The Lion’s Song was originally released on PC in 2016, and is available on mobile as well. While I’m sad that it slipped past me the first time, I’m happy to have discovered it on the Nintendo Switch. There are a lot of wonderful indie titles making their way to the console, and while not all Switch ports are successful, this is an example of a good one that fully deserves to find a wider audience.
Set in Vienna, Austria, in the early 20th century, The Lion’s Song is an episodic point-and-click narrative adventure. There are four stand-alone stories, the first three dedicated to three different characters, while the fourth follows a set of characters travelling on the same train.
While the first adventure confines you to a single location – a remote cabin in the mountains – the others feature a map where you can visit different locations. During each scene in each location, there are lots of items to click on and investigate, to discover secrets and to progress the story. The objects you examine and the conversation options you choose affect the outcome of the story.
The first story follows Wilma, a composer/violinist working on what is supposed to be her greatest work – what will eventually become the Lion’s Song of the title. The second story follows Franz, a struggling artist. The third follows Emma, an aspiring mathematician who is trying to find a place in society while exploring her work. The fourth follows Bert, an aspiring writer as he boards a train, and hears the life stories of three other men seated in the same compartment.
Each character is struggling with how to use their talent, and the world around them is a constant source of inspiration and challenge. There are some sections, particularly in the Franz and Emma stories where the visual and sound design are stunning. For example, when Franz has conversations with his painting subjects, he visualises layers of their personalities, and there is a beautiful audio flourish when this happens. Similarly, as Emma develops her mathematical theory, you have the chance to help her visualise graphs as overlays on the scene, a beautiful representation of the creative vision that science requires. There are even clever opportunities taken to make the text expressive – letters and words wobble and bounce for emphasis to demonstrate emotions from distress through to mischief. I really can’t praise these visual and auditory choices enough; they are perfect flourishes to an already lovely-looking game with an impressively rich classical soundtrack.
Playing the game on the Switch is great – the game looks sharp and clear on the screen and being able to play it on the move is a definite plus. However, the controls are confined solely to the Joy Cons, which means using the left analogue stick to move a cursor around to click things. To not take advantage of the Switch’s touchscreen, which feels like a much more natural choice, is a little odd. But this is a minor point that didn’t really affect how I played the game in the end.
While each story stands alone, they form part of an overarching narrative which reaches a wonderfully bittersweet conclusion in the fourth episode, appropriately named ‘Closure’. Characters make foreground and background appearances in later stories, and objects and items cross the streams with the Lion’s Song of the first story permeating the whole of the game. These connections are showcased in the Connections Gallery, where common items are displayed with commentary and you have the chance to interact with a few characters and find out more about them. There are empty spaces for items not discovered yet, lending them an Easter egg quality and encouraging multiple playthroughs.
It all makes for a woven tapestry of a game that only becomes more delightful the more you play.
But most of all, the stories are linked by themes of discovery, friendship, creativity, and the bravery that it takes to pursue your passion and dreams. It all makes for a woven tapestry of a game that only becomes more delightful the more you play. At the end of each episode, you can compare your choices to the rest of the player community – I was pleased to find that I was one of only 35% of people that won the affections of the art critic Grete, for example. You can easily change some choices by just the touch of a button, but truly unlocking all of the connections in the collection involves some replaying, which is not a chore at all, but a welcome chance to explore the world of the game further.
There are some emotional punches in the narrative, but the heaviest comes right at the end with a final story which sets the timeline firmly in the months before World War I. It came as a bit of a surprise though, which in a way is unfortunate – as a game so steeped in history that even the pixel artwork is mostly made up of earthy, sepia tones, like looking at blurry, photos in old newspaper archives, I think there was a real missed opportunity to further demonstrate the historical significance of some of the narratives, and especially of the setting.
Figures like Gustav Klimt and Sigmund Freud make often humorous appearances. When Franz asks an attendee at a Salon who his favourite painter is and he replies that it’s Klimt, there’s an adorable little text ‘tee hee’ wobbling in the corner of the screen from the nearby artist, and when talking to Freud there’s an amusing turn about how he kicks the furniture when he’s alone (better than kicking his patients, after all). But unless you have knowledge about Vienna, and its historical, artistic and cultural importance at the turn of the 20th century, you’re left feeling by the end as if you’ve missed something, and it can be difficult to work out which parts of the narrative are based on history, and which instead are a fictional twist.
Even so, any criticisms which I level at The Lion’s Song are very minor. It’s a modest little indie game with a big scope and a big heart, impressive at every turn and a fantastic addition to any Switch library. Episode 1 is available for free on Steam if you want to give it a go, and I sincerely hope that you will.