2022 was a remarkable year for video games within the dark fantasy and horror genres, bringing us highly anticipated titles such as Elden Ring and A Plague Tale: Requiem, in addition to an abundance of indie gems like Signalis and Burnhouse Lane. With over 100 games sporting the “dark” and/or “horror” tags in the current iteration of Steam Next Fest, 2023 is off to a similarly promising start for those of us who prefer media that’s thematically and aesthetically on the more sinister side, which leads us to Bramble: The Mountain King.
I watched several trailers and sampled a couple of demos before stumbling upon Bramble: The Mountain King, a “grim adventure set in a world inspired by dark, Nordic fables” created by Swedish developer Dimfrost Studio. The prospect of delving into some fascinating folklore as well as the keywords “grim” and “dark” were more than enough to pique my interest, and I launched the demo without viewing any of the game’s promotional content.
The opening sequence was not at all what I expected… and I’d count it among the most enchanting moments in gaming that I’ve ever experienced.
Our protagonist is Olle, a boy who is tiny in comparison to the world around him — there are mushrooms large enough for him to walk across and butterflies with wingspans that seem nearly as long as he is tall. As we traverse a verdant hillside blanketed by delicate, white wildflowers, a poignant rendition of “Den blomstertid nu kommer,” a Swedish summertime hymn, plays amidst quiet birdsong.
In the background, a waterfall cascades into a pond dappled with lily pads, and a doe stands like a gentle sentinel, keeping watch over her fawn. Near the water’s edge, a gnome riding atop an adorable saddled hedgehog is waiting to ferry us to the opposite bank. It’s a stunningly beautiful scene suffused with so much tranquility, innocence, and charm that I forgot I was playing a game described as “unsettling” and flagged with a content warning for blood, gore, and intense violence.
After completing the rest of the demo, relishing the tension of its last few minutes but still savoring the sense of childlike awe I experienced in the first few, I can’t help but think that the way Bramble: The Mountain King mixes its “lights” and “darks” is pretty remarkable.
A lot of media that aims to scare its audience relies heavily on settings that naturally augment the atmosphere of fear, dread, shock, and repulsion that’s characteristic of the horror genre. As examples, creaking stairs piercing the eerie silence of a haunted house, crumbling ruins in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and the metallic confines of a spaceship have the power to evoke feelings of unease, desolation, and isolation, respectively — even well before the real threats make themselves known.
The demo for Bramble: The Mountain King does include one segment set in a traditionally spooky location — a dimly lit area containing a series of unstable wooden platforms that I mentally dubbed “Blighttown Lite.” However, the main event, our encounter with the deadly, violin-wielding creature called Näcken, begins in the initially placid pond from the game’s opening.
As Olle leapfrogs across lily pads, wades through mud, cowers behind rocks, and floats along the current in order to evade Näcken’s clutches, it’s a testament to how effective music, character design, and some good old-fashioned jump scares can be for crafting a scary scene — this waterlogged game of cat and mouse is undoubtedly terrifying despite occurring in the light of day and against a beautiful backdrop.
The available trailers for Bramble: The Mountain King suggest that Dimfrost Studio won’t be pulling punches when it comes to delivering brutal, spine-chilling moments, but it also looks like players will be treated to more of the joyful exploration we got a taste of at the start of the Next Fest demo.
As someone who often gravitates toward games with settings that endeavor to be as nightmarish as possible at all times, it’s nice to be reminded that wonder, whimsy, and delight can exist in the same spaces as fear, peril, and abject vulnerability. Bramble: The Mountain King will be released on PC and consoles on April 27, and I can’t wait to see what else its “beautiful yet dangerous and twisted” world has in store.