Lost Words: Beyond the Page Review
It’s here. It’s finally bloody here. Releasing a year ago on Stadia, Lost Words: Beyond the Page has finally arrived on PC and consoles. It’s a beautiful narrative adventure/platformer that takes place in a diary full of words and watercolours. One of the most innovative and engaging titles in the genre for a long time, there’s only a couple of small nitpicks to be found when it comes to critiquing; none of which should stop you from picking it up if you have even a passing interest in humane stories, beautiful worlds, and platforming that diverges from the mould.
Lost Words: Beyond the Page takes place inside the pages of a diary belonging to a young girl called Izzy. Words appear in the diary as she — invisibly to you — writes in it. As the words appear, you control a pen-drawn version of Izzy, and you jump from word to word as they appear, heading towards a ripped part of the page that progresses you to the next diary entry when you reach it. This part of the game is all about what’s happening in Izzy’s real-world life, and she uses her lived experiences as inspiration to create a cathartic fantasy world in which she deals with a particularly traumatic experience.
At certain points, then, you will be whisked away from the penned diary and sucked into the fantasy world Izzy is creating — one that reflects what’s really happening to her in a kind of meta-narrative adventure. This world is rendered in stunning vivid colours and is a macro version of the diary gameplay — you still platform, but it is in the more traditional sense. Here, the ambience is one of medieval fantasy, and there’s a fitting narrative that accompanies it: a quite literal hero’s journey that features mythical friends and foes and that forces Izzy to confront her real-world grieving.
When you arrive in this world, you control both a young girl — Izzy incarnate, but you get to choose what she is named — and a firefly that buzzes around her simultaneously. You get to use a miniature version of the diary in this world, one that holds a handful of words that you collect throughout. These words can affect the world around you (a metaphor if I’ve ever seen one) and are used by opening the diary, using the right stick to bring the firefly over the word you want to use, then over the object. For instance, there might be a broken bridge that you need to cross, so you drag the word “repair” from your diary and onto the bridge in order to allow you to cross safely.
As you navigate this fairy-tale world, you’re treated to some of the best voice acting in video games. Those dastardly words (it’s almost like the game is about them) appear again in the background of environments as you’re platforming your way forward and are narrated by Izzy’s voice actress, Sidonie Maria Šakālis. Much of the weight of bringing this world to life falls on her shoulders as she has to not only play real-world Izzy and her fantasy avatar, but she also has to stretch and hit a tremendous range of emotions: from the joyful and happy highs to the poignant and dark lows. It’s worth mentioning that the minor characters you encounter give great performances, too, but they don’t feature enough for a full analysis.
Environments range from lush forests to arid deserts to watery depths, each inhabited by their own unique creatures and beings and beasts. You platform through these stages in pursuit of a particular villain that does not-so-nice things to disrupt your quaint village life early on. At key points, you get to choose from a set of words that dictate the details of the story. One scene, for example, allows you to choose what sort of people lived somewhere: philosophers, warriors, and so on. All of these little choices add up over your six to eight-hour playtime, and by the end, you have a somewhat hand-crafted story. The choices don’t change the overall narrative, but you get to decide the motivations for the plot points along the way.
The real-world story of Izzy coming to terms with loss, grief and trauma as a young girl is one that’s fairly straightforward, but the humaneness with which it is written, performed, and drawn is astonishing. At points, I predicted where the story was taking me, but when those moments hit I still found myself invested and engaged — a very rare occurrence. Tie this in with the fantasy world’s narrative and the platforming elements that vary between diary page and in-world gameplay, and Lost Words: Beyond the Page is a breath of fresh air in a genre that can be so stale. Of course, Rhianna Pratchett of Tomb Raider, Mirror’s Edge, Heavenly Sword, and best of all PC Zone fame took a lead role in crafting the game’s narrative and it shows, but Mark Backler and the rest of the team should also be given kudos for their work too.
Although there are a lot of positives to talk about, it’s worth mentioning the negatives. The biggest flaw in Lost Words: Beyond the Page is its pacing in the last third. There is a lot of exposition to get through as you move towards the end of the game, and the platforming stalls just a little too much so that we can be delivered dialogue. At the same time, the fantasy world’s story hits some convoluted speed bumps. Not so much that you can’t understand what’s happening overall, but the info dump of narrative in this abstract world might leave you unsure of small details and their relation to Izzy in the real world.
And for all of its innovation in many areas, Lost Words: Beyond the Page can start to feel mechanically simple if you have platforming experience. The novelty of dragging words around to manipulate the environment wears off and you realise you’re encountering many of the same obstacles (I’m looking at you, pillars that need raising). The narrative focus and variance in gameplay — moving from the fantasy world to real-world diary pages — alleviate this to a great extent, but you might find the platforming starts losing its shine towards the end.
Still, Lost Words: Beyond the Page is a brilliant game. It innovates on the traditional platforming formula with some interesting new concepts and a meta touch. Its dark story is one so beautifully human and relatable. Its acting brings the world to life with wonderful poignancy. And its all-at-once sketchy, watercoloury, hand-dawny art renders it all with gorgeous grace. Don’t expect Super Meat Boy platforming from this contemplative tale, but lovers of narrative will find so much to love that Lost Words: Beyond the Page is an easy recommendation.
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