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Review: Lost Words: Beyond the Page

30 Mar 2021

The sheer amount of text in my favorite games was always the excuse that I gave to my parents that video games were actually good for me. “Look at all the reading I’m doing! It’s educational!”

There really is a lot of text in games, when you think about it. Even in games with little-to-no story, there’s still some reading involved, even as little as reading the instructions or tutorials. Most of the time, though, the text is static. Words in a box, in a speech bubble, or maybe just typed across the screen. One reads it, but doesn’t really interact with it.

…but these are video games! We’re not here to read! We’re here to play! To interact!

Well, Sketchbook Games and Modus Games decided something had to be done with that. They had a story to tell, and they didn’t want to tell it with standard, boring, non-interactive text. Instead, the text is the game.

Developed by Sketchbook Games and published by Modus Games, Lost Words: Beyond the Page was initially launched for Google Stadia in early 2020. The game is now making its way to PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Switch on April 6th, 2021. The PS4 version was played for this review, using a PlayStation 5 though backwards compatibility.

Dear Journal…

Lost Words is the story of Isabelle Barbara Cook (or Izzy for short), a young girl recently gifted a journal by her grandmother. Izzy immediately sets to work using it, writing about her life and goings on, as well as her desire to write a story.

She eventually decides to pen a fantasy tale. A tale revolving another young girl’s quest to become the “Guardian” of her village while learning how to use “word magic,” or the power of words to affect the world around her.

Shortly after, though, Izzy finds herself in a family crisis. Initially using her journal to express her thoughts concerning what is happening, her feelings begins to slip into the story she’s writing as well…

Penned by long-time games writer Rhianna Pratchett (Tomb Raider 2013, Mirror’s Edge, and Rise of the Tomb Raider amongst others), the tale of Izzy and her story is one draped in melancholy. It approaches the thoughts and mental state of a young person going through a potential tragedy in two ways: literally, through Izzy’s journal entries, and symbolically, through the story she’s writing.

Much of the story’s power comes from the interaction with the story text itself. During Izzy’s journal entries, the core gameplay involves interacting with the text as platforms as they move around the pages. Many of these interactions add symbolically to the plot, often becoming more erratic depending on Izzy’s mental state at the time.

In the beginning, I was drawn much more to the story of Izzy’s life than the fantasy tale she was writing. Her life is Lost Words‘ core plot, and I found the switches to the fantasy story frustrating. Izzy uses her story as an escape initially, so these portions are completely cut off from the core plot. I’d find myself rushing them so I could return to Izzy’s journal.

However, I began to appreciate the fantasy tale much more in the latter half of the game, where Izzy’s thoughts and feelings begin to bleed more into it. A story is rarely completely disconnected from its author; the thoughts of the author typically have a significant impact on the story they are telling. Lost Words communicates this perfectly in the back half of its relatively-short four-hour runtime.

Nearing the end of the game, the story legitimately managed to draw a few tears from me. I can’t say it’s a particularly unique tale overall, but the way Lost Words approaches its storytelling from both realistic and fantastical perspectives certainly created a powerful experience.

Forging New Worlds

At its core, Lost Words is a puzzle-platformer split into two distinct styles. The first is Izzy’s journal segment, seeing the player take control of a small character running along the lines that Izzy writes. The second is during Izzy’s fantasy story, which plays much more like a typical platformer.

The journal segments are easily the most unique. Navigating the character across Izzy’s lines to certain words to activate the next line, or perhaps a little puzzle to solve. A small cursor is also always on screen, controlled by the right thumbstick, that can be used to interact with the text on occasion. Sometimes, the player is tasked with putting words in order, or rebuilding a picture. Others, a word is used to perform some kind of action (such as using the word “remember” to reveal the contents of blank photos).

It’s very simplistic platforming, but the charm comes from how the text interacts with the story being told. As mentioned earlier, the movement and appearance of the text often reflects Izzy’s mental state, creating some legitimately surprising moments here and there.

During the fantasy story, players take control of the story’s main character (whose name is picked by the player early in the game). The basics of a platformer are here: climbing vines, jumping over pits, crawling through small spaces, et cetera.

The twist is in “word magic.” Throughout the game, the story character collects magic words, which can be used in the environment with the same cursor from the journal segments. For example, the word “break” can be used to destroy certain objects, or “silence” to quiet the character’s footsteps. Words are collected throughout the game, some carrying over through multiple levels, while others are erased after a few uses.

Generally, the platforming and puzzles therein can be classified as “easy,” perhaps even “mindless” at points. The majority of the time, objects that word magic can be used on glow bright blue, impossible to miss. There are a few more creative uses here and there, but I never came across a moment where I had to truly stop and think for a moment.

There is a bit of crossover between the journal and fantasy segments as well. Izzy is actively writing the fantasy story as its being played, and the game occasionally stops to offer a prompt on what direction the story should go.

How should the story character feel at a certain moment? What is her most cherished memory? Hell, what is her name? All of these are decided on the fly, making small changes to the story overall. Nothing world-changing, but it’s a nice bit of customization for each player playing through.

One real critique I’d throw at the gameplay here is in the use of the cursor. Manipulating words and objects requires navigating the cursor, clicking on said word or object with the right trigger, and then moving it around the environment. Doing so occasionally felt slippery and unwieldy. Segments where words have to be placed in specific areas often felt too strict, with the game not accepting my placement unless I placed a word exactly in the area it needed to be.

The usage of word magic felt like it required too many steps as well. Press the left trigger to open your book of words, select a word with the cursor, close the book with a trigger again, bring the word over to where you need it, then either drop the word somewhere in the environment or open the book again and put it back. I would have preferred something more efficient, like assigning the words to the D-pad, which goes completely unused by this 2D platformer.

Ink to Paper

The visual presentation here is once again a tale of two sides. In journal segments, the aesthetics are basic. Words on a page, with occasional illustrations. It’s not the most attractive visual style, but it completely makes sense in context. I can say, though, that the watercolor style of the intermittent illustrations is something I quite enjoyed.

The fantasy story has much more visual flair. The story character traverses a number of distinct environments. None are particularly unique (a treetop village, the inside of a volcano, an icy tundra, amongst others), but each has just enough detail to exude a bit of charm.

I did notice some occasional glitches during animation cycles. The character in the journal segments got locked in her “falling” animation every once in a while. The story character in the fantasy segments got stuck facing the wrong direction, moonwalking her way across part of a level. Also, the omnipresent cursor just doesn’t move smoothly as a level scrolls, instead opting to stutter its way across the screen.

The music and voice acting, though, are completely what sells this game. Lost Words is fully voice acted and mostly carried by a singular character: Izzy. The actress’ emotional range is simply stunning, especially in the early game swapping from the happy-go-lucky fantasy segments to the heavier goings-on in Izzy’s home life.

But it’s the soundtrack that really drives home the melancholic feel of much of the story, notably during the journal segments. Beautiful but somewhat empty, driven mostly by piano and a few strings, the music absolutely carries the emotion of the game.

A Focused Journey

Lost Words: Beyond the Page is the epitome of a story carrying the gameplay. At its core, this is a relatively simple and easy puzzle platformer. It’s never dull enough to become boring, but there is little-to-no challenge to be had here, even if you go out of your way to find collectables in each stage.

It’s everything about the story and the presentation of it that made this game so worthwhile to play. I could just feel the weight of the emotions presented here, carried through its intriguing writing style, excellent voice acting, and melancholic soundtrack.

This is a game that’s been completely wasted being stuck on Google Stadia for the past year. I’m just glad to see this experience finally coming available on more mainstream hardware.

If you’re looking for an emotional ride that will likely elicit a tear or two, Lost Words is something that should be on your list. Hiding under the basic gameplay is a story worth experiencing.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by Modus Games for PS4. Game reviewed on PS5 via backward compatibility. Screenshots taken by reviewer.