By Ronald Gordon
Sometimes a trip into a magical forest can be an excursion filled with splendor and whimsy. Other times, it will lead you through a horrific menagerie of grim, gruesome, and gross horror stories. Bramble: The Mountain King demonstrates how a pleasant journey can go so terribly awry that you’ll dread ever setting foot in another forest.
Bramble: the Mountain King is a horror adventure game developed by Dimfrost Studio and published by Merge Games. You play as a little boy named Olle and wake up in the middle of the night to find that your sister Lillimor is gone. Knowing that she has wandered into the forest despite your mother’s warning, you quickly follow after her and at first find yourself on a magnificent, magical quest. However, things quickly turn sour as Lillimor is kidnapped by trolls and taken to the Mountain King – who intends to eat her – so you set off up the mountain to free her. Only the mad could imagine the terrors that await you as you leave the evergreen grass behind and begin to trudge through darker, muddier terrains on your rescue mission.
I offer this analogy. Bramble: The Mountain King is a flight of stairs that Olle is kicked viciously down at nearly every turn. From its innumerable chase segments to its challenging boss fights, Bramble doesn’t give you a lot of moments to rest. Your only tool is a magic rock of pure light, which can be used solely to damage bosses and destroy a certain type of plant bloom. Your lone remaining defense is to run. And further heightening the dread, Bramble’s world feels cursed, more than any other I’ve seen. From the monsters you encounter to the parts of the forest you venture through, once you understand how steeped in darkness it all is, the various story beats become comprehensible.
Halfway through the game I found myself surrounded by zombies, having to duck into bushes and outrun them so that my spine wouldn’t be ripped out. At first, I wondered what zombies would even be doing in a forest. But as I explored an old and abandoned house, I found the body of a woman with her journal which explained it all. For weeks, a mysterious black-haired woman would wander into this, now nameless and ruined forest town to lure men away, never to be seen again. In retaliation, the townspeople began abducting and executing the black-haired women who lived among them. And then a plague descended, which many believed was punishment for the townspeople’s actions. The zombies came from that plague.
So who was this black-haired woman? A forest witch I had just killed, who used the strung-up bodies of the vanished men as fuel for her magic. The entire Bramble story is like this: difficult to understand until you find the connections, like what links the dark souls lost in the swamp to the trolls in the forest, and you realize it’s always dark magic.
The game has stunning visuals and handles its 3D aspects well, though there were times when I found it hard to differentiate the background from the foreground. Other than that, I lost myself in the various colors of the world. From the bright greens of the grasses to the dim grays and browns of the beleaguered town, all of them felt magical. The music was intense as well, dancing between light and whimsical, and thundering and heart-pounding. I found it a bit funny that with the game’s final boss (the Mountain King), a custom rendition of Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King, composed by Martin Wave & Dan Wakefield, began to blare and boom as the fight went on. It’s a hilariously apt use of such a renowned orchestral piece.
Bramble: The Mountain King is one of the few well-rounded Horror games I’ve encountered recently. The story is told not only through the game’s beats, but also via its environment, and the creatures you encounter. There’s nothing that feels out of place, making the story feel cohesive despite all of the twists and turns you discover. Anyone looking for a frightful offering that offers a spine-chilling experience without the excessive use of jump scares or other overdone tactics would enjoy this very original game.
Ronald Gordon is a New York Videogame Critics Circle Member & Mentor. He was the first of our writers – or any intern anywhere – to complete an internship at Rockstar Games.