You are stirred from your slumber by the disgruntled mewing of pointy-eared critters caught up in strings and begging for food amidst a wrecked and ruined landscape. No, it’s not the average morning for cat owners but the opening moments of Tethered, a god game originally created for VR headsets but now available for all to get themselves tied up in. You are tasked with collecting enough blue orbs of spirit energy to wake the level’s Spirit Guardian and turn the thirteen levitating islands from overgrown, dingy and corrupted wastes to bright, sunny lands of joy and happiness.
Your means of achieving success in Tethered comes in the form of Peeps. These are small, cute creatures that fall to the ground in eggs that must be quickly incubated to gain a much-needed extra pair of helping hands. You are reliant on these little guys to do the legwork in generating the spirit energy you need to completely rejuvenate the island and awaken the spirit guardian for each level. The key mechanic in playing the game is tethering each Peep with a glowing blue thread to a certain required task, be it collecting the resources you need or by learning a specification. In return, your Peeps need food and a purpose in life which only you can provide for them. Keeping them happy and busy will send spirit energy floating to the sky for you to collect. But leaving them too long without a necessity will see your Peeps get more and more stressed leading, eventually, to the point of despair. And let’s just say that this does not end well. It will haunt you.
Alongside this, you are also granted some control over the weather, provided the type of weather you need is available to be used. This is done by tethering special clouds bearing rain, ice, the sun or a zephyr that can replenish resource supplies, enhance Peeps or create new paths for your subjects to follow in their work. They can also be combined to create either a thunderstorm – which will take out enemies or uncover hidden passageways – or a rainbow – which will heal Peeps and bring them back from the brink of despair. Whilst you can’t rely on the weather to be what you want most, you will almost always find use for whatever turns up, even if it’s just boosting the ore mine a little.
Anyone that has played one of the many god games out there, such as Populous or the Black & White series, will quickly recognise a similar pattern in playing Tethered. You are helping a population to help themselves, guiding from on high as they collect resources, grow food and construct the buildings to help them live and thrive. Nightfall brings its own problems in the strange, luminescent slug-like monsters that crawl up from underneath the island to wreak havoc with your Peeps and resources. You will need to direct your Peeps’ attacks and assist them with your godly powers to dispatch these monsters not only as a matter of self-defence, but as another prime source for that all-important spirit energy. This all builds a sense of familiarity and raises expectations, but Tethered isn’t exactly the god game it may seem and some very clear differences quickly stand out, for better and for worse.
The clearest distinction is in your control of the camera. Or, more accurately, the lack of it. Rather than a free range of movement across the map, which Black & White offered, your view is restricted to peering out from a few fixed clouds around the island. The WASD keys give you a degree of movement, but the experience is similar to being a contestant on Storage Wars. Trying to pick out a Peep amongst the obelisk and resource stores becomes a real trial as, not only are you limited in your viewing angle, you also can’t really zoom in other than using the ‘slow time’ control which brings the camera a little closer. This was a little tricky to get used to and did little to create the feeling of being a powerful Spirit Guardian.
Tethered’s VR origins may explain the way the camera is controlled, but there’s a clear effort to make this limitation into a puzzle, similar to Doom 3 and its flashlight troubles. The islands are designed so you have to keep moving around. Picking the right angle at the right time is key to ensuring you don’t lose track of events and that you can track down all the hidden crystals which give you a boost of spirit energy. But it kept feeling frustrating, particularly things that should be simple like tethering an idle Peep to do something on the other side of the island, or selecting a Peep hiding behind a building.
As for buildings, this is another thing that Tethered does a little differently. Like traditional god games, buildings are discovered during play and can then be built and modified to improve their benefits. Artefacts will become uncovered as the spirit energy you collect gradually improves the landscape allowing you to learn the secrets of construction, as well as revealing the limited plots where you can place them. Rather than swamp you with a huge range of different buildings, there are only five distinct building types to make use of. These buildings all come with three upgrade options, other than the Temple which has a few more. However, the focus is not on gradually discovering more effective buildings as you progress but more on how to succeed with a smaller range of resources that might not necessarily be accessible in the most helpful order. And this is where you need to stop seeing Tethered as a god game, but rather as a puzzle game.
Tethered does a very good job at bringing life to your Peeps and making you care for them. When one literally falls to despair it is genuinely harrowing. This emotional weight, alongside some great fantasy visuals and rich soundscape, really get you invested in saving each island and its people and this makes it hard to shake off the god game habits of focusing on finding the food and security to keep them alive. But you absolutely must. You can still blunder through the game this way and still complete each level in about half an hour, thanks to the spirit energy you need to succeed in each level coming at you in a fairly constant stream. But, you lose out on the real challenge of the game which gives Tethered such a different feel from the days of Populous.
Traditionally, god games rely on a slow and steady strategy. Dungeon Keeper, for example, would often see you sitting safe behind your reinforcements whilst your army got strong enough to take out the enemy. Tethered turns this around and makes speed a big part of your success. The islands are not big enough and the goals for collecting energy not high enough to warrant slow, methodical planning. Each level is, instead, a race to hoover up the necessary amount of spirit energy as quickly and efficiently as possible. The puzzle is how to make the best use of each new building you discover, how to effectively place the right building in the right location from your limited options and how to keep journey times as much as possible to keep that spirit energy flowing. Keeping Peeps alive is, really, little more than a means to an end. Which clashes a little with the effort put in by Tethered to build emotional attachment to the little guys, especially considering you can literally sacrifice Peeps to boost your energy count.
Your performance is ranked in each level, with speed being one of the criteria that you are judged on. Buildings are not just tools to strengthen your Peeps but are assets intended to boost energy production and help you shave those minutes and seconds off your completion time. At first, temples do not seem to help all that much in growing your clan or fighting monsters. The way they do help is in turning that giant pile of spare resources into pure spirit energy, getting you to the end of the level that little bit quicker. For the best result, you’ll need to approach the game like the time trial courses in Mirror’s Edge, which depended on considering more obscure solutions to obstacles and experimenting with timings in order to get the perfect run. Experimenting with the overlooked and the unfamiliar may take a little getting used to for traditionalists, but it is what Tethered is all about and what makes it worth coming back to.
There are still little things that don’t quite add up, the aforementioned camera issues being a prime example. Collecting spirit energy is also a chore, requiring you to actively hold a button to suck the floating blue orbs towards you. It might keep you focused on the race for collecting this energy, but it feels unnecessary when you have so many things to worry about all at once on top of that. The lack of context for your actions is also somewhat disappointing. Other than your wake-up call at the start of the game and the congratulatory message at the end, there is no real arc connecting each island. There’s no indication that you are progressing through a world of islands. You just check each one off with a set of scores and move on to the next land. It’s not the biggest disappointment, but a little depth would have helped maintain the level of investment in each world.
Despite the little niggles, Tethered has done a good job at making the crossing from being a fun game for VR to being a fun game full stop. It might seem simple on the surface, but it brings a new twist of a speed challenge to the god game experience without taking away the balancing act and patient build up you might expect. It’s certainly less fun when playing patiently, but it has enough charm and challenge to get you caught up in the act of pushing for record times.