regard. And the same goes for the combat, which is all about swordplay. Enemies – mostly hyenas – come at you in packs, and you use lock-on, jump, dodge, attack, and parry buttons to dispatch them.
The swordplay in this game is vintage Zelda. You’ll manually lock onto an enemy, dance around them, dodge their swings, and vanquish them with a few well-placed hits. Where the game actually improves on this formula is with its parry system. Hitting X before an enemy attack lands allows you to parry and then hit back with a small AOE spin.
The parry is both easy and satisfying to pull off, and a cool feature of the parry is that the battle music cuts out for a single second when you parry. Often, a game’s parry will come with a visual slow-mo, camera or controller shake, something to show the impact of the parry. Here, the music gets involved as well, and it feels great.
The only issue with the combat is that it doesn’t reward you with anything. While the game does have a kind of leveling system where you can pay for upgrades to health, defense, attack, and agility, you don’t get any money from battles. Instead, you get them from side-quests and treasure chests. This means the fights themselves have to provide enough fun and engagement to be worth pursuing. In my opinion, they are, despite the framerate issues (which we’ll get to).
When you’re not in combat, the game is all about exploration. Friendly areas like farms and villages will offer you a few NPCs to help out with side quests. These NPCs aren’t voiced but their text gives them plenty of personality, and the quests are fun diversions that rarely take up much time. The only issue I ran into was often being promised a monetary reward and not seeing any sign of it once the quest is over. This game is full of bugs and jank like this and, yet, it never affected my enjoyment one bit. Call me a glutton for punishment, but I love this game.
There are a lot of platforming and puzzle elements, as well, which heavily invoke the PS2 age of 3D action-platformers. This genre is seeing a comeback right now and, honey, I am here for it. While A Hat in Time represents the polished Marios and Spyros of yore, Ary and the Secret of Seasons fills the gap left by low-budget, awkward jank like Ty the Tasmanian Tiger and Spongebob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom.
The platforming is often imprecise and the puzzles simple yet engaging. Ary has the ability to alter the weather in a small space around her, and this is used to create platforms or melt ice. All puzzles in the game rely on these elemental powers, and they are super satisfying, if fairly simple. They also frequently lead to a nasty slowdown in the game’s framerate. Speaking of…
For a budget indie 3D platformer, Ary and the Secret of Seasons looks lovely. Its character design is campy and memorable; cutscenes pop with colour and cartoonish animation, and the characters’ voices and actions reflect that cartoonish style. The environments are sweet, bright, and fluid – they feel lived in and enjoyed by their residents. They are also varied in style and layout, with a lot of verticality being implemented to avoid any kind of flatness or blandness in the level design.
I can’t say whether or not this is eXiin simply going all-in on the PS2-era influence, but Ary and the Secret of Seasons even enjoys a dreadful draw distance, with buildings and environments in the ‘distance’ disappearing in a pink fog on a clear day. Weather effects like snow are also used to obscure this draw distance issue, in the same way that fog was used in Silent Hill back in the day.
Where the game’s jank becomes a real issue is with its framerate. In the opening half hour, the framerate of this game is suspiciously harsh. Once you get through the initial setup and Ary cuts her hair, the framerate improves. I can’t think of another game that struggled with framerate during a specific story moment, and then that framerate cleared up later despite still being in the same area. Maybe the animation of her swaying longer hair was just too much for the engine to handle.
From here, framerate issues become less of a glaring issue. They do pop up in combat, however, most frustratingly when executing an otherwise satisfying parry. And despite the fact that the game’s story, themes, visuals, and puzzle mechanics all revolve around weather and seasons, it’s when manipulating the weather to solve a puzzle that framerate takes its biggest hit. This is frustrating, but not exactly a deal-breaker.
The music of Ary and the Secret of Seasons was the very first thing I fell in love with. As the title screen lit up, a gorgeous theme burst into life and whisked me away on its melody. The different area themes throughout this game are as gorgeous as they are varied. It’s a positive soundtrack, full of tracks that evoke adventure, intrigue, hope, excitement, and action. There are some genuine earworms here, as well, packing as much of a punch as the most dangerously addictive Disney musical numbers.
The game’s voice acting is also delightfully camp and perfectly fitting for the bright, colourful, and sweet visuals. Ranging from a flamboyant prince with an insufferably posh accent to a giant guardian wearing a full bearskin who only ever grunts but Ary can still understand him, the characters of this game bring its story to life. They’re each a joy to watch and listen to, with no weak link in the voice acting to be found.
At around ten hours in length, Ary and the Secret of Seasons is a perfectly-sized action-adventure platformer. The game juggles story, combat, exploration, side-quests, and puzzles perfectly to form a well-paced adventure that doesn’t slow down or become tiresome. That adventure is peppered with lovable and colourful characters, engaging but simple missions and distractions, and fun combat encounters that offer just enough challenge despite no tangible rewards.
The only downside to this game is its jankiness. Platforming is imprecise; the framerate is an unreliable mess; side-quests sometimes lead nowhere or offer no reward; and the environment reveals some clipping and invisible walls when poked and prodded enough. And you will poke and prod – this is an adventure game, after all.
This is a game full of bugs and jank. It is clunky, awkward, and sometimes broken. And yet, all of that feels in-keeping with the tone that the developers are trying to capture. Ary and the Secret of Seasons is so wonderfully evocative of those B-list action platformers of old; the ones that never reached the heights of Crash and Spyro but so many fans loved them anyway, and having a little jank here and there only makes this game feel more authentic and true to its heritage.
Straight up and down, I love this game. I love Ary and her go-getter attitude. I love the cast of campy, strange, beautifully-designed characters. I love the Disney-inspired soundtrack. I love the pointless but engaging and dynamic Zelda-inspired combat. I love the awkward platforming and simple puzzle mechanics. I love the environmental designs inspired by Georgian England and ancient China. I love this game, warts and all. And, make no mistake, these warts are big, but I love them.
Beautifully designed characters
Feels like a loveletter to B-list action platformers of old
Full of bugs and jank
Feels clunky and awkward at times
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Will Heath is a freelance writer and digital nomad from the UK who mostly splits his time between London and Tokyo. He runs the website Books & Bao – a site dedicated to international literature and world travel – and writes about video games for Nintendo Link and Tokyo Weekender.