By Mento 8 Comments
Well, there's no escaping it. If I'm going to write a month-long feature about a whole bunch of Indie games on Steam, I'm going to have to feature some puzzle-platformers eventually. It's just the law of averages. Just like how the last May Madness Melange was a sequel to the one I did earlier about point and click adventure games, this one's a sequel to the challenging platformers I covered back in May Madness Melange #6 (some of which might've had more puzzles in them than I was otherwise letting on).
I don't mind puzzle-platformers, by the way. It's just when you're inundated with the things it becomes much harder to get excited about playing a new one. I've still got Closure, Vessel, PB Winterbottom and The Swapper sitting in my list of installed games, and almost no desire to go back to them regardless of their high quality. It's just... bluuuurgh.
And that's why they call me the Wizard of Words. (No-one calls me that.) (They should, though.)
The source: Groupees' Holiday Helpings bundle.
The pre-amble: Ed's an inventor that wakes up in his trashed lab without his memory. He decides to head to the control room to ascertain what happened to the place while he was unconscious, though his immense, dilapidated workshop is not the easiest place to traverse right now. If only he had his gateway guns...
Gateways is a 2D side-scrolling platformer game with an open-world SpaceWhipper approach and various puzzle rooms that may or may not require additional gear to solve. Said gear can be found by exploring, usually in the direction that the game is indicating, and each new item allows the player to explore a little further. The most important pieces of equipment are Ed's gateway guns, which create pairs of portals with all sorts of applications.
The playthrough: While I'm still largely undecided on how I feel about Gateways, I'm erring on the side of positive, and that's not just because of my predilection towards SpaceWhippers. Though it initially begins as a flagrant 2D Portal clone, Gateways' initial impressions belie a lot of hidden depth and some truly diabolical late-game puzzles, due in part to a lack of a proper difficulty curve towards the end. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Initially, your Einstein-esque hero finds a "gateway gun" that allows the creation of two portals that are linked to each other: going through one spits you out of the other and vice versa. So far, so Aperture Science. You then find another gateway gun soon after that creates tiny and big portals, and in this case you come out of the other portal either a lot smaller or a lot bigger than when you went in. Already, we've shifted beyond Valve's sardonic computer-thwarting odyssey, and have emerged somewhere entirely new and fresh. Then you get a gun that lets you travel in time and create echoes of yourself to interact with, and this point the game starts getting really effin' cray-cray.
Every puzzle set-piece in the game has a beacon that tells you (for a price, in collectible orbs found scattered all over - there's an achievement if you get all of them, and another for never spending any) if the puzzle is currently possible with the upgrades you've found so far. If not, it'll stay marked on your map as unsolvable until the right piece of kit has been found. This is a wonderful touch for a SpaceWhipper game to include, as it never gives away too much about the solution (it's not just a matter of having the right tools like it is with Guacamelee's color-coded walls, for example -- you've still got the puzzle itself to solve too) but prevents any frustration when trying to beat a puzzle that leads to an optional upgrade that you don't have the means to solve quite yet.
The downside to Gateways is that it gets super convoluted fast. Once you've found the gun that allows you to operate all four previous gateway guns simultaneously, the game's already 90% over. The final gauntlet of challenges before the game's ending is a test of everything you've learned so far, but also includes scenarios where you need to use multiple pairs of portals at once. The already high level of difficulty of these puzzles combined with the player's lack of practice with using multiple guns to solve a puzzle makes them prohibitively challenging. For instance, there are lasers which can be redirected via classic mirror/beam puzzles, but there's only one prior instance in the game (and it's optional) that teaches you how to "split" the laser: it's a process involving sending one laser beam through a time portal and having the past and future laserbeams exist simultaneously. If your head just asploded simply from reading that sentence, I'm sure you can imagine (or could, before all the brain matter violently vacated your cranium) how easy it is to work around it in practice. But still, a minor gripe about a sudden difficulty spike towards the end still isn't enough to diminish Gateways cleverness. Just, uh, don't be afraid to look up the solutions to the last few puzzles. I'm going to have nightmares about some of them.
The verdict: It's complete, so I'm all done with it. Gateways gets a recommend from me, though; there's far more to it than pixel graphics and Portal plagiarism.
The game: Beautifun's Nihilumbra, a linear 2D platformer with elemental puzzles.
The source: A Daily Royale sale.
The pre-amble: The protagonist is a piece of The Void, a nebulous entity that has destroyed much of the world and is busy absorbing the last few corporeal bits of the landscape. Your character is spontaneously formed from deep within the Void's abyss and decides to escape it to find answers across what little world is left. The Void pursues you relentlessly through forests and deserts and volcanoes, while the player continues to evade it by acquiring new abilities and outwitting its minions.
Upon entering each world, the player can find a new color that provides a new means of traversal. The player simply paints the walls, floors and ceilings of the environment with the colors they've found to give it properties: blue makes it icy and slippery (which can allow the player to build momentum for longer jumps), green makes it bouncy (to make taller jumps), red makes it flammable (kills enemies), and so on.
The playthrough: Nihilumbra's one of those games where you keep moving forward while a narrator keeps yapping on about life and fate and all sorts of philosophical nonsense, usually when you're trying to solve a puzzle. I suppose a similar case would be Thomas Was Alone, which featured a garrulous Danny Wallace who would repeat himself endlessly as the player died or messed up and refreshed each little segment over and over. At least that game had better writing though, as Nihilumbra's is kind of dour and tends to reiterate its same points about the Void and loneliness and despair over and over. It also has to provide hints constantly, rarely trusting the player to figure out puzzles entirely on their own.
On the other hand, it's a good looking game (they forked out plenty for the animations on the protagonist and the other monsters, at least), and some of the abilities can be pretty clever -- especially when the game finds ways to combine them. The tutorial-heavy, not-particularly-difficult nature of the core game is mitigated somewhat by an additional, harder "Void Mode" that unlocks once the main story is complete, which ups the challenge level considerably and presumably (didn't get too far into it) leads to a more decisive "true" ending.
Nihilumbra's just okay, really. The trouble with some of its harder instances is that there's a lack of precision with the painting tools: unless you're an artist and can paint in straight lines without even concentrating, it's very possible to paint a surface with a color and then miss little bits, which can often lead to problems. There's a few bits of randomness which can upset the best laid plans of mice and shapeless voidmen too, usually involving the automated turrets that somebody left all over the place. These frustrations boil down to a player's enduring desire to be in control of any given situation, especially when puzzles are involved. When a puzzle's solution has been gleaned, there ideally shouldn't be any hassles with executing on said plan because the fun part (the ratiocination) has already concluded. For a solution to fail due to a player's lack of reflexes or skill (beyond the mental skill used to ascertain the solution, that is), it's frustrating enough. When it fails because something didn't happen like it ought to have done -- a bullet ricochets in the wrong direction, or a power line doesn't quite connect properly -- it's excruciating.
The verdict: I've beaten the regular story mode, and considering the much more challenging Void Mode depends far more heavily on precision and completing multiple difficult sections consecutively before hitting the next checkpoint, there's all the more opportunity to run afoul of the frustrations outlined above. Thanks, but no thanks.
The source: Groupees' Holiday Helpings bundle. (It's also in the currently-ongoing Indie Royale MIxer 4 bundle, if you want in on it.)
The pre-amble: QUBE is a first-person game in which you're running around a sterile white environment solving tests for the benefit of an unknown, possibly malevolent force. At some point the pristine, sterile white walls fall away to some dilapidated ruins and puzzles that become increasingly abstract as more of what you're seeing around you is called into question. Now, I know Portal was a big deal and all, but we could have a few puzzle-platformers that aren't trying to fabricate their cake and eat it too?
Most of the puzzles in QUBE revolve around manipulating colored blocks in the environment. These hued objects stick to a specific theme: red blocks can be extended and retracted, blue blocks retract into the floor and spring out when passed over, yellow blocks always pop out in trios, etc. (I don't how I picked two games that use color-coded physics properties in a row. I'm just lucky, I guess.) The goal is to simply keep moving, though this usually means solving a puzzle before a door will open to the next part of the level. There are nine "sectors", at least according to the possibly unreliable governing system of this complex, and it can only be inferred that freedom awaits anyone smart enough to pass through them all.
The playthrough: I actually like this game. First-person physics platformers like this are a dime a dozen thanks to a certain little game called Narbacular Drop, but QUBE at least respects your intelligence without going overboard with its difficulty. The primary colors used for puzzles are striking when surrounded by their gleaming white confines, and the game makes excellent use of sound to provide feedback whenever you make correct steps or need to follow something outside of your cone of vision. The music's mellow-ass puzzle-solving music, which isn't remarkable save for the fact that it's yet one of many smaller details that QUBE gets right.
Which segues neatly into what I like most about the game: Because QUBE is entirely text-free there aren't any overt tutorials, which is appreciated. Instead you have that set-up where the game slowly introduces its mechanics by throwing an easy introductory puzzle the player's way, leading to much harder and more complex variants. With each new mechanic (magnets, rolling balls, redirecting light beams), there's usually a simple instance that allows you to get a firm grasp of the idea which is then followed by a few trickier ones that take full advantage of the new feature and give you a bit of a challenge to overcome. It's pretty much the ideal way you want to go about creating puzzles like these, rather than just dropping a big text box on the player about how some new element works thereby breaking both the pace and the immersion in one fell swoop.
If there's issues I have with QUBE it's with its originality (oh hey, this looks like Portal a little) and its lack of any form of cogent narrative. You aren't told anything about who you are, why you're in some enormous testing chamber, why everything suddenly breaks around the halfway point or anything else about the world. QUBE feels very sterile as a result, like a version of Portal in which the developers decided the relationship between GlaDOS and Chell was entirely immaterial and got in the way of the puzzles and excised them completely. I was invested enough in solving the game's many varied puzzles to see it through to the end, but I could also easily conceive of a scenario where I would get bored early and decide to play something else. That might not be a fair complaint, given that very few puzzle-platformers bother to spin a narrative (and those they do create don't tend to be particularly compelling fiction), but the game does have a skeleton of a story of sorts with a twist ending that doesn't feel earned and really doesn't explain a whole lot besides. There's no point in flipping the script if there hasn't been any trace of a script so far, after all. I felt a little this way about Antichamber (another stark white colored block-manipulator) too, and how its black anti-cube end game nonsense failed to resonate with me because there had been nothing to set it up. Just an odd design decision, I suppose. You gotta end your game somehow, and a black "Congratulations! You are a Qube master!" screen after the last puzzle wasn't really going to cut it.
The verdict: I've beaten this one too. It's not a long game, but it's certainly not bad and my reservations with it are largely trivial. Just kind of forgettable, I guess. I mean, unless you're really into cubes.
The Moment of Truth
Well, each of these games has some inherent flaw that stopped me from appreciating them fully, so we're talking a close run thing here. I think I liked the most, followed closely by QUBE.
I think Nihilumbra gets the "biggest bummer" award, though that's certainly not because I was disappointed with it. It just feels like the video game version of listening to Radiohead, which is to say that it makes want to lie down in the street until the void takes me.