When you first jump into Tumbleseed’s procedurally generated world, even the simplest movements are a struggle. Mastery over its physics comes relatively quickly, but that’s only one of many learning curves you have to overcome to make it up the roguelike’s mountain. It’s a punishingly hard climb. When the game’s difficulty, your skill, and a little bit of luck line up, it’s incredibly rewarding–but they frequently fall out of balance, resulting only in frustration.
Tumbleseed’s unique take on 2D platforming puts you, a small seed, on a movable balance beam as you ascend an obstacle-filled hellscape, moving each side with the analog sticks to climb bit by bit. As you move the beam from side to side, the seed rolls back and forth, so learning to control its momentum is key. The goal is to reach the top, avoiding deadly pitfalls and an army of bug monsters while collecting currency-like crystals so you can use various seed powers. Learning how to use momentum to your advantage without falling into a hole is the easy part–doing all of that while managing your powers and killing or avoiding enemies is where things get tricky.
In addition to holes, traps, and monsters, the mountain is also peppered with plots of soil where you can use crystals to plant your various powers. You can switch between your powers at any time, and they transform you: Plant a crystal as Thornvine and you gain a sharp new thorn to pierce enemies with, while Heartseed grants you a quarter of a heart. In addition to the default powers, you can pick up a few of the 30 or so total on your way up the mountain, ranging from a seed that shoots projectiles to one that grants invisibility. You have to make split-second decisions about what you need in any given moment, whether it’s attack power, defense, or more crystals, and a miscalculation can prove deadly.
Just like the levels, your strategy has to be ever-changing. The available powers are entirely up to chance; you get to choose between two random powers once every level, and some runs have more useful options than others. Learning to perfect the first level isn’t an exercise in memorizing enemies or laying out a specific plan of action; instead, it’s about learning from past mistakes and staying as flexible as possible.
The challenge is in using what you have to the best of your ability, and it’s genuinely satisfying to kill an enemy with projectiles one run and slip by them undetected the next. Just when I thought I’d figured out the best way to survive the mountain, the mountain met me with a new enemy or a power-up I’d never seen before, and like with each movement on the balance beam, I was always shifting slightly to try to adjust.
Tumbleseed’s biggest problem, though, is that it doesn’t do anything to ease you into new challenges. The difficulty from one level to the next–and from one run to the next–is inconsistent, even when taking into account that everything is procedurally generated. Going from the first area to the second is a huge difficulty spike thanks to unforgiving enemies, and I had long since mastered the first (and replayed it dozens of times) before I successfully traversed the second. No matter how good I got at deftly rolling in the narrow space between two pitfalls or how perfectly I allocated my crystals and powers, I’d still get sent tumbling down to the start by a hole that suddenly appeared underneath me or a gang of four spiders that each take three hits to kill. At a certain point, that difficulty stops being an enjoyable challenge and instead feels unfair.
Though you can set up teleporters that you earn at certain points on the mountain to skip earlier sections, it’s in your best interest to run through them anyway and stock up on powers and supplies; but after doing that, it’s much more frustrating to die for a stupid reason halfway up the mountain when you finally lucked out and got the two powers you like the most. It’s rare to get both the best powers and the easier enemies in the same playthrough, and after a while it feels like a cruel joke.
That said, each time I finally reached a new level, I was ecstatic. However you manage it, it’s as rewarding to survive as it is frustrating to fail. But when those rewards start to feel further and further apart, it can be difficult to keep coming back for another climb.