One of my favorite things about indie games is that they are far more free to explore a variety of visual styles. The AAA market is oversaturated with attempts at hyperrealism, most of which will look horrible five years from now as that technology improves. But a strong aesthetic can always hold up as the years go by. There are games I played on the Super Nintendo that look gorgeous today, while Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64 looks like I made it out of origami. And I’m not good at Origami. Come to think of it, AAA games aren’t usually interested in making puzzle games either. But Cursed Quest excels at both of these.
A Puzzling Adventure
Cursed Quest is a puzzle platformer with an emphasis on puzzles over tricky platforming. While there are platforming challenges, for the most part they aren’t very difficult, and in many cases are puzzles themselves.
Over the course of the game, you acquire new items or abilities for those items that gives you new ways of interacting with the world. Puzzles are usually single-screen and very clever. Each puzzle is usually based around finding a way to personally reach a goal or to interact with an object you cannot physically reach. The former case is more common, as the goal can be the end of the screen so you move on to the next puzzle. But the latter case is hardly rare.
The very first item you acquire in the game is a bow and arrow. Your primary use for this is breaking destructible terrain or for hitting distant switches. It’s also how you push blocks, since they’re usually larger than you are and you don’t have that kind of body strength. You can use the bow in two different ways: standing and crouching. While standing, your arrows are affected by gravity with a considerable drop-off. But when you’re crouching, your arrows are not affected by gravity, traveling forever in a straight line. You’ll need to use both of these techniques to progress.
Cursed Quest has a surprising amount of interaction in the environment. Fire burns webs and bushes, which can hurt you and your enemies. Fireballs colliding causes them to explode. Magically summoning a block below a waterfall will dam the flow. The game tells you very little of this directly, instead presenting puzzles that incentivizes you to experiment and learn his for yourself. Though I must admit that there are several instances where the game’s instructions for using your tools is unclear.
At no point in Cursed Quest did I ever feel like a puzzle was poorly designed. If I was stuck, I knew it was because I was missing something or overlooking an interaction. And I was right every time. I have nothing but praise for this game’s puzzles. They’re all excellent.
I just wish that the game wouldn’t forget that it was a puzzle game so often. What do I mean by that? Well, Cursed Quest has combat. Which isn’t inherently bad in a puzzle game. Several puzzle games have combat. I’m not even all that upset that literally everything kills you in one hit in Cursed Quest, because most of the combat encounters play like a stealth game. Which is great, because Stealth Games are basically puzzle games but with people getting angry at you for trespassing. And hitting an enemy from stealth is an instant kill. The real problem with Cursed Quest’s combat is that they insist on having boss fights. And yes, fighting a boss when you die in one hit is exactly as annoying as it sounds. Some puzzle games, like Portal, get away with it by making the boss itself a puzzle. Cursed Quest… doesn’t.
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There are also non-boss sections that more or less give up on puzzling to be a platformer. The section I left off on involves the old favorite of platformers: a wall of instant death is chasing you and you have to move fast to outrun it. But the thing is, Cursed Quest isn’t made around its platforming. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a competent platformer. But it’s not designed around movement. And most games that pull out the instant death wall are designed that way.
The issue with both of these sections, in addition to how the game really wasn’t built to handle them, is that they have a much different pace from puzzle solving. The puzzles in this game aren’t timed. You have all the time in the world to look around the screen and figure out what the game wants from you. Unless there’s an enemy, in which case you should hide first. But puzzles are slow and methodical. You examine your surroundings, think of ways you can manipulate it to your advantage, and experiment to see if it works.
But combat sections and chase sequences are much faster. They have much less room for error. They require much faster reflexes and an entirely different frame of mind.
Cursed Quest is also a bit of a mess on the technical side. I never had it crash or anything like that, but the collisions are more than a little wonky. I have, on more than one occasion, gotten the top of my head stuck against the bottom of the roof, leaving me suspended in midair. Usually a bit of wiggling is all you need to unstick yourself, but not always. And if you’re right up against the side of a platform you’re trying to jump on top of, you won’t be able to do it. You need a pixel or two of space.
While these flawed collisions are a minor nuisance in a puzzle, in an action set piece they can be the difference between success and failure.
At the very least, there is no consequence for death unless you choose to play on hard mode.
Playing to Aesthetic Strengths
I love the art style of Cursed Quest. Everything is shadowed in silhouette. The player ad everything on the same layer as the player is the same color. Backgrounds are layers of detailed environment, stretching out into the distance, giving you a glimpse of a truly massive implied world beyond you. Even the caves have backgrounds extending out beyond into deep caverns.
I’m reminded of Limbo in some ways, being a game where everything is trying to kill you but also using a really simple silhouette aesthetic. Cursed Quest however makes use of colors beyond blacks and whites. Even in the darkest sections, flames glow orange.
Cursed Quest even has a full lighting system. It doesn’t cast shadows or anything like that, but there are places without light, leaving the screen blanketed in darkness. You have a lantern to pierce these shadows, and you can light other torches to provide a better view of the current screen. But I really love how if the room cannot be completely illuminated, parts of the level merge with the shadows, almost seeming to fade away.
There’s also a very clever use of lighter colors as a highlight on important objects. Pressure plates and switches trigger traps just as frequently as they open doors or otherwise let your progress. The slight highlight on the top corner makes them stand out against the monotone terrain, giving you advance warning of danger.
Bushes obscure all kinds of things, from pressure plates to secret paths. Because there are secret paths, obscured by a solid block of color, blending them into the surrounding terrain until you first stumble into it. Here again the art design gives you subtle clues to these hidden rooms and tunnels, as any entrance to a hidden room will be a perfectly straight line compared to the rocky cliffs and walls.
Enemies have glowing eyes of various colors helping them to pop and making it clear where they are. The exception to this is the eldritch tentacle, which is more of an obstacle than an enemy anyway, even if it does kill you.
There’s very little music in the game. Boss fights and action set pieces get their own manic themes, but while you’re wandering around soling puzzles, you have a single track to listen to. It’s not nearly as annoying as it sounds. This main track is a deep, booming song with heavy drum use. It really helps the feel of this ruined, desolate, cursed (ha) world you find yourself in. Not only is it incredibly atmospheric, but because it’s quiet and deep, it blends in seamlessly, so you never feel like you’ve been listening to a single song for several hours, even though you are. OR are you? The soundtrack has seventeen songs on it. And if it is changing the background music more than I noticed, I have to commend the wonderful style that seamlessly blends those tracks.
The game also has really strong sound design, with some nice crunchy sound effects. Switching items has its own sound effect, as does every action you can make with each tool in your arsenal. And the game’s interactions that I mentioned back in the gameplay section has some surprising sound effect details I wasn’t expecting, like how damming a waterflow has a sound for the water crashing against the obstacle.
There isn’t all that much I can say about the story, even several hours into the game. A mysterious voice informs you that you are trapped in a cursed land and your only chance is to find ‘The Source.’ Whatever that is. This voice pops up from time to time to comment on your progress. Admitting surprise that you defeated the first boss, for example.
But there is quite a lot of storytelling in the level design. Not quite building a plot or adding background details like some level design stories, usually it’s a hint about the puzzle or a trap. Sometimes (frequently) there are skeletons of those who came before you and were slain by the horrors of the cursed world. These skeletons can be quite chatty when they want to be, giving further vague hints as to their fates and how you can avoid them.
These hints strike a hard balance between telling you what you want to know and being subtle enough that it still feels as though you’re soling things on your own. Like a skeleton in a blocked off hallway who laments it being a dead end, hinting at a second secret path forward.
When Cursed Quest is at its element, being a puzzle game with a dark gothic vibe, it’s easily one of the best indie games I’ve played in a while, even with the technical flaws and weird collisions. The more action-oriented levels can be frustrating but are usually, mercifully, short. Keep your wits about you and pay attention to your surroundings, and you’ll have a good time.