Free From Stadia, Lost Words’ Story Hits Hard

Free From Stadia, Lost Words’ Story Hits Hard
Screenshot: Sketchbook Games
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Lost Words: Beyond the Page is poised to snag a second lease on life. First released last spring as a Stadia exclusive, the idyllic puzzle-platformer from Sketchbook Games, officially released yesterday for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and the Switch (where I’ve been playing). Lost Words sports the sheen of star power: Rhianna Pratchett, of Tomb Raider and Mirror’s Edge fame, served as the game’s narrative lead.

In Lost Words, nothing is more powerful than language. You play as Izzy, a young girl with big dreams of becoming a writer. Half of the game plays out on the pages of Izzy’s journal, as you leap from line to line of scrawled text in elementary platforming segments.

The other half of the game plays out in Izzy’s imagination. See, her grandmother isn’t doing so well, having recently suffered a stroke. So Izzy, an aspiring writer, follows some of her grandmother’s advice (“Writers write”) and writes a fantasy story into which she can escape the depressing reality of her daily life. Between the journal segments you play as the main character of that story, a young girl who looks and sounds suspiciously like Izzy. You can select her name (I went for Robyn) but, really, you’re playing as a fantastical avatar for Izzy.

The fantasy segments play out in a realm called Estoria. Like Izzy, Robyn is beset by tragedy. Unlike Izzy, Robyn takes matters into her own hands — because she can, because this is a fantasy, because this isn’t reality — and embarks on an adventure to set things right.

Estoria, clearly a fantasy realm, is home to an elderly woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Izzy's gran. (Screenshot: Sketchbook Games / Kotaku) Estoria, clearly a fantasy realm, is home to an elderly woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Izzy's gran. (Screenshot: Sketchbook Games / Kotaku)

At first, Lost Words might look like any other platformer, albeit with some gorgeous, fairy tale-inspired visuals. The gimmick is that you can use a tome of magic words to control the environment. Hit “L” (on Switch) and you’ll open your book. Press “R” and you can drag any of those words to manipulate the environment to your will. Let’s say you come across a broken bridge. You can open your book, select the “repair” word, hover it over the bridge’s shattered remains, and it’ll stitch itself back together. Or maybe a brick blocks your path. Open your book, select the “break” word, and, well, you can probably guess what happens. As you play, you’ll unlock more magic words, which allow you to solve more puzzles.

It’s a neat concept. Unfortunately, as far as I’ve played, Lost Words doesn’t make the most of it. I’m a couple hours in and have yet to find myself stumped. I’d love a series of challenges that force me to combine every magic word in my book to proceed. I’ve found none. So far as I can tell, Lost Words doesn’t boast any Metroidvania elements either. I’ve been able to solve every puzzle with the limited toolkit at my disposal — no backtracking to solve one I wasn’t equipped for.

The platforming, too, is a breeze. One segment traps you on a river of lava, where you’re confined to a glacially paced slate barge. Partway through, your float starts speeding up. I thought, for the briefest moment, that this section would throw me into a platforming gauntlet. And then it just…ended.

Hooray for metaphors! (Screenshot: Sketchbook Games) Hooray for metaphors! (Screenshot: Sketchbook Games)

If you’re looking for a challenging game, Lost Words is not for you.

But every platformer needn’t be a Celeste or an Ori or some other laser-precise test of patience. Lost Words, in particular, is less reliant on grinding your soul into dust through trial and error, since the story will do that anyway. In terms of moment-to-moment gameplay, Lost Words may be a walk in the park, but it’s by no means an easy game. One particular scene — wherein Izzy’s grandmother takes a turn for the worse — drop-kicked me right in the feels. Take it from me: If you’ve lost a loved one, or had to comfort someone who’s lost a loved one, Lost Words will hit you where it hurts.

Parting shot: Yes, Lost Words makes Star Wars references. (Screenshot: Sketchbook Games / Kotaku) Parting shot: Yes, Lost Words makes Star Wars references. (Screenshot: Sketchbook Games / Kotaku)

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