One of the best aspects of having your own blog/website, call it whatever you like, is the fact that you are fully free to choose which games to cover. This possibility finds its greatest expression in the field of indies. Every first of the month, in fact, I start my Google search for “upcoming indie video games” and once the results appear, I start scouring the Web, letting myself be inspired mainly by trailers and, to a lesser extent, by what I read on the Internet.
It happened, for example, between November and December with The Highland Song (here’s the review of The Highland Song) and it happened again in January with The Cub, developed by the independent Demagog Studio (Higwater, Golf Club Nostalgia), published by Untold Tales and available January 19 on PC, PlayStation 4 and 5, and Nintendo Switch. The Cub is a short platformer, lasting about three hours, maybe a little more, taking inspiration from 1990s SEGA classics (Aladdin, Tarzan, and the Lion King), beautifully and entirely hand-drawn (just watch the trailer below to realize this).
After the Great Ecological Catastrophe, the rich flee to Mars, condemning the remaining survivors to the worst possible fate (there will be no shortage of documents, newspapers, and various collectables with which to reconstruct the lore and major events that shook the world). A few years pass and the inhabitants of the red planet decide to return to Earth for a reconnaissance: when they find a small mutant child, Cub, raised among the Wolves and immune to the hostile planet, they immediately try to capture him.
The Cub, the janitor orphan
And so I run, I run without knowing in which direction I am going and totally ignoring my goal, jumping between one destroyed building and another (excellent responsiveness of the controls), between one mine cart and another because the tracks are abruptly interrupted: in the latter case, the platform session takes on pleasant overtones from trial & error. I run unconscious of the dangers on the horizon as I listen, thanks to my helmet, to the radio speakers of Radio Nostalgia from Mars who, from time to time, put on resounding songs that my headphones pump full blast, in perfect tune with the gameplay and narrative.
I escape through water parks, urban ruins and abandoned factories, in the name of that freedom I do not want to give up, despite being hunted by these cruel men who try everything to nab me. And after every attempt to stop me fails inexorably, the message the game wants to send, read by those in front of the screen, seems quite clear: those old Earth inhabitants, now Martians, are no longer welcome, and we, as the only defenders of our planet, do not want to let them get away with it. In my opinion, however, there is also another interpretation key in addition to the one just described.
The Cub manages successfully to make the player, the protagonist of a particularly touching story. However, the fact that this adventure is also experienced from the point of view of an innocent child – not coincidentally, the delightful cutscenes between chapters are offered through the same drawings that I did in first grade – makes that galloping at full speed without a clear-cut goal, complete with mouthing off to pursuers, do not, under any circumstances, become an actual escape, despite the reality being quite different and tragic: The Cub was able to evoke the same feelings of joy, fun and lightheartedness as when I used to chase my classmates in the yard at recess
Point of arrival
Both of these visions, then, proceed in parallel, two straight lines that will never cross. All of this is true until the encounter with a key character, Charlie, who enshrines a turning point in the narrative, the soundtrack, and the growth of the protagonist. Game sessions change accordingly, they become more dangerous – there will also be a crazy bullet hell phase, unexpected but at the same time particularly welcome – and the story finally seems ripe, ready to explode into the drama I had so long awaited and which, if it occurred, would involve endless crying….
The only criticism that I feel like making to The Cubwhich is not the low longevity mind you (on the contrary, I find the longevity a plus point because it enhances the excellent variety in scenarios, platforming and stealth sessions making sure that the gameplay does not feel overly monotonous), is about its ending, perhaps slightly rushed, too good and simplistic – almost Disney like – if we consider the premise and the emotions I experienced in the two hours and fifty minutes preceding the credits. In any case, we are dealing with a solid work, which expertly balances narrative and playful components and which I have no problem calling the first surprise of the year.