Charm is such a difficult concept to define in a video game. It’s what separates your Undertale from your Gears of War, a pair of games that I might be the first person to ever compare. But, in order to explain why Wishlair is actually good, and not the blocky 80s nightmare released 40 years out of time that it might appear from the screenshots, I’m going to have to pin down this spurious concept of charm, as it’s something that Wishlair oozes like Piers Morgan oozes smarminess.
In Wishlair you control a rectangular hero on a quest to join his presumably equally rectangular father in the realm of Wishlair. On your journey to the long-forgotten kingdom, you’ll collect shards. You’re promised that collecting 1000 of these little glowing gems of mysticism will make your wildest dreams come true.
You use WASD to move around the screen and each screen is a room. You’ll need to explore every room in the Underrealm and beyond to collect 1000 shards and find the fateful entrance to Wishlair, the key to reuniting with your father. The rooms are all rectangular and tessellate perfectly into a grid, with a room on the left, right, top and bottom, as can be seen on the map. But each room only has a couple of doors, meaning you can’t walk from any room to any other. You’ll need to explore and check the map regularly to know where you are and what else you need to explore. The map also tells you how many shards are in each room so you can see which rooms you’ve completed and which you need to go back to. The blocky aesthetic carries through in every aspect of the game, leading to a consistent, unusual (in the 21st century) and reasonably pretty art style: you’re a block, the rooms are blocks, the map is blocks, the enemies are blocks.
Speaking of enemies, there are some. In the Underrealm you’ll face a range of enemies, most notably blocks that the game is adamant are ghosts. They travel randomly around the screen like that ‘DVD-Video’ logo on old DVD players (for the younger audience, a DVD was a shiny inedible doughnut that sometimes showed episodes of Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor Who if you put it in a magic box under the TV). If the ghosts touch you they do damage so you just need to avoid them to continue on your merry way.
Wishlair also has some Metroidvania aspects. You’ll face obstacles you can’t progress past until you’ve retrieved another item. You won’t be able to cross a dark room until you find a candle to illuminate the way for fear of Cthulhus dragging you into the depths from the darkness. You’ll be able to gracelessly skid your way around icy paths like Jayne Torvill after a concussion but until you get some magical boots you won’t be able to fully explore the surface. Pots are blocking several doorways and as you’re no Dark Souls protagonist you won’t be able to roll your way through them, it’ll take you finding a weapon to smash your way to the next room.
There’s a lot of game in this game. For an experience where your only real interactions are movement-based and the visuals are minimal, there’s so much going on. There are NPCs dotted through the Underrealm who have such wonderful personalities that shine through in their very limited dialogue. Almost every mechanic is satisfying to partake in and the “Gotta catch ’em all” feeling of ticking off every shard in every room is addictive enough to encourage you to do one more room every time you think you’ll take a break.
Wishlair is more charming and fun than it has any right to be. It’s the final nail in the coffin that houses the idea that games need to come with 4K, 60fps and ray-tracing to be good when it only takes a grid of rooms in a 1980s visual style to make a genuinely engaging game. With over 100 rooms, items and weapons to collect, enemies to face and a fateful quest to reunite with your father, Wishlair is your key to hours of blocky fun-time.