Made by: Joon, Pol, Muuutsch, Char & Torfi
Platforms: Switch, Steam, itch.io, Apple Arcade, Humble
Release date: Feb 04, 2021
Emoji summary: 🐿🙅🏻♀️📸
Review by: GDLP
Spoilers: vague story spoilers in the final paragraph
Today, I tried to play the newly released NUTS game made by Joon, Pol, Muuutsch, Char & Torfi and published by Noodlecake. I played it on Switch. And now I’m sitting down to write this text to the makers or the publishers or whoever can fix the problems because it broke my little heart and I really wish it hadn’t.
Set in the fictional Melmoth Forest, we arrive to take part in an impact study. There are developers wanting to build a dam but the squirrel species here is endangered and so it’s our job to collect data on their behaviour in the hopes of blocking the dam proposal and therefore protecting the tiny lads. Honestly, I was psyched. Squirrel game, let’s go. Big fan. I call the one outside my window Giuseppe. He has a belly and I love him. And at first, I was enjoying the whole set-up: the player pops out to position cameras along trails and then we head back to our caravan, hit record, and watch the footage that comes in overnight. It has that niche gameplay vibe I love of an action we have to do that is ordered, precise and almost meditative in its repetition. And it’s that but it has the same promise something like a disposable camera brings. Simple fixed process: wind up, flash on, click, but you’re going to have to wait and see what you’ve got when the pictures finally develop. And when we sit down at night to view the footage, squirrels! Sweet. Plus, we’re getting on with the puzzle of positioning cameras in careful ways (that mean we can both see and follow the squirrels on their trails) in a forest drenched in colour. The art style is a world stripped down to shape, duo-chromatic tones, and minimal detail, like we’re viewing everything through hacked infrared vision. The palette switches with both the time and chapters, like a hipster Centipede. In one level, the day is a light, misty purple and the objects we need to use are hot pink; they become mint and soft burgundy while we’re sifting through the data at night. It feels as though the challenge of following the squirrels slightly amps up with the colour changes too, which is a nice way to bring the art into the difficulty. But that was it for me, everything else sort of fell apart or fell over itself, and again, I wish I could write a better review but it is what it is.
I didn’t finish playing NUTS. I don’t ever want to review a game I haven’t played myself from start to finish but this text is going to have to be the exception, and hear me out. There was a level towards the beginning where you have to trace two squirrels starting points, following their movements in reverse. I did it. Took me a while but I called it in - all good. The next chapter started, a new Day 1, and at that point I quit the game because I wanted to have my breakfast. The quit screen tells you that if you leave now, you’ll lose any progress in your current chapter but we were at the start of a new one so I thought it was fine. I came back after granola and a banana and when I loaded it back up, I was being asked to trace the two squirrels again… annoying but luckily I still remembered the two nest locations so I popped out, photographed them, and moved on. Later, there is a more involved level where you have to photograph a different squirrel at 10 second intervals because the data points will be useful. Sound. This took me way longer and it was very satisfying to complete. I pinned the pictures on my noticeboard in order because I was so pleased. But whilst I was running about doing this, I noticed the game starting to… break. The sound was crackling to the point I thought it was an effect, then my movement started to stiffen, eventually the game was totally silent, and on the loading screen that was supposed to take me to the new chapter, everything froze. It visually froze but I could hear the rough, slow-motion sound from the previous scene. Spooky. I had to admit defeat and restart the game, and when it came back on, I was tasked with photographing that squirrel at 10 second intervals again. Haven’t felt that specific game rage since I was a kid, accidentally knocking the batteries out of my gameboy because I didn’t have a cover over them. I wasn’t about to repeat the level or risk it happening another time or further on in the story, so I ended up watching the final act of the story play out on somebody’s YouTube walkthrough instead. I was gutted.
It’s the first time a game has broken before my eyes and I sympathise that it’s likely a Switch-specific problem that will be fixed in future updates. But there were other things going on that were grating on me before we even reached that point. First off, I ended up playing the game in handheld mode because the targets we have to hit on screen for record, pause, fast forward etc. are so small and close together, and we use them every night when sifting through data. I wish there had been some sort of magnetism that pulled the cursor in. So fiddly. And even fiddlier, my biggest qualm is around the same point. When you’re hovering over one of the VCR buttons, say it’s ‘pause,’ a window would pop up in the top right that would tell you which button you needed to press on the controller to activate pause. But it was so big on the Switch screen that it would cover part of the TV where you were supposed to be carefully watching for squirrel sightings. It essentially blocks you from what you want to do. And you could try to move the cursor away and back again, but it would land on a chair and prompt you to sit down, or another item you couldn’t interact with anyway. I think this is a Switch-specific problem, because the walkthrough I landed on was a Steam player and his image was spaced out better. The whole problem seems like a moot point anyway because do you really need to keep telling people what button to press when they’re already well into the game? The options menu has control reminders in it anyway. Plus, another Switch problem, but the on-screen icons for the D-pad and face buttons looks too similar when they are so scaled down that I often ended up stumbling over myself trying to lower the journal and freezing the screen instead (an intentional freeze, not like the meltdown I described before). Also, not sure why the journal notes were in reverse chronological order… all the above felt like design getting in the way of play.
And finally, on the story and the writing. I lamented the fact we couldn’t speak back to Nina on the phone. It was alienating to not have text options, and I think Nina’s lines came off a bit unnatural, so maybe us speaking back could have taken the pressure off her bitty monologues a little. It wasn’t even in the voice acting, that was great, it was the writing itself. She couldn’t help but sound like a person reading a script rather than the embodied thoughts and feelings of a person on the other end of the phone. Who says ‘scampering squirrels’ IRL? As we moved forward through the story, I felt like I was waiting for something that never arrived… it all simply tailed off. Like, the drama just happened, it never snuck in or burst through the door. Everything was to be expected; the bad guys continued to be bad and the scientists continued to struggle against them. I was half expecting Simon to be revealed as a plant and saboteur, but no, his letters were just boring and there was nothing to be read into them. With that being said, I liked the way NUTS ended. And still, I think some of that weirdness and vague spiritualism could have been set up in a more tangible way through art or design in the assets through the forests before the finale. Anyway, I am sad. I wish I could get half my money back for having played half the game but the Nintendo e-shop is like nope! I hope the developers pick up on some of these problems and fix things for Switch players so they can make it through to the end. Until then, I will continue leaving snacks outside the window for my wild pet and one true love Giuseppe, and I’ll let you know if I hear about any updates!