It is perhaps passé at this point to remark that fairy tales are often a lot darker than the nice stories which are told to small children, but it’s nonetheless true. If you read Hans Christian Andersen or The Brothers Grimm, many of their stories contain often unalloyed horrors, from monsters eating children to various siblings and young people meeting grisly, violent ends. Many of Grimm’s fairy tales in particular have been bowdlerised over the years, first by child-friendly reprints, and then by famous retellings, most notably by Walt Disney. However, there have been various moves to retell the fairy stories including their more horrific elements, Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth and last year’s Pinocchio being a major examples.
Bramble: The Mountain King takes aim at Scandinavian folklore in particular, with the developers Dimfrost Games being based in Sweden. It follows the story of two children, older sister Lillemore, and younger brother Olle. Olle awakes one night to find his sister not in her bed, her bedsheet tied in a makeshift rope around the window. Rather than calling for help, as any sensible child should do, instead Olle decides to venture after his sister into the deep, dark woods. Despite finding Lillemore fairly quickly, they soon become separated again as they venture deeper into the woods and deeper and deeper down the metaphorical rabbit hole, becoming miniaturised in the same manner as Alice in Wonderland. A narrator tells this woeful fairy tale with aplomb as Olle braves the beasts and horrors of the forest to try and save his sister, including murderous trolls, friendly dwarfs and much else besides.
Much like Playdead’s games Limbo and INSIDE, Bramble: The Mountain King is a game which focuses more on atmosphere rather than defined story beats. The atmosphere they’re predominantly trying to get across is one of folkloric horror; while there are some nice and friendly moments here and there, they take a backseat compared to the foreboding and grim sections. Gameplay will be extremely similar to the aforementioned games; you pilot Olle along a resolutely linear path, and although the camera will pan around and sometimes give you a behind the back view of your character while being able to move him in three dimensions, it is best thought of as a 2D controlled game, with room to occasionally move left and right along the journey.
You’ll predominantly be climbing, jumping and navigating around environments, leaping across toadstools or lily pads or climbing up overgrown vines, while at the same time having to occasionally complete a variety of puzzles to proceed. For example near the beginning, you’ll need to do a round of hide-and-seek to find all of the baby dwarfs in order to open a door, or help an elderly dwarf gather his escaped mandrakes back into their enclosure. You’ll also need to avoid enemies, either by dodging bear traps scattered around the environment, or by timing your movement to avoid the gaze of larger foes. These challenges felt extremely Limbo-esque, owing to the equally gruesome and bloody death animations, something Limbo became renowned for. They’re all serviceable, but none of them are interesting enough by themselves without the dark setting sustaining your fascination.
You do occasionally get to attempt to fight back against the trolls and witches, using a glowing orb which he discovered at the beginning of the game to strike weak points on several bosses. You always feel tiny compared to these bosses in a real David and Goliath fight, having to use Olle’s small size and nimbleness to outwit the larger and more lumbering giants. Visually the game is pretty sumptuous, with the grassy woodland and overgrown thickets of the forest being excellently brought to life, constantly feeling oppressive and unnerving. The designs of the various mythological creatures also look suitably threatening and horrifying, from the flabby flesh of the troll to the waterlogged hair of the siren. The music too is great, a mixture of folk and orchestral which blends nicely and fits the tone appropriately.
I did have some frustrations with Bramble: The Mountain King. The camera is mostly uncontrollable from fixed perspectives and can get irritatingly close sometimes, meaning you don’t have a proper view of what’s happening, meaning lining up your jumps can be more challenging than they should be. Similarly on the technical side there are occasional stutters and hitches, as well as some oddly flickering geometry. Nonetheless, it does a fine job of showing you the darker side of Nordic folklore, and although the gameplay is very familiar to fans of the genre, it doesn’t commit any cardinal sins except some occasionally rote puzzles. It manages to craft its oppressive and nightmarish atmosphere well, soaking you into a wonderland of ghoulish mythological creatures, most of whom want to eat you, while leaving you interested to see what folkloric monster you might run into next. Although there’s nothing to find off the beaten path if you try to go looking, the set-pieces and environments which Bramble crafts are definitely worth seeing.