Rana temporaria. Hyla cinera. Pseudophryne corroboree.
If none of this Latin rings any bells, it’s probably because your junior high science teacher didn’t burden you with learning a dead language during frog dissection day. The common names of those three frogs--the Common Frog, Green Tree Frog and Corroboree, respectively--are half of the characters serving as the dramatis personae of Ancient Frog.
Ancient Frog is a wholly original puzzle game from Ancient Workshop, a visionary one-man operation currently living “a better life” in New Zealand (a set of islands which, likewise, plays host to a variety of native and introduced frogs). When it comes to conservation efforts, some of Ancient Frog’s represented species, like the Common Frog, are not a pressing concern when it comes to counting worldwide populations. Others, like the Corroboree, are critically endangered and can be found on the Red List for the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources). Without resorting to pedantry or subterfuge, Ancient Frog draws warranted attention to this beautifully-crafted branch of the animal kingdom.
The analogy has been used in other reviews--but it’s an apt one--to describe the puzzles as indoor rock climbing gyms for frogs. Your sticky-footed four-legged protagonist traverses leaves, tree trunks, lily pads and even slabs of concrete in order to move from point A to point B. Point B is always a tasty goal; namely, a fly. Your frog is agile, but not impossibly so, which turns deceptively simple-looking “rock-climbing” puzzles into deft mind benders. One limb at a time, you move the frog across the shadow-played environment to the tune of jubilant birdcalls and rippled croaks.
The puzzles fluctuate in wavelength from “easy” to “impossible,” and while it’s largely done with steady succession, it’s quite intentional to find a “normal” difficulty puzzle following a “challenging” one, and so on. Regardless, progression is linear by no means, and you may return at your leisure to the menu screen to cherry-pick which puzzle you want to try next (or again).
But when I say “menu screen,” I mean “rows of flowers all found in various states of bloom”: An unopened bud on the menu screen signifies an untried puzzle, while a fully-bloomed flower signifies a puzzle accomplished in the par number of movements. A par 17, for example, means getting your frog to the fly within 17 individually picked-up and put-down movements. Should you go higher than par, the par counter--depicted as a spring daisy--will begin to shed its petals like a game of He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not. This doesn’t mean, however, that you straight-out lose. You can use up enough movements to strip your daisy down to its yellow capitulum, but if you (eventually) get the fly, you’ve passed. It may simply beckon you to a rematch later when you see that that particular flower (on the main menu) is reddened and diminished compared to the fuller-bodied and fresher flowers sprung from on-par puzzles you passed.
That, in addition to the absence of a timer, makes Ancient Frog a puzzler giving you all the time in the world. And if you complete all 100 of the puzzles, your steel-trap mind may still not rely on pure memorization to get you through revisited levels. The differing locations, be it on a cement brick or a mossy tree trunk, grow vaguely weary from replication--through no fault of the stunningly-rendered environs. Still, when you see how carefully crafted each leaf, each run of tree bark, and each verdant bed of moss is, it’s hard to not harbor a desire to return at a future date. Still, after just so long, and after just so many visits to the same backdrops with the same species of frog, it begins to (unfairly) feel like Ancient Frog is nothing more than a one-trick pony. That’s largely true, but considering the platform, the option to lose focus is a dangerous one.
Regardless, Ancient Frog’s attention-to-detail swirls unobtrusively about the screen: The frog blinks, croaks, and flexes its toes in a wave pattern; the fly, with its teal abdomen and skittish, circular movements, waits patiently to be devoured (nature can be so beautiful and oh-so violent in tandem, kids); clingy drops of clear dew highlight possible “footholds” for your frog; and a gentle sparkle illuminates calculated puzzle-based movements. It’s a vision that could only be “improved” upon by demanding that James Brown, the solo operation serving as the entire development and publishing brains and brawn behind Ancient Workshop, spend more sleepless nights creating new skins for the frogs (they currently number half a dozen varieties) and new blades of grass, branches and other natural paraphernalia for the cheeky little beggars to crawl around on.
Ancient Frog’s smartly-concocted and arrestingly-beautiful visions are a meaningful yet soft-spoken tribute to frogs specifically, and to the puzzle genre as a whole. The understated rewards won’t sustain trophy seekers, but the slurp of a frog’s tongue and the confetti-like dash of cascading petals signifying a win is reward enough in many cases.
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