There’s too much stock put into “polish” as a metric of quality in a videogame. The assumption is that “polish” is an inherently good thing: that an unpolished game can only ever be good in spite of its rough edges, and never because of them; that high production values and a pristine finish can salvage even the most banal and vapid piece of work. That’s nonsense, especially when “polish” almost always translates to “money spent making it”. Tasomachi: Behind the Twilight is a perfect example of why: it’s a game made by a small team on a visibly constrained budget, “unpolished” and short—and all the better for it.
Inspired by the classic, collectathon 3D platformers of days past—the Spyro the Dragons and Jak & Daxters of the world—Tasomachi sees an intrepid young adventurer, Yukumo, crash land her airship in a mysterious valley. Drenched in fog and seemingly deserted aside from a handful of cute catlike beings (the Nezu tribe), it’s a quiet, peaceful, beautiful place, yet also desolate and melancholy. If Yukumo wants to find her way home, her only option is to track down the lantern-like Sources of Earth scattered about, which act as both a means of repairing your airship and the secret to clearing away the fog and restoring the valley.
That means a lot of running around and exploring mysterious towns whose architecture doubles as a source of creative navigational puzzles, with buildings to climb, precarious ledges to fling yourself between, buried treasures and hidden secrets tucked away in dark corners, and the occasional Nezu asking for help. It means delving into a series of shrines, each one home to a collection of trials that must be overcome in order to restore light to its Sacred Tree, thus clearing away some of the fog and letting you explore a little further.
Three main hubs, each one an elaborate maze of towers, alleyways, tiered streets and courtyards, canals, rocky outcrops, and bridges, with rickety wooden scaffolding—haphazard-looking, but carefully placed to ensure no section of the map is off limits, given some creative use of the navigational tools available. Sources of Earth abound, never too hard to find or reach, but always enjoyable in the route to get them; Tasomachi isn’t interested in making things “challenging” so much as capturing the joy of collecting them all.
Partway through the game, once you’ve repaired your airship, flight-based exploration adds another layer to exploration, with access to new areas, flying paths to follow, and a new vantage point from which to track down any missing Sources. On the other hand, sanctuaries offer a more focused, trial-driven platforming experience as you try to navigate different obstacle courses in order to reach a lamp at the end. Those lamps are the key to reawakening the dormant Sacred Trees, unlocking new skills (double jump, dive kick, air dash) and clearing away fog in the process.
In all this, Tasomachi is the familiar comfort of classic 3D platformer, scratching exactly the same collectathon itch of the games that inspired it. But it also finds its own niche in the beauty of its setting, the relaxed pace, the delightfully soothing soundtrack, and, yes, the rough edges that give this world so much of its character.
Comparisons with Studio Ghibli might be overplayed, but here, it’s the only thing that fits. In the way it combines the ordinary with dreamlike fantasy, a mythological past with the mundanity of the everyday present, Tasomachi finds wonder in the little details. A stunning vista overlooking the sea, with a silhouetted clifftop castle draped in fog might be a beautiful sight to take in, but vending machines and recycling bins and air-con units dotted around a town that otherwise looks like it could be straight out of an ancient history book create a sense of ordinary, everyday magic. Architecture that defies gravity and steeped in spiritual influence in its visual design combines with the pure functionality of regular household objects to create a world where spirits are part of life, both miraculous and unremarkable.
This is where the “unpolished” nature of Tasomachi works wonders. A bigger budget game would feel the need to make every little detail pristine and picturesque to a fault, chasing perfection to the point that it becomes a pastiche—a picture of a world so idealised that it ceases to be real, rather than a place that’s believable in its imperfections. By contrast, Tasomachi‘s rough edges give its world character, make it feel lived in and alive, add texture to the atmosphere that surrounds your exploration.
This goes for Yumuko’s movements, too: floaty jumps and awkward momentum on her special moves are the kind of things that could quickly become frustrating, but never do because Tasomachi‘s level design is built to match. Instead of a source of annoyance, a floaty jump just becomes a quirk of this world, one that adds to the slightly surreal tone and helps to make exploration the joy that it is.
This is what I mean when I say that “unpolished” isn’t inherently a bad thing. If a game is outright broken, or if it’s lack of finesse impedes on actually being able to play it as intended, that’s an issue. But neither of these things is true for Tasomachi; there’s nothing lost for its lack of refinement and no hindrance caused, but so much to be gained in the way exactly these “flaws” add to the mood of the game: one of serenity and relaxation, of taking it slow and taking it easy, enjoying time spent in a world that’s equal parts ordinary and fantastic, and just little bit mysterious.
And that atmosphere, backed by an absolutely mesmerising score by Ujico*, is everything. It’s what makes this lost valley so interesting to explore, and makes chasing down all those Source of Earth so satisfying even without much in the way of challenge to overcome. It’s what makes a story that’s fairly light touch into something oddly moving and bittersweet—even with few words and little characterisation, Yukumo’s mix of wonder and melancholy, her desire to return home in conflict with her fascination with this hidden wonderland is one that’s easy to sympathise with and get swept up in.
Tasomachi: Behind the Twilight may be an “unpolished” game, but that lack of polish is exactly what makes it such an interesting and enjoyable game to explore. The lack of finesse doesn’t break the game or detract from the experience, but it does add so much to the atmosphere and character of the world. It’s a nice, relaxing way to enjoy the collect-them-all nature of classic 3D platformers, but more than that, it’s a wonderful, mysterious place that’s easy to get lost in—not in spite of its rough edges, but because of them.
Title: Tasomachi: Behind the Twilight
Developer: Orbital Express
Platforms: PC via Steam (reviewed)
Release date: 14 April 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.