Product provided for review. Thanks, Bitfinity!
Developed and published by Bitfinity, Tadpole Treble was originally released in 2016 for Steam and Wii U. The title is notable for being designed by Matthew Taranto ofBrawl in the Family fame, who also composed the soundtrack and drew much of the game’s art. The game now comes to Nintendo Switch as Tadpole Treble Encore, featuring new bonus content and even an entire new stage!
Oh, and as a matter of transparency, I do feel it necessary to mention that I did throw money at the game’s initial Kickstarter campaign. Not only did I get this cute little plush of the protagonist, my name’s in the credits! Yeah, I can’t promise this review will be 100% unbiased.
The game stars Baton, a recently hatched tadpole who is carried away from her home by a hungry pelican. She just barely manages to escape and lands upstream, far from home. And so begins Baton’s perilous journey to reunite with her family.
Tadpole Treble Encore is a musical auto-scroller which tasks the player with guiding Baton as she swims through the many regions of Opus Island. Each stage is arranged like a piece of sheet music, with players having to avoid crashing into the notes of the stage’s song. In addition to this, players can score extra points by picking up collectibles and tail whiping reeds and cymbal-like flowers that send Baton flying when struck. Avoiding damage and hitting reeds will reward the player with not only a score multiplier, but also will eventually enable Baton to activate the “Treble Boost”, which allows her to crash through notes for even more points.
The game’s core concept of swimming through the sheet music of each stage’s level-theme is unique yet very intuitive. While simple, the idea is well-implemented. The compositions include enough variation to be interesting to navigate and can get quite busy in later stages, plus most stages incorporate additional hazards for the player to evade, such as hungry predators, keeping the levels from being too predictable. Moreover, almost every stage has some unique mechanic to keep things fresh. All of these factors come together to ensure the game’s core experience is fun throughout.
As much as I love the gameplay, I confess the controls take some getting used to. Baton moves up and down the musical scale in discrete intervals. While this ultimately makes sense for the gameplay and the game’s theme, it feels a little awkward, especially when having to quickly make large movements. I often found myself overshooting my intended target by one space. Having said that, it’s by no means terrible and is easy to account for with a little practice.
Another odd eccentricity of the game’s controls is that some of the game’s menus can’t be backed out of by pressing the B button, instead requiring the player to manually highlight the “Back” option and confirming with the A button. Note that I said “some”, as in “not all.” I admit it’s only a minor annoyance, but the inconsistency is baffling.
Tadpole Treble is fairly short, with the main story only taking about three hours to complete. Fortunately, the game offers a lot in terms of side objectives. For each stage, there are five medals for the player to obtain: one for clearing the stage normally, one for getting a high enough score, one for getting a low enough score, one for collecting all one hundred of the level’s bubbles in a single pass, and one for getting the level’s challenge fly, which requires completing a level-specific secret objective. While the game isn’t terribly difficult when played casually, and can even be quite relaxing at times, trying to earn the additional medals provides a pretty stiff—and admittedly sometimes frustrating—challenge. And if that’s not enough, the game comes with extra modes such as a marathon mode that tasks players with completing every stage in a row and a level editor which allows players to compose their own songs.
Despite the musical theme of the game’s aesthetics and gameplay, I hesitate to call Tadpole Treble a rhythm game. The player doesn’t really need to worry about timing his actions to the music, though paying attention to the song’s beat is certainly helpful when attempting some of the game’s more difficult challenges. If I had to categorize the game, I’d say it’s somewhat akin to a “bullet-hell” game, though far less overwhelming. “Bullet-heck”, perhaps? What I’m trying to say is, this is a music game for people with little to no sense of rhythm…like me!
Tadpole Treble Encore boasts a beautiful painted art style that wouldn’t look out of place in a children’s storybook. Compared to other 2D games in the H.D. era, Tadpole Treble’s animation is somewhat limited, with only an upwards of six or seven frames per loop. In this case, it actually works given the game’s story book visual style.
As for the story, it’s simple yet effective. As mentioned before, the game begins with Baton hatching and exploring the stream near her home. She ventures just a little too far away from her mother and is snatched up by a pelican. Baton just barely manages to escape, but in doing so ends up near the headwaters of the river that runs through the entirety of Opus Island, the game’s setting. Determined to reunite with her family, she endeavors to swim the entire length of the river, back to her home, braving many dangers and encountering quite a few colorful characters along the way.
Much like the art, Tadpole Treble’s plot feels reminiscent of a children’s storybook, both in premise and execution. It features a simple set up, followed by a sequence of vignettes which each effectively expresses an emotion or mood. Each stage tells its own a story, communicated through the music, lyrics, obstacles, and set pieces. These mini-stories aren’t one-note either: they shift and evolve throughout each level. Throughout my play-through, I got the sense that I was playing through the video game equivalent of an animated musical not unlike the feature films of the Disney Renaissance. In short, the game does an excellent job of telling stories through its gameplay and does so with a whole lot of heart.
Lastly, the game’s writing is funny. While the main story doesn’t feature much in the way of dialog, the lyrics, unlockable bestiary entries, and pretty much everything Etude the Bullfrog says are dripping with Matthew Taranto’s signature, goofy wit.
As to be expected with a music game, the soundtrack is amazing. Each song does an excellent job of evoking just the right feeling for each moment in the level. Moreover, the soundtrack features a diverse set of styles and genres: easy-listening, waltzes, melancholy piano solos, chip tunes, jazzy love ballads, and more. The best part is that despite the wide array of musical styles, the soundtrack sounds cohesive, with no one song sounding out of place.
Changes in Encore
As mentioned previously, Tadpole Treble Encore is an updated port of the original Wii U and Steam version. Encore features new content in the form of a new stage—with a new song—and a new unlockable bonus for those that collect all of the game’s bubbles. I can’t comment on the bonus content, as I haven’t unlocked it, but the new stage is a welcome addition, though I would say the stage and its song are some of the game’s weaker fare. Interestingly, it isn’t a bonus level and instead is inserted into the game’s story, thus extending the main campaign. Despite my opinions of the stage itself, it does serve to even out the game’s pacing, provides some nice build up for the game’s final boss, and even tutorializes a mechanic that many players found confusing in the original release.
On a technical note, Encore includes near instantaneous loads times compared to the rather lengthy load times of the original Wii U version. In contrast, there are also a few graphics glitches that I don’t remember being in the original, though they’re relatively minor instances of Z-fighting, nothing game breaking.
Tadpole Treble Encore takes a simple premise and forges it into an audio-visual delight of a game. The game boasts great visuals, excellent gameplay, plenty of challenge for those who are so inclined, and a stellar soundtrack. Most of important of all, however, is that the game is filled to the brim with heart. Best of all, this version of the game comes with an entire new stage—including a new song—plus additional bonus content, making this the definitive version of the game.
Getting to replay this game was—quite frankly—a refreshing experience; I had forgotten just how much I loved this game. The game is available on the Nintendo Switch eshop for nine dollars, which I would say is a fair price, assuming you’re the sort to replay each stage to get a high score or complete challenges. If you’re only interested in blowing through the game’s story once, you may want to wait for it to go on sale.