The Song of Nunu is a delightful exploration of some of League of Legends’ most fascinating lore, though its gameplay often feels more like a stalactite-filled obstacle course than a smooth, Willump-y belly slide across the Freljord’s frostscapes. As Tequila Works daintily treads themes of grief and found family through Song of Nunu’s story, its overall execution is as clumsy as a yeti’s disco. Above all else, though, the studio has excelled at weaving together a cohort of League’s most-loved champions, and the ice-forged brotherhood between its two protagonists leaves a lasting impression after the credits roll.
Nunu and Willump have had one of the most bizarre trajectories in League of Legends’ history. The subjects of Pornstar Zilean’s infamous yet creative ‘Disco Nunu’ tech, the MOBA’s most wholesome duo have long been linked with toxic gameplay and audacious moves. Nowadays, I can’t even hear the name ‘Nunu’ without a shrill, Swedish shriek drifting in on the wind (though, admittedly, I am an enjoyer of Charlie ‘KeshaEUW’ Eriksson’s content).
Thankfully, Riot Forge has stepped in, teaming up with RiME developer Tequila Works to reset their reputation and remind us that, at the frozen heart of it all, it’s just a magical boy and his yeti pal being a couple of bros and slinging snowballs at each other while on a grand quest to find Nunu’s mother, Layka. The biggest hurdle for the studio to clear has been translating the duo from the Rift in a way that endears them to an audience and makes their bond feel authentic. And it’s here, and perhaps only here, that the studio has hit a home run.
The main thrust of Song of Nunu’s narrative is carefully crafted around how Nunu and Willump navigate grief and trauma. In the original canon – as it is here – Nunu’s tribe was attacked by raiders, separating him from his mother, while Nunu’s entire species perished during a war with the Watchers. It’s incredibly heavy stuff, and the contrast between how Nunu – a young boy – and Willump – an ancient yeti – approach it in their own unique ways provides a heart-breaking layer of complexity to their otherwise effervescent personalities. Though the odd communication mismatch can lead to frustration for them both, they’re totally unstoppable when singing from the same song sheet.
Song of Nunu is filled with unique interactions between Nunu and Willump that are absolutely adorable and effectively build on their found brotherhood. Whether it’s Willump throwing a snowball at Nunu for sub-standard flute playing, a belly bump after a successful mission, or the plethora of other tiny interactions that the pair share, I quickly connected with them in a way I’d never been able to in my decade of playing League – Tango’s use of body language, especially when animating the non-speaking Willump, is expertly deployed. While there’s serious juice to the overarching plot and the forces that lurk below the surface of Lissandra’s wall of true ice, it was the interpersonal connection between the protagonists that I was magnetized to – a real Rell ultimate to the feels.
It’s not only Nunu and Willump that feel so authentically alive, though. While I won’t comment on characters yet to be revealed, Braum is as warm and whimsical as I’d hoped he’d be, while Lissandra’s lonely, anti-heroic method for keeping her homeland safe – read the lore! – provides a strong juxtaposition to Nunu’s own modus operandi. What would you sacrifice to save the world? And does sacrifice indicate true strength? Those are the salient questions that serve as Song of Nunu’s top line, and the studio does well to explore them through its carefully curated cast of characters.
However, while I enjoyed the eight hours I spent traversing the Freljordian tundra with Nunu and Willump for the most part, I’m not convinced that Tango has done enough to make their big adventure as epic and awesome as it could’ve been – and it all starts with the Freljord itself.
Visually, Song of Nunu is stylistically simple, but there’s detail in all the right places. You won’t be able to count every blade of grass that dares to rebel against the snow that smothers it, but there’s enough variation in the icy hues, and natural contrast thanks to other terrain elements to keep it interesting. Certain areas are incredibly pretty, bolstered by the magical properties of the ice. Whether you’re using big rocks as cover in a snowball fight, or are sliding down a mountain, Nunu and Willump make the most of their surroundings to have fun, even if, however, there isn’t a whole lot there.
The game is incredibly linear, which is never a bad thing if it’s filled with plenty to do. Sadly, the Freljord still feels empty, despite there being a smattering of collectibles to find – these don’t require much hunting, as there are very few paths to divert down throughout. Considering how well the game’s cast meshes within it, I would have loved to see deepened exploration opportunities for Nunu, as well as more ways to inspect and interact with the world around him to see and hear how he perceives his homeland.
This shallowness becomes more pronounced when it comes to many of Song of Nunu’s puzzles. While I enjoyed juggling controller inputs while playing Svellsongur on Willump’s back, that was perhaps the biggest mechanical challenge I faced – definitely opt for a controller over a keyboard and mouse if you can. The presentation for the more complex conundrums has solid ideation driving them, but their visual semantics can be confusing, and timing checks often dictate their difficulty. Play a note to open a door here, a few more to charm a Krug into following you there, the bread and butter of exploration is all very threadbare. I even encountered a couple of frustrating, game-breaking bugs that necessitated restarting my game mid-puzzle.
Platforming is also a mixed bag. Here we can see Tango implementing ways in which Nunu and Willump can actually bend the environment to their will, granting the Freljord a sense of being more than just a backdrop that they happen to exist within. But, when it comes to navigating ledges and other obstacles, it all feels awkward. Jump at a shelf and you might just latch onto it, or swiftly fall to your death depending on how fiendish the hitbox feels. Quickly spamming the jump button again as soon as you actually connect will grant you a small speed boost, which as a mechanic is totally superfluous.
Perhaps the biggest question mark that hangs over Song of Nunu is the pacing of mechanics being introduced. This is most prominent in the game’s final act when Nunu is made to do his best Solid Snake impression. The way in which stealth is dropped in out of nowhere feels incongruent with everything that preceded it, and could have easily featured in short bursts throughout – Nunu could sneak past a pack of sleeping Murk Wolves to reach a collectible, perhaps. It is, once again, jarring, and shows a lack of care when synthesizing Nunu’s gameplay that contradicts the care for its characters and storytelling.
The snowball of missed opportunities continues when we get into Song of Nunu’s combat. I have to commend Tango on implementing a variety of creative finishers when dealing with the Freljord’s most unruly denizens that once again amplify the connection between Nunu and Willump. With that said, enemy variety is incredibly limited outside a couple of somewhat tricky boss encounters, and combat is reduced to simple button combinations. The saving grace is that Willump doesn’t fight solo, and there is a way for the back-bound Nunu to get involved that adds a thin veneer of dynamism to the proceedings, but it ultimately lacks the same sophistication of those takedowns. Again, I wish there were more ways in which Tango was able to utilize the environment in giving the pair some extra tools in the heat of battle.
If I haven’t already scared you into waiting for Song of Nunu to go on sale – I would recommend doing so looking at its $30 price tag – then it’s certainly worth staving off until Tango has rectified its frame drops and micro jittering – my PC has a Ryzen 5 3600 and an RTX 3070, for reference. Performance hasn’t been the studio’s strong suit historically – RiME suffered similarly – and it’s disappointing to see that, several years later, it still can’t quite get it right.
As an exploration of some of the Freljord’s most important faces Song of Nunu excels, but it’s hamstrung by banal gameplay design and a litany of bugs and performance issues. The result is a game that I feel like I’ve played a hundred times on antiquated consoles, and fails to spark the imagination in the same way its characters and narrative manage to. While I’m glad Riot gave Tango an extra year to polish the experience, the result is still very much hit-and-miss.
Song of Nunu offers a rich narrative with plenty of heart and does an excellent job of synthesizing its characters in an authentic way. However, bland gameplay and performance issues work as a foil to Tango’s excellent storytelling, marring the overall experience.