I am weak to small games with big ambition. Like Limbo, which was a perfunctory action-puzzle platformer that attempted to tell a story of loss and uncertainty with next to no words. Or Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, what with its exploration based around different phases of the actual moon. I think we can add Among Thorns to this mental list of mine. It reminds me a bit of A Landlord’s Dream, which also came from the AGS community and was brimming with grand ideas, littered with the kind of far-reaching sci-fi concepts that flesh out a futuristic world to make it feel livable instantly. However, Matt Frith’s pixel art here is a whole lot less grainy, having that clean, sterile feel to it that can only be attained in an era of synthetic body upgrades, and the puzzles are not as obtuse.
Among Thorns was created specifically for MAGS, which is a monthly competition for all amateur adventure game makers, last month. January 2016 for those that can’t figure it out. I think voting is still going on, though I have high hopes for it doing well among its competitors. The theme was Black Death, and Among Thorns certainly covers that aspect with its Necronite disease, which only seems to affect the people in this world that have begun to augment their bodies.
Among Thorns‘ driving force is slight, but gets things going right away. You almost don’t have time to finish your noodle cup before the plot starts popping in. Anyways, you play as a young woman named Cora who ends up taking a shady job from her boss Lentii to investigate a dude named Cordell Jann, as he may or may not have a cure for Necronite. Yup, that sentenced contained a lot of science fiction-appropriate names. Now, getting to Jann’s apartment is no hop and skip over, and most of the game involves puzzling your way past roadblocks, like the cops. Once you’re inside Jann’s place, there’s more to do and discover, but I won’t spoil any of that here.
Gameplay doesn’t try to do anything wild and crazily unorthodox for the point-and-click adventuring genre. You have an inventory on the left side of the screen, can collect items, converse with people and things, and solve puzzles logically, using your brain and whatever is in your pockets. That’s fine. It’s a short little game, and, for me, this was all about seeing what was next. The more neon signs my eyes could eat up, the better. I mean, we all love Blade Runner, right? This is very much Blade Runner-inspired. There’s a small amount of pixel hunting to do, and this task can be hard to accomplish when there is so much already on the screen to gawk at. I’m still always looking for that balance of easier to find things to interactive with versus actually playing detective screen to screen.
Though Cora does complete her job by the time credits roll, the story ends in a cliffhanger-esque fashion, leaving me hungry for more and wondering what happens next. Clearly, time was an issue, and this is more a prologue than complete project. Among Thorns is certainly capable of carrying a full-fledged story and campaign, and I’d love to learn more about Cora herself and why she prefers to live off the grid and what struggles that entails. Until then, I’ll probably check out some of Matt Frith’s other work over at the AGS community.