The end of 2023 is nigh, and I decided I had time for at least one more game completion before Dec. 31 closed the year off. This would be game #50 for 2023, actually, and it ended up being a surprise gem in a year of absolutely fantastic game releases. Even better, it's on Xbox Game Pass, making it supremely easy for anyone to experience one of the more interesting titles I've experienced in recent memory.
This is Bramble: The Mountain King, a puzzle-adventure horror game inspired by Swedish folklore and fairytales, and it just might be one of the best-kept secrets on the service in 2023. If that's enough to get you to download, read no more; the rest of you, follow me on a sun-dappled adventure through a nightmarish kingdom.
A true fairytale — Gruesome horror and all
• Price: $29.99 at Xbox (Digital) | $34.99 at Amazon (Physical)
• Release date: Apr. 27, 2023
• Developer: Dimfrost Studio
• Publisher: Merge Games
• Genre: Horror, puzzle-adventure
• Players: Single-player
• Install size: ~8GB
• Playtime: ~7 hours
• Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Windows PC, PlayStation 4|5, Nintendo Switch
• Xbox Game Pass: Console, PC, cloud
• Played on: Xbox Series X
The fairytales that children grow up with are often watered-down, cushioned imitations of the original gruesome tales, and Bramble: The Mountain King perfectly encapsulates that. At first, the gorgeous visuals, soft-spoken narration, and innocent protagonist deceive you into believing this is a game fit for kids and that any horror elements must surely dwell on the side of "creepy" rather than "brutally terrifying." Before long, though, Bramble: The Mountain King reveals its true nature — a brutally direct view into the terrible truths of most fairytales and folklore.
One moment you're drawn into the impossibly beautiful landscapes dotted by giant mushrooms and picturesque streams, charmed by the adorable gnomes you meet along the way; the next moment, your sister Lillemor is suddenly taken by a massive creature pulled straight out of your nightmares, and Olle is thrust into one awful situation after another wading through blood and viscera, running from frightful monsters, and navigating a heartless world that would rather see him die. Moments of beauty never cease, though, creating an extreme juxtaposition between the amazing wonders and the awful tragedies that are life.
Olle will be aided by new friends and allies, deceived by clever foes, hunted by monstrous beasts, made small by a suddenly too-large world, empowered by a magical force, challenged by puzzles, and more on his quest to somehow save his older sister from certain death. Bramble: The Mountain King isn't flawless in its narration or how it brings the player into its fold, but it does an immaculate job building an atmosphere that is terrifying in the darkness and tense even when it's light.
Slightly awkward gameplay in an entrancing world
Bramble: The Mountain King is a very pretty game. The visuals are vibrant and detailed, the lighting is luscious, and the soundtrack is hauntingly magnificent; it's all so beautiful, even when everything is going pretty terribly for Olle. Bramble: The Mountain King's entrancing world is heavily inspired by Swedish folklore and fairytales, so you'll encounter a varied cast of creatures and characters hailing from Sweden's ancient culture.
The design of these characters is impeccable, with all the right notes of fantastical, terrifying, and strangely beautiful. I was constantly impressed while exploring the game, and it helped drag me feet-first into the morbid and gore-soaked world of Bramble: The Mountain King. Again, the atmosphere is suitably dark and creepy, and that continues through every element of the art, world, character, and audio design. As a game, though, is where Bramble: The Mountain King begins to lack a little.
Bramble: The Mountain King is a horror puzzle-adventure, combining elements of 3D platforming, exploration, and basic combat mostly centered around the illuminated stone Olle finds early on in his adventure (a stone that holds great importance, but I won't get into that). It's simple and easy-to-understand gameplay, and the controls are easy to learn as well. There's more than enough variety here to keep the game interesting through its short runtime, but it's not perfect.
Controlling Olle is just awkward. Platforming doesn't always feel intuitive, leading to random drops to your death; controls don't always feel responsive, leading to missed or delayed inputs; and boss fights can feel tedious, thanks to the former two issues. Bramble: The Mountain King also doesn't always do a great job marrying its gameplay to its narrative. Sometimes, your actions feel meaningless or disconnected from the world or Olle's development — There's one brilliant exception that perfectly and beautifully symbolizes the fading of Olle's childhood innocence, so I know that Dimfrost Studio can nail this... but not all the time in this case.
These are overall minor complaints, though. They narrowly keep Bramble: The Mountain King from joining my top list of the best Xbox games of the year, but that's mostly because this year has been so unbelievably phenomenal in terms of excellent video game releases. I had a lot of fun playing this title, and I can easily recommend it to any horror fans.
A hidden gem on Xbox Game Pass
2023 has seen so many awesome games released on every modern platform that a lot are inevitably falling through the cracks. I still haven't played Baldur's Gate 3 or Alan Wake 2, for example. So it's possible that this game has gotten all the attention it deserves and simply passed me by; all I know is that I heard about Bramble: The Mountain King ahead of its release and then very little after that. When I learned it came to Xbox Game Pass, I downloaded it immediately... But it still took me six months to actually sit down and play it.
I'm glad I finally got around to it a few days before the end of 2023 because it's a very good game. It's not the scariest game I've ever played, but it certainly horrified and upset me in all the best ways for a horror game throughout my 6-7-hour run on Xbox Series X. It's gruesome and brutal, not holding back from more difficult subjects and imagery, while also finding plenty of moments to let you rest with beauty and peace. For me, it's one of the best-kept secrets on Xbox Game Pass right now, and you should go check it out.
Bramble: The Mountain King is now available on Windows PC, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PlayStation 4|5, and Nintendo Switch. It's also on Xbox Game Pass, PC Game Pass, and Xbox Cloud Gaming. If you're a physical collector, you can get Bramble: The Mountain King for all three console platforms on a disc.
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Zachary Boddy (They / Them) is a Staff Writer for Windows Central, primarily focused on covering the latest news in tech and gaming, the best Xbox and PC games, and the most interesting Windows and Xbox hardware. They have been gaming and writing for most of their life starting with the original Xbox, and started out as a freelancer for Windows Central and its sister sites in 2019. Now a full-fledged Staff Writer, Zachary has expanded from only writing about all things Minecraft to covering practically everything on which Windows Central is an expert, especially when it comes to Microsoft. You can find Zachary on Twitter @BoddyZachary.