Squirrels…Shifty buggers I always thought. Stashing things, hiding, staring at you and running off abruptly like you caught them saying stuff about you or making some sort of plan to get you. I was looking forward to this NUTS review and playthrough. A pleasant squirrel surveillance puzzle game; a chance to have them endeared to me.
Cream chinos – check.
Blue shirt – check.
A chance to be David Attenborough for this NUTS review. Nope…a chance at revenge.
Last year a squirrel defeated me. No ordinary squirrel mind you, clearly the local Ninja Warrior champion. He kept invading the garden and stealing the bird food.
I tried lurking at windows to shoot him with a super soaker, I tried making squirrel baffles that meant he couldn’t climb onto the bird table. I hated him… he beat me time after time and every time he just used to sit there staring at me through the window, eating the food. NUTS was going to be military grade training for me in tracking and understanding the enemy.
Three Years In The Making
NUTS was originally a short demo created in 48 hours for Global Game Jam in 2018. So much good comes out of that annual event in encouraging developers to just go ahead and make that idea with the specific goal of perhaps starting them down the road to completing something. NUTS is a great example of that journey. Published by NoodleCake it has taken three years to get from that short demo to the full game you see today. You can still download and play the original demo from Itch.io. Jonatan van Hove (Joon in the listed designers), the original Icelandic designer has left it there for posterity.
NUTS is a beautiful, calm game, that bears a lot of similarities to Firewatch. In both games you operate in a remote location of natural beauty with only a more experienced colleague in telephone contact with you as the other human, who offers guidance and tasks. Here your job is to save the Melmoth forest from developers by proving that the area is a significant squirrel habitat and that they live here.
Lights, Camera, Action
After a brief set up you are into the game and it’s pretty simple, with few command options. You pick up cameras and place them to track squirrels, then you return to the caravan, hit record and watch the playback in the morning to see if you captured any on film. If you did you go out and move the cameras to try and ultimately find out where these squirrels are coming from and going to. That’s it; you play on your own, set cameras and scrub video for stills of them to print and fax to your boss for the next mission.
That’s all you do for the whole game. Review over… go photograph some squirrels.
I am aware that this sounds implacably dull and cyclical gameplay, but it really isn’t. It is remarkably engaging. You can be cautious and place cameras quite close together and be certain of tracking their route, you can try to find high wide angle positions or examine the land and take your best guess as to where they might go from where you saw them last. This approach is most rewarding as you scrub the video the next morning to see if you were right.
It’s great when you cut down the chase with a well deduced guess in placing the camera and, surprisingly it’s also quite joyous when you are totally wrong and stare at empty video for 90 seconds and realise you’ve been had…the cunning blighters.
Sure, there has been some criticism of the needless walking back and forwards but you find new routes, new possibilities for your cameras and the sprint function dramatically cuts down the retreading of steps or the return walk to the caravan. It honestly never bothered me one bit.
Let’s Talk Aesthetic
NUTS takes a different slant on look as well as gameplay. At first I am reminded of those stories of kids turning orange from drinking too much Sunny Delight day after day.
Well NUTS looks like it fell into a vat of Sunny Delight and you are wandering around playing the game through a diving mask filled with Sunny Delight. The entire game is presented in stark pastel shades of green, purple and yellow. Again though, this works and it is a clever choice that gives this game a very pleasing aesthetic. Imagine they made your standard glossy natural looking forest, the game would appear a lot duller and perhaps the gameplay intrigue would not be enough to save it.
In addition, the abstract colour palette makes Melmoth forest and the game in general both pleasing to the eye and memorable. It also allows the game to take something of a minimalist approach to surroundings. I don’t know how they do it, but what I noticed while putting together our NUTS review is the environment is entrancing – and the design of the levels makes this visual approach work for highlighting and negotiating different terrain in a way it just wouldn’t if it were plainly shown as a grey rock and green tree in clear definition.
I got about five hours of pleasant gameplay for this NUTS review, and the only replay value are tapes left lying around from when your boss was surveying the squirrels some time ago.
You may miss them as you progress through each of the six levels. You don’t need them to complete the game, but given a large part of the game is the narrative then it certainly adds to the game to seek them out.
Let’s Go NUTS
All in all, NUTS is definitely worth a pecan. It’s basically a giant game of hide-and-seek and has a great feel to it all round. It’s a good example of simple ideas done well – work. So go check it out and bathe yourself happily in this luminous squirrel conundrum. The story is strong, the gameplay straight forward, but engaging and you’ll have a good time discovering what these squirrels are up to.
The discovery is going to make me treat the one in my garden with a little more respect…I might even give him some nuts.