Early 20th century Austria may not sound like the most interesting setting for a video game, but it gave rise to significant moments in history. Many may know it as the home country of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination was pivotal leading up to World War I. However, not everyone may know that it was also a breeding ground of modernism in an era focused on cultural advancements in the arts and sciences. The Lion’s Song explores this period through a point-and-click adventure game told in four episodes, all available in one download on the Nintendo Switch.
Each episode stars a different character, delving into that person’s life as he or she is on the cusp of a new development, be it in music, art, or mathematics. The stories focus on their hardships with shockingly deep introspection. Truth be told, it’s a much more mature game than its teen rating implies, dealing with insecurities and issues that some adults may resonate with today. For instance, the first episode follows Wilma, who struggles to find inspiration for a song composition right before her breakthrough concert. Many of us have been in her shoes, facing writer’s block before a deadline. How the game presented her trouble is what sold her plight for me – her desperate expressions, her vivid dream sequences, and her moving display of fear and loneliness.
Similar situations apply to the second episode in which a young artist can see the inner layers of others but has trouble capturing their true beauty. Then, there’s the third episode where a female mathematician seeks change during a time of discrimination and sexism. Each tale presents a dark look into what the characters are truly facing, and how they must overcome their insecurities.
The emotions are more genuine than you might expect from a game with retro pixelated graphics. Yet the sepia tone fits so well to convey this period long past, in the same way some movies use a filter to invoke nostalgia. However, the drab monochromatic color scheme, relatively motionless characters, and lack of voice acting run the risk of being dull. The same can be said for the overwhelming silence, although it picks up once you first hear the titular composition, the Lion’s Song.
The Lion's Song is a point-and-click adventure game, but given the limited interactivity, it plays out more like a visual novel. You can move a cursor and click on objects, oddly without touch screen support, but there are no puzzles beyond figuring out where to go and what to do next. Even when a situation remotely resembles a puzzle, like finding a key, the character will tell you exactly where to find it.
There's some player agency in the form of dialogue choices, which affect some minor story deviations, such as character relationships. At the end of each episode, you receive a Telltale Games-like breakdown of how many players made identical choices. I appreciated that I could instantly go back and redo these segments just to see how they would alter the story. While the episodes intersect at points, decisions from previous chapters make very little impact in the long run. The only real payoff is unlocking bonus achievements and scenes in the epilogue, which aren’t necessarily compelling enough to warrant replaying this four to five hour game.
The lack of engagement is The Lion’s Song's biggest shortcoming. The story is well told and the characters are sincerely relatable, but you get little chance to do much with them in an enjoyable way. In the first episode, you are limited to a cabin setting, and all you do is tap on objects and talk on the phone to give the musician Wilma creative inspiration. It’s meaningful when the story comes together, but the journey itself is tiresome. The mathematician Emma’s story has a similar issue, only with an expanded map. You can walk to different locations, put on a male disguise, and fiddle around with equations, but the story drags due to its repetitious themes and dry tone. The story that captured the greatest balance was that of the painter Franz, whose tasks to choose viable art models and impress a harsh critic provided a solid gameplay loop.
Overall, The Lion’s Song presents a poignant narrative adventure that aims to invoke strong emotions. While not every tale was fun to play, they each told fascinating character pieces focused on passionate creativity that actually drove me to introspection. Even for a point-and-click game, it is light on interaction and more akin to reading a book with dialogue choices. The drab presentation and dry plot may bore some, but those who appreciate good historical fiction will find there’s more to this game than its cover.
I am a lifelong gamer, having grown up with Nintendo since I was young. My passion for gaming led to one of the greatest moments of my life, my video game themed wedding!