We are not many, but we are enough
I’m a massive fan of games that draw from the developers’ cultural backgrounds — something about seeing our shared world through a different lens is one of the biggest draws for me in terms of narrative. A learning experience as much as it is an enjoyable one, playing a game with deep cultural connections serves to enrich any gamer, and in an industry where certain regions tend to overpower others, I feel it’s critically important that we do our part to seek out games that explore the road less traveled when it comes to story, design, and philosophy. Games that authentically celebrate the traditions and heritages of the softer voices in the industry.
Games like Embracelet, a coming-of-age story set in Northern Norway, depicting love and loss, friends and family, and the desire to preserve what came before us while staying true to our hearts’ callings.
Developed and self-published by Norwegian solo indie dev Machineboy, Embracelet is available on both Steam and Nintendo Switch for a surprisingly inexpensive $11.99. Machineboy is continuing his tradition of creating games that are grounded in heritage while looking to a magical beyond as seen in his award-winning 2017 title, Milkmaid of the Milky Way, which I personally attribute to stoking the flames of my current love affair with indies. With a beautiful island to explore and plenty of puzzles to solve, Embracelet promises to carry the legacy of what made his first title great.
Embracelet starts with 17-year-old quiet kid Jesper visiting his ailing grandfather, who decides it’s time to give him a mysterious bracelet with otherworldly powers. Jesper’s grandfather isn’t sure why the bracelet is capable of interacting with the world around it, doing things such as moving statues and shooting out powerful beams. With the gift comes a request: take the bracelet back to his grandfather’s childhood home and return it to its rightful owner, whoever that may be. Determined to fulfill his grandfather’s wish, Jesper sets sail for the island of Slepp to uncover the secrets behind the bracelet and to learn more about his family’s roots.
Once on Slepp, Jesper soon learns more than he set out to — traipsing around the island yields plenty of answers about his family’s past, but even more questions about the island, its inhabitants, its future, and secrets long-forgotten. Joined by his newfound cousin companions Hermod and Karoline, the three of them explore not only the quaint fishing village but their hopes and dreams for the future; Karoline, a more positive teen determinted to revive Slepp, and Hermod, a frustrated teen coming to terms with his sexuality. Jesper’s arrival signals not only the conclusion of his grandfather’s story, but the catalyst for Hermod’s and Karoline’s life path as well.
It’s recommended to play Embracelet with a controller, although it is possible to play with a keyboard and mouse. To be perfectly honest, I found it easier to play with a combination of the two, using the controller to move Jesper around the island and the mouse to interact with items using the bracelet’s powers. I found the controls straight-foward enough in theory, but for some reason the execution was a little clunky; with that being said, it didn’t hamper my ability to play at all and only serves to reinforce that a controller should be used from the get-go.
The use of color in Embracelet is stunning, but I didn’t fully appreciate it until I looked back on my screenshots and realized a gradual transition from a monotonous, bland setting to a vibrant, lively landscape. It’s almost as if Jesper’s world doesn’t begin to come to life until he arrives on Slepp, finding not only the answers to his grandfather’s mysterious bracelet but himself in the sleepy village. From shy loner to confident hero, Jesper’s growth during Embracelet is evident in the nuanced use of color — a veritable triumph in quiet communication.
Embracelet’s gorgeous visuals don’t end with the use of color — throughout the game, I was shocked by just how cinematic everything felt. Not just the cutscenes, either (although those were incredibly impressive) — with clever camera angles, Slepp featured sweeping landscapes underneath impossibly wide skies. I found myself with my finger constantly on the screenshot button trying to get the perfect picture, knowing that I couldn’t truly capture the beauty unfolding before my eyes but giving it a shot anyway.
I don’t want to spoil the storyline too much, as it is at most a six-hour experience, but Embracelet’s tale wonderfully depicts the struggles of living in a dying community. Normally these tales end with the protagonist leaving for bigger and better things, but Embracelet elevated the mood with an optimistic potential for revitalized growth, one character hoping to turn Slepp into a tourist attraction. The can-do attitude some of the characters possessed made it feel like such a thing was possible, and that overarching optimism was felt through the entirety of the game to make for a more uplifting mood.
I will spoil a teensy bit, and that’s the romance options — remember how Slepp has two cousin characters roughly Jesper’s age? At first I thought it would predictably follow the pattern where boy meets boy and girl, boy likes girl, other boy becomes best friend. Typical, right? Turns out that’s… one way to play the game, the other option being that you can indeed romance Hermod. I was grinning ear to ear when I learned this was possible, as Jesper’s character is such a blank slate kind of kid that it feels like quite a natural option for him. And with the parallels between Hermod and someone close to Jesper’s grandfather, I found the relationship to be the most logical course and genuinely enjoyed how this was handled. Coupled with the fact that their “romance” is so G-rated that it’s straight up adorable puppy-love, I couldn’t help but put the pair together.
Although I have more praises than complaints, I admit I do have a few of the latter. I’ve already discussed the not-so-intuitive controls, which seem to be connected to the camera angles that, at times, will focus too far off-center. This makes for a difficult time trying to walk to the next area, accomplish tasks, and solve puzzles on occasion. And speaking of puzzles, they’re actually pretty straight-forward, but there aren’t all that many to solve. While this reinforces the notion that Slepp is an empty village, this may rub some players the wrong way. With that being said, I do feel that this is more of a pro than a con, as each puzzle has a sincere meaning that drives the narrative forward instead of just being filler content to pad the game with more hours than necessary. Despite the negatives, there are more positives to be experienced in Embracelet, proving that Machineboy has a winning formula for making fantastic games.
Above everything else, Embracelet gives us an important glimpse into a Norwegian setting that gamers don’t often get. Although more people live in Norway than have ever visited space, I feel we’re more familiar with the “final frontier” than a country that crosses the Arctic Circle here on Earth. From the architecture of the tiny homes to the ships that sailed the icy seas, the outlook on isolated life to typical teenage years spent amongst friends, Embracelet served not only as a peek into what Norway looks like, but a reminder that we’re more similar than different and, at the end of the day, share the same values and live under the same bright sky.
Embracelet is a genuinely endearing game that will win over players with its relatable coming-of-age tale, sweeping cinematics, stunning soundtrack, and glorious use of color, providing a soothing experience that still piques plenty of interest. Those seeking a setting off the beaten path will absolutely find that here in addition to both charm and whimsy abound. Embracelet serves as a comforting reminder that love can allow us to do great things, and that we’re all the more richer with people we care for in our lives. If you’re looking for a short but sweet title that will please all the senses and delight you to your core, do not hesitate to pick up Embracelet.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Switch, PC (reviewed); Publisher: Machineboy; Developer: Machineboy; Players: 1; Released: September 24, 2020; MSRP: $11.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a copy of Embracelet given to HeyPoorPlayer by the developer.