Take a lovely art style that wouldn’t look out of place in a book of children’s fairy-tales, combine with point and click adventuring, toss in some like turn-based combat and the result is The Girl of Glass: A Summer Bird’s Tale. On paper, those elements sounds like a fantastic mix. In reality, The Girl of Glass doesn’t manage to combine its ideas as well as they needed to be for it all to work smoothly.
Our leading lady is Kristal, the titular girl of glass, who does menial tasks at a circus crewed by a bunch of misfits and led by the height-challenged Ringmaster. Kristal feels trapped in a humdrum life, surrounded by people that barely seem to register her existence. So when a handsome young boy turns up who offers take Kristal with him on his adventure, who is she to say no?
The narrative wastes no time in throwing the player into an intriguing world. Why is Kristal made of glass? What are the stories behind the people of the circus? Who and what is the Eagle, a mysterious entity or person that seems to rule the country? And then a few hours in another curveball is thrown at you, although I’m obviously not going to spoil it. The point is, a lot of questions are raised and while the writing doesn’t always land, The Girl of Glass does a good job tickling the ‘ol intrigues. I want to know what’s going on.
And the gorgeous visual style definitely helps to draw you into the world. There’s a sort of Studio Ghibli vibe going on that I love, and the environments are beautifully detailed. The visual design language is good, too, making it fairly easy to find the interactive objects, although I’d still like to see The Girl of Glass have a button to highlight usable objects like some other point and click titles do. But it’s easy just to get lost in the artwork. I just wish there was even more awesome environments to explore in the 6-8 hours it takes to play the game.
Ultimately the world and setting wind up being more interesting than the narrative. Things certainly start well: the Tall Lady, Strong Girl, the Clown, the Bear Lady and the Ringmaster are engaging characters, and I like how the answers you give in a conversation at the very start of the game feed into their characters and their stories. After the opening few hours, though, the narrative begins to change, and becomes more unfocused. It delves into into deep territory that includes some mild feminism discussion, religion, business ethics and more. Meanwhile, Kristal is dealing with growing up and coming to understand the world is not always so clear and obvious. It also brings up the point of judging people based on limited experience with them. Hell, there are even moments where words like fascist are thrown around despite the person using them clearly having no real idea what they’re talking about. I have to say, I’m completely on board with that last topic as we live in a world where words like racist, fascist and more tend to get thrown around will-mcnilly.
It feels like there’s a lot the writer wants to say and tackle, and yet despite some lengthy conversations that pontificate on these weighty matters, nothing of consequence is ever said. Maybe I’m dumb, maybe I’m oblivious, but I couldn’t find what The Girl of Glass was trying to say. It’s that drunk friend at the party who happily rambles on about life and the universe and politics but never quite manages to stumble upon the point.
The tone jumps around, too, which is perfectly fine but quick changes in tone take expert handling. The Girl of Glass: A Summer Bird’s Tale describes itself as being “light-hearted” and for the first few hours it is. And then it isn’t. And then it is again. And then it isn’t. The shifts are jarring, and if you go into expecting a quirky, light adventure you might be a bit taken aback by the swerves to darker territory and even swearing.
However, if you can go into the story and roll with narrative rather than examining too closely, it’s a pretty good time. The characters are an eclectic and charming bunch, and Kristal herself comes across as natural and believable. She’s quirky, funny, caring and yet flawed. She can be naive, insensitive and even mean at times. In other words, she’s a teenager.
There’s some good humour spread throughout the game that genuinely made me chuckle. But there’s also some instances of humour that feels out of place, especially a couple of the meta jokes that reference aspects of the game. The Girl of Glass comes close to smashing the 4th wall a couple of times, and I don’t think it really works.
The point and click genre is often a bonkers one filled with crazy events, and The Girl of Glass is no different. In just the first few hours I fought a rat king to regain a ringmaster’s hat, fired a clown out of a cannon, tickled a crocodile with a feather, fished for a key in poop and battled a huge teddy bear. But the good news is that the logic behind everything is never obscure or completely illogical, which stops you from doing the usual point and click thing of desperately mashing everything in your inventory into everything else.
On the other hand, seasoned veterans who have triumphed in games like Thimbleweed Park or Darkestville Castle might find it all too easy to blast through the puzzle sections. That isn’t really a critcism, more just a warning that if you’re looking for a tricky puzzle game this isn’t it.
The big gameplay twist is that The Girl of Glass smashes point and click puzzle solving into turn-based JRPG style combat. This ends up creating a game that distinctly feels like its made of two very disparate elements. The opening hours are fine as your time at the circus is punctuated by fights here and there. A cat might be blocking the way, so naturally you grab a broom and proceed to beat the crap out of the four-legged nuisance. Or a giant teddy bear eats your friend. Y’know, normal stuff. But once you leave the circus things become segmented. There are very clearly point and click sections, and very clear fighting sections that often involve multiple, prolonged battles one after another. Fights are lengthy affairs, and frequently there’s character dialogue thrown in as well, making them drag even more. As much as I hate to say it, there were times when I let out an audible groan when it became clear that another punch-up was about to occur.
A big part of the combat feeling like a laborious grind is that it doesn’t have the depth to support the length, despite having some cool ideas. Basically, each round every character gets to perform a single action: attack, defend, move or concentrate, with special powers getting thrown into the mix as well. The main component of the combat is shifting characters around to take advantage of enemy weakness and to stop to the opponent doing the same. Every character you get to control throughout the game can attack up to two spaces in front of them, so naturally you want to shift your fire-based pawn so that it can dish out some damage to the ice-based character. And every attack is classified as being effective (4-points of damage) or ineffective (-1 of damage.) In other words, wailing on an enemy who isn’t vulnerable to your assault is like throwing a pine cone at a wall. Sure, you’re technically doing some damage, but it’s basically pointless.
But I do want to commend The Girl of Glass for at least trying to keep combat interesting with a steady procession of different characters (although they all play essentially the same,) and tweaks to the gameplay. In an early fight, for example, you battle a rat king who has a habit of yelling out his special attack, while later on the elemental effects get introduced. Unfortunately, The Girl of Glass has a weird habit of interrupting itself to explain many of these things, even once you’ve been using them for a while. It’s almost like it’s afraid you’ve wandered off and accidently gotten your memory wiped by the Men in Black. Coupled with the game’s already frustrating pacing problems, it can become infuriating.
An energy system is at play, with each character getting five points of energy that is used to activate special attacks and such. For instance, Kristal gets an ability to generate an electric field on an enemy space, causing them to take continuous damage and which stops them from moving out of the space. When a character runs out of energy they go into a stunned state for a round, and any attacks they suffer – regardless of whether they are weak to it or not – is classed as a critical hit. Once they come out the stunned state, all energy gets magically restored. Or you can also use the Concentrate action which returns some energy and lets you perform two actions with that character next round provided Concentrate isn’t interrupted. Most important, any attacked classed as effective also hits the enemy for one point of energy. Keeping an eye on energy is important so that you can defend vulnerable characters, and beat the crap out of a stunned enemy.
Ultimately there’s not much in the way of tactics or thinking. You move your characters around to maximise vulnerabilities and hide your weaknesses, and hope the A.I. doesn’t just move back on the next turn. That’s really all there is to it.
Being harsh on these small, independent games is not something I like to do, but I also can’t in good faith ignore issues or try to make myself more excited for a game when I’m simply not. But that doesn’t mean I think The Girl of Glass: A Summer Bird’s Tale is bad. I really like the idea of melding relaxed puzzle solving with turn-based combat. I liked the characters, too, and while I had problems with the writing and the pacing, the story is still enjoyable. And man, those visuals are just…*claps like a seal*
So, the final verdict. The grand finale. The big…I don’t know where I’m going with this. The opening hours neatly balance the combat system with the puzzle solving, and feel like a very different game from the four or five hours that follow. It’s an inconsistent game in pacing, writing and tone, yet there are flashes of something awesome. I’m excited to see what else developers Markus and Friends come up with.