Page Chronica is the kind of game that you’ll find yourself rooting for. Like a book with a bad cover, you’ll wade through the title’s grungy exterior in the hope of uncovering something magical inside. But sadly, for all of the release’s impressive ideas, it fails to deliver on its compelling literary hook – and it results in an experience that you’ll return to shelf unfinished, reluctant to revisit again.
The premise isn’t the problem. You play as Topez, an eccentrically dressed librarian in a magical resource of dreams. Weary of her work sorting through manuscripts, the kooky heroine decides to while away a particularly drab afternoon with a top-secret tome. Predictably, her actions have dire consequences for the museum of memories, as she inadvertently sets free a shadowy soul known as The Big Bad, who embarks upon an evil endeavour to sour the stories of the once serene store room.
It’s a twee plot, but one that’s lovingly relayed. Eye-catching artwork and a delightful soundtrack add to the dainty dialogue and careful attention to detail – but it’s all downhill from there. Once you get around to actually playing the puzzle-platformer, the game fails to make such a charming impression, and you’ll be left rueing the reality of another squandered idea.
The title’s big conceit – outside of its whimsical fantasy world – is the way in which it allows you to compose words in order to reap gameplay rewards. Unfortunately, while the mechanic holds promise, it’s implemented in a frustratingly poor way. As opposed to helping you to solve puzzles, words merely augment your character with basic skills, such as the ability to attack and double-jump. As you might imagine, fumbling through floating letters in order to navigate a simple set of steps isn’t all that enjoyable.
The issue is emphasised in battle, though. The game favours fancy language over everyday terms, rewarding you with more powerful attacks in exchange for longer words. But looking for lengthy spellings in the midst of a brutal boss fight will prove a challenge for even the most competent of wordsmiths, and the issue is not helped by the fact that the world keeps moving while you’re attempting to compose prose. Buckle under the pressure, and you’ll be furnished with ineffective projectiles, making the combat a real chore. You can use smaller terms to gradually reveal a special word, but the overall pace of the action remains laboriously slow whichever strategy you employ.
Furthermore, because letters are displayed randomly, the mechanic rarely relies on skill. There’ll be occasions where you’ll be able to spell out incredibly effective terms such as "zebra", and others where the best you’ll be able to do is "or". This leads to a lot of unnecessary and inconsequential deaths, as you attempt to make do with your ineffective abilities while you wait for the next big word.
Unfortunately, the platforming isn’t much better. The game is augmented with an extremely stiff jump mechanic that’s fixed to a pre-defined height. It doesn’t matter how hard you press the hop button, you’ll always find yourself reaching the same point. And the level design takes advantage of that, placing enemies in unavoidable positions unless you get your timing just right. Get hit and you’ll find yourself careering backwards, often down holes that prompt an instant death.
The difficulty is maddening, and your patience will almost certainly be exhausted after a couple of hours. The most frustrating thing is that you often find yourself stuck on platforming sections that precede the end of a level or a checkpoint marker, meaning that you’re forced to replay specific areas over and over again until you master the pattern and eventually hit the much needed progress points.
To add to its woes, the title doesn’t look particularly great either. While the fairy tale format is well represented, the visuals have a murkiness to them that detracts from the saturated style clearly intended. Furthermore, it’s not always clear which platforms you can interact with, meaning that you’ll often have to take leaps of faith, only to end up back at the last checkpoint when you plunge to your death. There are certainly some nice ideas behind the artwork – a Jack and the Beanstalk-inspired world being a particular highlight – but it’s not enough to take your attention away from the grimy execution and occasionally haphazard frame rate.
Still, at least the audio is more memorable, as the game is packed with some scorching sounds. Twinkly tunes and swanky synth songs really add to the ethereal tone of the adventure, and will definitely have you humming along. The chirpy nature of the tracks can get a little tiresome at times, but on the whole there’s a lot to like about the sound design.
Assuming you're able to ignore the game’s devastating flaws, there's plenty to hold your attention too. Each stage houses multiple collectibles, including feathers which allow you to unlock bonus levels. There’s also a local multiplayer mode, providing basic two-player action for you and a friend.
Page Chronica is built upon a strong premise, but it’s undone by poor execution and substandard level design. It’s a title that practically begs to be liked, but no matter how genuine the developer’s ambitions, it’s impossible to ignore the game's flaws. This sloppy adventure is best left locked in the book cabinet along with all of the other forgotten fairy tales.