Indie Game of the Week 207: Glittermitten Grove

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On the one hand, I'm torn about spoiling anything about what was eventually revealed to be the next chapter in the Frog Fractions saga for fear of denying its eventual players what they'll come there to enjoy, whether they yet realise it or not: the ubiquitous element of surprise. Per contra, this game has been out for five years and I think there's probably been enough "beating around the bush" reviews in the meantime that at this juncture everyone either has some distinct idea about what's going on or has long since played it themselves. I'll be the first to admit that sometimes Indie Game of the Week doesn't so much provide a service introducing lesser-known Indies to (a very small segment of) the Giant Bomb community than it is an excuse for me to wax lyrical about whatever it is I've been playing that week, known quantities very much included. Therefore I'm just going to talk earnestly about what Frog Fractions 2 entails and put up a spoiler disclaimer now.

Glittermitten Grove deliberately keeps up its "front" for quite a while, to deter would-be looky-loos who weren't sufficiently invested in amphibious math to dig far enough into it. Literally, in this case, as the door to the rest of the game could only be found deep beneath the fairy glade I was nurturing. Glittermitten Grove, which is simply the first of many different genre experiments both familiar and novel that the game will throw at you, is a real-time town-building simulator where you direct fairies to construct their arboreal kingdom atop nearby flora, collecting resources and building structures to increase how much of those resources can be held at any one time. Said structures include houses where fairies can sleep, pantries for excess food storage (vital to prepare for winter), prisms to collect "sparkles" needed for magic spells, and various silos for wood, crystals, and so on. There's certainly enough game here to fool anyone who encountered Glittermitten Grove on Steam by accident, which might account for why it took the internet a while to find out about it. However, once the illusion was broken for the internet at large, the developers leaked a password ("butts," keeping it classy) to skip right past the moderate amount of fairy town investment it takes to find one of these secret entrances to the core game.

Glittermitten Grove is part town-builder, part arboreal management sim. It's integral to trim branches and leaves to ensure each tree gets enough sunshine. Every part of it, including the
Glittermitten Grove is part town-builder, part arboreal management sim. It's integral to trim branches and leaves to ensure each tree gets enough sunshine. Every part of it, including the "ready for mobile" HUD, is a pitch-perfect disguise.

Said core then presents itself in the form of "TXT World," an ASCII-based hub similar to Rogue and NetHack but with a (mostly) fixed geography. This core involves exploring TXT World, collecting items and keys needed to make further progress across its many branches, and occasionally bumping into "mindstones". The mindstones are where Frog Fractions 2 picks up, as each tosses you into an entirely different game: most of these are short experiments or parodies that eventually boot you back to TXT World once the player completes a simple goal or otherwise gets enough of the gist. The ultimate goal is to collect two of each symbol, many of which are far better hidden than others and most at least requiring you complete some puzzle or take the right item to the right area of the hub. The sheer inventiveness of this core mode alone is remarkable to behold, and it's next to impossible to predict where a mindstone will take you next. However, the game is designed in such an accessible way that most mini-games don't need to be successfully completed to receive the award - it's more the point that you saw the joke, not that you spend far too long past the point of sale trying to master it - and there's plenty of tips and advice from the Glittermitten Grove tutorial fairy (the only "survivor" of that mode) for the truly lost. That said, the advice only really applies to the mini-games and any new equipment you find: locating all the symbols is purely on the player to discover on their own. (I said I wasn't going to bother avoiding spoilers, but those mini-games are so strange and interesting I either want to leave them as surprises or go into more detail in a separate blog some day. My favorite conceptually was the real-time strategy chess, and the funniest was the Dark Souls LCD game or the Dante Alighieri "Where in the Circles of Hell is the Kidnapper Korn Cellist?" detective game.)

I'm not going to blame the game for not having a Mass Effect 2 save to import though. That foolishness is on me.
I'm not going to blame the game for not having a Mass Effect 2 save to import though. That foolishness is on me.

Unfortunately, a game as ambitious and strange as this also has its share of issues and bugs, even after half a decade since its initial release. I've found two major problems, both of which have made the game impossible to complete (after doing a little post-confusion FAQ-checking to be sure). The first is sorta my fault but in another, more accurate way, entirely not: I had to stop playing after it had gotten late and had just reached one of the game's little TXT World "episodes" - finishing a mini-game sometimes causes TXT World to fundamentally change, and following this divergence to its end leads to another mini-game or a key item before "normalcy" returns - and I quit the game during this section. After reloading the save, I was put back in the standard TXT World hub and the mini-game mindstone portal that began the process had collapsed. Since I'd not recovered the item I was supposed to get at the end of that chain of events (a sword that lets you break through walls), it meant further progress could no longer be made - though I do intend to give it another hour of poking around just to be sure. The second bug involves a requirement to have a mic installed: if you don't, a certain rhythm mini-game can't be completed and you're left without the key item it rewards you (though supposedly there's a back-up somewhere). Worth noting again that you can lose the majority of mini-games and still pop back in the hub with the reward item; the game is generously undemanding, perhaps determining that each mini-game can require different skillsets to complete or maybe not wanting to dwell too long on any one riff. For whatever Byzantine reason the developer intended, the one mini-game that requires external hardware you might not own is one of the few that you absolutely have to complete successfully to make critical progress (well, maybe; see the previous parenthetical).

I think I've brought this up before but don't remember when and where, but it's very important in an enigmatic puzzle-focused game like this that absolute trust exists between the player and the developer; that if you're stuck or you don't get it, it must always be a failure on the player's part (sidenote: one could argue that it's part of the developer's job to make things "obvious enough" via enhanced user-friendly mechanics, but given Frog Fractions' deliberate obtuseness I can forgive it if the solution isn't immediately clear - it's part of the game's charm, after all). In this case, it does indeed seem as if the developer was at fault and now I feel less engaged with the game with that trust broken, seeing as I have no idea what else might not be working as intended. Sort of like how if you can't trust the surgeon operating on you, you'd never go through with the operation. I have some sympathy for missing game-breaking bugs that resulted from unexpected player behavior in my brief time as a designer, but that doesn't make it any more enjoyable to be on the receiving end of one.

Combining Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego and The Divine Comedy works way better than it should. Which circle of hell is reserved for those who steal the Golden Gate Bridge?
Combining Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego and The Divine Comedy works way better than it should. Which circle of hell is reserved for those who steal the Golden Gate Bridge?

Thus, my time with Glittermitten Grove came to an abrupt and unsatisfying end, dropping my overall rating for the game a full point. As with the first Frog Fractions, I admire any developer willing to take such a meta journey with video game mechanics new and old for the sake of comedy and keeping the player guessing in a state of constant confusion, and I especially admire the very indirect way that Glittermitten Grove was presented to the world - hiding in a fairy simulator that sat ignored on Steam for a week until somebody finally put two and two together. At some point, a point which may have already happened with that sequel sneakily hidden in some DLC, the Frog Fraction creator will be able to match that pie-in-the-sky imagination and ambition with what must be an absurdly challenging task of making it all correctly work in unison. Until then, I think this will be a series I'll continue to appreciate from afar.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Post-Script: Yeah, I'm an idiot. I spawned with the aforementioned glowing sword upon restarting, but since it only glows in rooms with secret walls I was unaware I'd managed to keep it. Apparently it was cool with me not completing the puzzle after leaving the mini-game. For as worried as I was that the end game would become too meandering with only a handful of collectibles left and no idea where to search for them, a certain development in the late-game makes it much, much easier to get around and I'm always grateful for expedient conveniences when I'm getting close to the end of something, so kudos for that.

After a little while I managed to get credits to roll (with one heck of a power ballad about frogs and an "assistant to the assistant director" joke that goes on way too long, by design) so I'm satisfied I'm done and bopped the score back up to something more deserving. I might have to get in on that iconic cap business after all...

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