I’m not sure I can remember the last time a game trailer excited me as much as About An Elf’s announcement trailer did. Every second of that video seemed crafted in a way meant to appeal directly to me. The visuals. The music. The humor. The characters. The overall concept. Everything just seemed so perfectly tuned to my tastes that I was genuinely afraid to request review code, because what if the actual game couldn’t live up to the fantasy one I was already playing in my head?
It is also that trailer that serves as the single most useful piece of this review of About An Elf. Honestly, almost everything I’m going to say past this point will be fluff, because I am very confident in the idea that you can base your entire purchasing/playing decision by watching the video I’ve embedded below. Does the trailer speak to you in a similar way as it spoke to me? Then you’ll probably enjoy About An Elf. Do you think it looks like absolute artsy garbage? Then you’ll probably be in the majority, and you should stay far away.
Every story needs a hero, and our hero here is Princess Dam, the best damn princess the elves could ever ask for. Every hero needs a quest, and Dam’s quest is to bring about the elftopia. What is the elftopia, you ask? Well, it’s the most important anything ever. The elftopia means everything. Or, perhaps it doesn’t mean anything? It’s the day and night, the solid and sublime. It may last an eon and an age, or it may be a blink in time. It’s that instance, or place, or circumstance, or whatever, when all just happens to be… elf-ok.
Unfortunately, the elftopia can’t become reality until Princess Dam drives all the monsters out of the ancient elven homeland. That’s a tall order for one little elf, so thankfully Dam meets Roland, a friendly cat who’s convinced to help the princess instead of eating her. The duo sets out to rid the land of evil and bring down the King of Terrors so that the elftopia might commence.
Whereas most of About An Elf unfolds as a visual novel, with a lot of text-based dialog and a smattering of choices, battles are where we get most of our gameplay. To fell her foes, Princess Dam breaks out her collection of crystallized chunks of pure magic known as Magiballs. Each Magiball represents a particular element, and when encountering an enemy, a clue to their weakness flashes on screen. As the player, you need to help Dam decipher those crystal visions, and then pick the right Magiball to employ. If you make the correct choice, Dam vanquishes the monster, clearing the way for her and Roland to continue on their quest. Choose wrong, and Dam (and you) can try again so long as she still has a stock of gummy bears left.
Look, okay, I know some of you probably aren’t even reading this sentence because you’ve already left this page to go browse TikTok or something. About An Elf is an incredibly difficult game to sell—or heck, even properly convey—in text, because so much of the experience is, well, the experience, rather than what you’re doing or why you’re doing it or how you’re doing it. As a game, it’s better than some visual novels I’ve played, but certainly can’t compare with many of the higher-tier offerings of the genre. And, unquestionably, its humor and characters will not be for everyone.
For me, though, there’s just so much to About An Elf that comes across as creative, interesting, and utterly charming. Take the game’s visual style, for example. Even beyond the actual graphical elements that make up the characters or the backgrounds, everything has an animation style that is very limited in frames yet incredibly energetic in movement. Meringue Interactive does a whole lot with only a little here, and it leaves About An Elf looking like few other games you’ll have seen before. In the same way, the game’s music clips are short and repetitive, yet they’re also exquisite, quickly giving the adventure just as much audible personality as it has visual.
And then, there’s Princess Dam herself, along with Roland, fellow elf Dido, and the rest of the weirdos that await along the way. Even at those times when the game’s humor doesn’t land, the characters continue to carry the load. I now genuinely love Dam as a character, and Sakurai should come out of retirement so she can be added to Smash. Also, spread throughout the constant undercurrent of bizarre humor are some dark and emotional moments, which only got me more invested in every player in the unfolding story.
Sadly, as much as I wish I could say differently, About An Elf is neither utopia nor elftopia. Its writing is weak at times, such as the poetry-style interstitials we often get between scenes. Sometimes they worked, while other times they left me completely lost on what I was supposed to be feeling. The game also makes a cardinal sin that no RPG or visual novel should be committing at this point: There’s no button (that I could find) to advance text that won’t then also answer questions. Some of the choices you’ll need to make are important, and yet it’s easy to be speedily progressing through a conversation then accidentally register an answer before you realize it. And, in terms of the overall gameplay loop in general, it can start to wear thin even if you love all of the game’s narrative and atmospheric elements. I think it took me somewhere under six hours to beat About An Elf, but I did so in three different sessions so that I wouldn’t suffer burnout.
The biggest thing, though, is that About An Elf feels like it’s missing something—yet as much as I love playing armchair developer, I don’t know what that something is. It just seems like there’s a hole in that gameplay loop where more should be, but it’s not clear where that hole is and thus hard to decide what that “more” is. Initially, I thought maybe Dam’s battles with the monsters needed to be beefier, like a QTE, or a puzzle segment, or maybe even a rhythm-based battle system.
It didn’t take me long to realize how awkward and atmosphere-breaking such a decision would be, though. Maybe it’d work if, say, the first time she gets into a fight, Dam has to solve this hyper-complicated Sudoku puzzle or something, but then decides it’s too much work, so they’re all just removed from the game. I don’t know. All I know is it feels as if, for example, Thanos snapped Dark Souls’ rolls, and our memories of them, out of existence. Going back to play the Souls games, they’d feel like complete projects, but there’d be that inescapable sense of something being missing.
I warned you paragraphs ago that most of what I was going to say in this review was probably going to be of no help to you in deciding if you should play About An Elf or not, and I’m feeling pretty confident in having proven myself right.
This is a game that’s interesting, and funny, and weird, and adorable, and stupid, and short, and repetitive, and incomplete. It’s the kind of game that makes you say you’re glad we have indie games that can take such chances, while also making you find people who say that kind of thing to be obnoxious hipsters. It’s a game that has something meaningful to say about the very notion of gameplay, but which also might not be saying anything meaningful at all.
Watch the video I’ve embedded above. Does the trailer speak to you in a similar way as it spoke to me? Then you’ll probably enjoy About An Elf. Do you think it looks like absolute artsy garbage? Then you’ll probably be in the majority, and you should stay far away.
About An Elf is a game about an elf who wants to bring about the elftopia. It’s about Princess Dam, who may or may not be a psychopath, and it’s about a cat who wants to have half-cat, half-elf babies, and about another elf who pays Dam gummy bears to tell her stupid stories. It’s about going on an adventure to fantastical places and facing off against monstrous foes, and it’s about figuring out at times overly obscure video puzzles in order to beat those foes. It’s a story about love, and loss, and hope. And, in the end, About An Elf is about five to six hours long.
T - Teen
|About An Elf is available on Nintendo Switch. Primary version played was for Switch. Product was provided by Meringue Interactive for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Check her out on Twitter and Mastodon.