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Saturday, 30 January 2016

Review - Sydney's World

The first thing that it’s important to know about Sydney’s World is that while it looks like a traditional JRPG, that’s not really what it is – it’s a DGBL (Digital Game-Based Learning) tool, and as such it’s aimed at readers aged 8 and above.  It’s designed to encourage reading, and (particularly with younger children) for a parent / guardian / teacher to play along with the child, encouraging reading, creative thinking and imagination along with the game play.  For older children whose reading is a little more advanced, there are plenty of life lessons to be learned as you rescue Sydney’s dad.
It's not easy, being heroes...

Ah, yes, rescuing dad – plot-wise I’m not going to tell you much, as the game is heavily narrative-led and I don’t want to give any real spoilers.  Basically it’s a traditional children’s fantasy storyline, with a young girl called Sydney transported to another world along with her toy elf Snowball, who is brought to life in this world.  Their quest is to save Sydney’s dad, who has been kidnapped in this world.

Game play will be familiar to anyone who’s played a JRPG / RPG Maker game, but even if you’re not familiar with the genre, it won’t take you long to pick up.  Because it’s DGBL not pure JRPG, fans of the latter will be disappointed with some aspects of it – for instance there are very few items to use, no additional weapons or armours to equip beyond what each character is already equipped with (at least if there are, I don’t recall ever finding them),  the maps are rather uninteresting in terms of what you can do, quests and dialogues tend to be rather straightforward, and maps have visible exit points that you can’t exit.  That said the game does possess a fair few things that you won’t come across without some pretty serious exploration, but basically if you want a traditional JRPG, Sydney’s World isn’t it.  The game play is usually quite linear, but things definitely get more interesting later on in the game.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s look at Sydney’s World in terms of what it actually is, not what it isn’t.  I don’t have a test subject as such since the target audience is a little older than my oldest daughter – however I can tell you that she was pretty engaged by what was going on when she watched me playing it.  The game’s creator strongly believes in the potential of computer games being used for learning, and from my own experience and game devving, this is a view I wholeheartedly agree with.  

Always good advice!  We indie devs should probably take that to heart...

The narrative is vital to this game and happily the writing is very good.  It’s a solid kid’s fantasy yarn with plenty of interesting characters and a few twists and turns, while the characters in your party are well characterised.  Sydney’s constant cravings for snacks always made me chuckle (and rather reminded me of my own progeny!).  There is only partial voicing – Sydney and villains in the game are voiced - which seemed a little odd at first, until I thought about how it was developed to encourage reading.   The voice acting is good quality, rather over the top in places but that’s fine for pantomime villains, and it may only be me that found Sydney’s cute little girl voice a little overdone.  

Throughout the game there are many opportunities for extra reading – typically in bookcases found liberally scattered throughout the game world – which often contain allegorical tales or truisms.    The result of this is that the game works educationally on many levels, from reading comprehension to vocabulary building to life lessons, but this never feels forced, preachy or promoting a particular ideology – everything is nicely balanced and makes you find answers in your own head, not in the game.  Even for younger players there’s plenty of food for thought, especially with Sydney’s struggles to comprehend, for example, war and hatred between races.

Cat Owners and Dog Owners are not different races.  I think.

I have to admit to finding the difficulty of the battles a little unbalanced at times, with occasional massive jumps in difficulty level, but this may have been due to 1/ trying to rush through a little in order to get the review done and 2/ thinking early on that I could go back and grind through a couple of levels when actually I couldn’t (to be fair to the game, there are several points where it asks you if you’re finished exploring properly as you may not be able to return once you enter certain areas).  However once I progressed past a certain point, it seemed more balanced again – still a challenge in places, but not frustrating to progress.

The game play is mainly based around puzzle-solving, although exploration is still important and obviously in the sections with enemy critters (these do not re-spawn and can often be avoided) there are battles to contend with.  Occasionally you have to make choices about things which can occasionally result in an instant game over - I would suggest saving regularly just in case one of these comes up!

Purely as a JRPG, the game is certainly playable, but falls short in certain areas.  As a learning tool, it does its job extremely well, and I applaud its family-friendly approach.  The game is aimed for ages 8 upwards, my own guess at the maximum age would probably be 14 or so, although to be honest it could quite easily teach older teenagers a thing or two.  Enjoyable and educational, a winning combination!

Sydney's World will be released on Steam on 1st February 2016. 

Yikes!  It's a Bone Dragon!

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