Wave a Light into the Darkness
Download Size: 840 MB
Hours Played: 5.7
Levels from End: 4
What I'd Pay: $15
Steam Price (3/25/12): $7
The allure of indie games is that, amidst all the derivative shooter and tower defense games, occasionally one appears with little fanfare that utterly blindsides you. They have a crazy idea worth trying and an execution worth playing. For the cost of a dinner out, they can embed themselves in your brain and suck up your free time better than many AAA titles. I didn't expect Waveform to, but isn't that the point?
You play a particle of light traveling along a wavelength from Pluto to the Sun. You don't control the particle directly; instead you use the mouse to change the wavelength's amplitude and frequency. You weave through the level, collecting photons, avoiding dark matter, and passing through light gates to change the light's color and increase your multiplier. Your multiplier is also your health: get hit by something and your multiplier drops. Complete a level and you get up to 10 stars for unlocking future levels, depending on how high your score is.
I have to give special props here to the wavelength they use to trace your path. It reacts in real time to your mouse movement and is smart enough to factor mirrors and wormholes into the path. It'll even dim out past the point where you would smash into a piece of dark matter, letting you know for certain how far you can safely travel along your current path. (It doesn't work that well for moving dark matter or asteroids, sadly.) The game would barely be playable if the wave path was just a basic "this is your path, assuming there's no obstacles".
As you progress through the solar system, the game throws new objects at you for each planet. Mirrors bounce your wave, wormholes teleport it, gas clouds refract it, and particle accelerators send you shooting in a straight line through obstacles if you're the right color. You'll need them to get past the asteroids, the squids, and the Singularity that chases you down in the final level of each planet. Between those and the wave twisting the game demands of you in the latter half, it gets challenging for a simple premise. It reminds me of doing Guitar Hero on Hard difficulty.
The map, meanwhile, reminds me of Super Mario Bros. 3. While there's a standard path, you can unlock special moon levels that also act like shortcuts, letting you skip 2-4 levels and advance to the harder ones. There's also black holes in certain levels that are extremely difficult to reach, but let you skip the rest of a planet by going through a bonus stage. The inclusion of not one, but two ways for advanced players to skip levels was shocking and satisfying. Why don't more games do this? Sadly, once you reach the Sun, the star requirements for each level become so steep you almost have to go back and play every level just to gain enough. I've unlocked nearly every moon level and bonus stage and I still need to replay levels I did poorly on to gain enough stars to advance. It's become a drag, and although I enjoy replaying the old levels, I wish I didn't have to improve my scores on a half-dozen of them just to play the next level.
At least improving your score hits the same pleasure zone as in Guitar Hero. There's a thrill to precisely weaving through a level, collecting every photon and avoiding every obstacle as your score climbs, only to turn to disappointment when you slip up and hit something. And you will hit something; these levels can get devious. Luckily, they're also short, only taking 1-3 minutes each. They even have checkpoints halfway through in case you die, although if you're going for a high score you'll probably just want to restart it from the beginning. The catchy music and crisp graphics certainly makes it easier to restart a level over and over again.
It feels great to find a game with an innovative concept, or one that has a lot of polish. Finding a game that has both is an utter joy. Finding a game that has both and only costs $7? That's why I review indies. That's why I love Waveform. If you like "platforming", combos & high scores, or playing something weird & fun, give this a shot. I doubt you'll be disappointed.
NOTE: I encountered a reproducible crash; if you click on a locked level, then try to load up a different level, the game will crash. Other than that, the game didn't crash on me.