Spelling Bee Blues.
There’s positively no fun to be had in picking on a game like Page Chronica. Taking glee in breaking down its many failures would put me on par with that sicko you knew in grade school who used to kick puppies or set ants on fire for fun. With its spelling based gameplay, it makes an earnest attempt to be different, and for that, I commend it. Sadly, it fails to leverage its novel idea into compelling gameplay, leaving you with nothing but an incredibly sub-standard side-scrolling platformer.
Page Chronica opens with promise, setting the stage with story book-style panache. You play as Topez, a young librarian at a very special library where all the dreams that ever were or will ever be are stored within towering stacks of ancient tomes. One day, curiosity gets the best of her, and she opens a book she shouldn’t have, freeing a malevolent black cloud, cleverly named “The Big Bad”, who then begins invading other books, corrupting people’s dreams as he goes. While it’s a pretty neat setup, this is as good as the game ever gets.
The very moment you actually take control of Topez, Page Chronica’s homeliness becomes immediately apparent. I’m sorry, but this game didn’t just fall out of the ugly tree, it leapt out of it. Its fairy tale tone is poorly served by its murky, shallow colors, as is its gameplay, which suffers just as much due to how indiscernible platforms and enemies can be from the rest of the environment. I would say it looks like a PS2 game, but Klonoa 2 was on that system, and boy was that a slice of gorgeous. No, this looks more like an upscaled PS1 game honestly, and it runs like one too. Despite its drab, rudimentary enemy models and backgrounds, it still struggles to keep a steady frame rate. I can understand not having the budget to make your game sparkle, but at least get it running well.
To be fair though, the visuals were never going to be Page Chronica’s main draw. The point of interest here is the spelling mechanic you use, presumably to aid you in your journey. There’s tons of interesting directions the devs could have gone with this, but somehow, they settled for simply spelling any word you like from a set of random letters. That’s really all you do. Pressing the L1 button slows time and brings up a floating cloud of alphabet soup for you pick words out of. Not only is it a boring mechanic to use, but the rewards you reap for using it successfully are completely mundane.
Simply put, spelling words is a necessity, not because there are puzzles built around it (there aren’t) but because doing so is the only way to get access to rudimentary character abilities. As crazy as it sounds, you have to constantly earn the right to perform a double jump, or even a basic attack. It’s about as fun as it sounds. To make matters worse, flipping into spelling mode doesn’t stop or even slow the game clock, which kills you once it runs out. Suffice it to say, being forced to repeatedly use an uninteresting mechanic just to do stuff my character should be capable of doing anyway while a death timer looms over head doesn’t qualify as fun in my book.
The platforming itself is likewise riddled with design problems. Aside from how tough it is to make out what you can and can’t land on, you have to contend with Topez’s fixed jump height. No matter how quickly you release the jump button, she always uses her maximum vertical, a fact the level designs often exploit with low hovering enemies and hazards. Such artificially manufactured difficulty quickly leads to boredom and frustration, as do the poorly conveyed bottomless pits. Coming from the old guard of platformers, I’m no stranger to do-or-die jumps, but the way Page Chronica plays tricks with you is downright infuriating. In some places, you can drop down to the screen below safely, in others you can’t. The only way to tell is by the presence of big hazard signs, which sometimes won’t be visible until you’ve already plummeted to your death. Cute, guys. Real cute.
There really is no silver lining to the cloud that is Page Chronica. I thought maybe I’d be in for another addictive platform/puzzle hybrid like Henry Hatsworth, but while the concept is similar, the results are anything but. Clumsy design keeps it from doing anything unique or interesting with its main hook, a fact I find truly disappointing given how much promise it held.
If I haven’t made myself clear enough, allow me to spell it out for you: if you feel like working on your vocab, go read a book. If you feel like playing a good puzzle/platformer, look elsewhere. You can do much better than Page Chronica.