Wik: The Fable of Souls is an unusual little action puzzle game in which the title character, a froglike critter with an elastic tongue, must jump and swing his way through more than 100 different levels while spitting grubs at his docile buddy, Slotham. So it's not just another simple Xbox Live Arcade shoot-'em-up--not that there's anything wrong with those. Featuring an award-winning design and plenty of challenging scenarios, Wik more than makes up for its initially bland presentation with plenty of compelling, briskly paced gameplay.
Each of the game's levels takes place on a static screen, typically riddled with trees, rocks, and other platforms, as well as coins, gems, and various bugs and other creatures. The first thing you notice when you start playing as Wik is that he can't actually walk around--he can only jump, and by moving the left stick in different directions, you can make him either leap high or far, or somewhere in between. Jumping isn't the only means of locomotion, though. Wik can use his tongue to latch on to most objects in the environment, which he can then use to swing from side to side, possibly even in a loop-de-loop if Wik picks up enough momentum. Releasing the latch button at just the right time can cause him to fly much higher or farther than he can jump. The controls definitely take getting used to, but they're interesting and highly responsive, and learning them is made easier thanks to some built-in gameplay demos and how-to tips. Soon enough you'll be controlling Wik with finesse.
The layout and objectives of the game's 100-plus levels are all a bit different, but the typical scenario involves sucking up little green grubs worming their way around the level and then spitting them toward Slotham, a slow-moving critter who moseys his way across the screen. If Slotham leaves the area before you've tossed him a sufficient number of grubs, you need to start the level over. You can slow Slotham down by feeding him bits of honey, but there are plenty of other factors to consider than just getting left behind by this bumbling creature. For instance, you'll face swarming insects that'll pick up the grubs and try to carry them away. You can suck these up and spit them out, but some bugs are deadly if ingested, and others are aggressive enough to attack Wik if he gets close. Bottomless pits and other environmental hazards can make things tougher still. Fortunately, most of the levels aren't so difficult that you couldn't get through them in few tries, and since they're short, playing them multiple times doesn't tend to get frustrating.
The levels may not look that different from one to the next, but there's really a good amount of variety to the game's level design. Some levels charge you with having to swing wildly from one side of the level to another, quickly trying to snatch up grubs as they appear so that they don't get taken away. Other levels require you to quickly snatch up as many grubs as possible while spitting acorns and other things at ransacking bugs. Still others are quite puzzle-oriented, so you'll need to experiment and examine the terrain carefully in order to figure out how to proceed. The story mode introduces new elements of play at a gradual pace, so your skills should improve roughly in pace with the early levels. Later on, things get a lot tougher, and since the story mode consists of literally dozens of different levels, it'll last you a good number of hours.
In addition to the story mode, Wik: The Fable of Souls offers several additional modes of play: There's the challenge mode, a linear series of tougher scenarios; the bonus mode, which emphasizes some of the game's unique mechanics; and a local multiplayer mode for up to four players, in which you and up to three friends can see who's the nimblest and quickest. There are three multiplayer game types, including tag, plague, and fire pit. The first two are competitive, while the third one is more about survival--you're constantly jumping from platforms that keep dropping from the top of the screen into lava. You can play the fire pit by yourself if you prefer, and it's probably the most compelling of the multiplayer modes. Meanwhile, the challenge mode levels are similar to the story levels, so it's more good-quality content, except you get to race against the clock to see if you can beat the developers' (and other players') best times. And the bonus mode's "loopnastics" level is also really fun, since it's set up to accentuate Wik's acrobatic abilities; you earn points for successive loop-de-loops. The game features a dozen unlockable achievements that will help entice you to master some of Wik's moves, as well as to progress through the different modes.
Though the gameplay in Wik: The Fable of Souls is really quite entertaining, the presentation leaves something to be desired. The visuals are, in a word, small. Static background images and tiny moving characters will leave you squinting at the screen. Even Wik himself can be difficult to notice at first. Thankfully, there's a clear visual cue when grubs first appear onscreen, since those things are key to finishing most of the game's levels. The audio in Wik is also nothing to write home about, for the most part. There's a bit of ambient music that plays during the levels, though it's strangely eerie, setting a mood for the game that should have been more lighthearted. Some good sound effects are definitely in there, though, especially for grubs, who let out this weird little giggle whenever they're snatched up by an insect. There are a few power-ups to be found in the game, and one of them causes everything to move in slow-motion to the amusing sound of a fast-paced techno tune, in what's got to be an homage to The Matrix. Nevertheless, the good qualities of Wik's presentation aren't quickly noticeable, and some drab-looking menus also hurt the first impression it'll give you.
Of course, if you're looking for flashy graphics, you can find them in most of the games comprising the Xbox 360's launch lineup. On the other hand, what Wik: The Fable of Souls has are refreshingly different controls and an original design. The game is loaded with fast, challenging levels (it's plenty for the roughly $10 price of admission), and mastering how to maneuver the diminutive main character is a real test of skill. So give it a chance, and you'll find that Wik: The Fable of Souls is well worth your while. It's one of those games that you could just as easily enjoy for a few minutes or a few hours at a time, making it a great fit for Xbox Live Arcade.