Monday, November 23, 2020

A shut-in-year's worth of puzzle games

I've been playing more games than usual -- guess why! -- but writing less about them. Furthermore, my habitual January review-blast is going to be delayed this year. The January reviews stem from IGF judging, and IGF runs at GDC, and GDC is officially "delayed until July".
(Conferences in July sound optimistic as hell, even with the recent good vaccine news. But leave that aside.)
The point is: I have been leaving you, gentle reader, in a haze of undirected game-floundering. How will you know what puzzle games are interesting without my anodyne guidance? Unless you look at the entire rest of the flippin' Internet. Okay, fine. But here's my round-up post on puzzly games, regardless.
...But not all of them. Tune in tomorrow for my top-recommended puzzle games of 2020! (So far.) Today is a lot of short takes. In this post:
  • The Pedestrian
  • Lumote
  • Etherborn
  • Arise: A Simple Story
  • Lightmatter
  • Lumina
  • Weakless
  • Phantom Path
  • Creaks
  • Relicta
  • Sensorium
  • Zof
  • Carto
  • Timelie
  • Ethereal

The Pedestrian

2D platformer except that you can manipulate the boards on which the 2D action occurs. This is clever, and more than usually thematic for an abstract puzzle game. Or maybe I should say, more philosophically thematic. The theme is "the signifier is the signified, and vice versa."
(And now, spoilers for pacing, though not for puzzles:)
Many puzzle games take after Portal: an introductory act, a moment of narrative collapse, and then an act of applying your knowledge to a larger world. The Pedestrian does something like this, but it saves it for the endgame. You get a single large expand-your-understanding puzzle, a small coda puzzle that ties it all back to a narrative, and you're done. I thought that was good! The designers could have gone much deeper into the expanded mechanics and doubled the size of their game. But they didn't have to. It is sufficient.


Third-person platformer in a living world that reacts to your presence. Your charged body causes polyps to expand, jellyfish to elevate, and doors to dilate. Unless they're red polyps, in which case they are engorged by inimical red energy and deflated by your blue energy. And so on. You are trying to infiltrate the red world with your blue presence, but of course you sometimes need to manipulate both polarities...
Not extremely difficult, but it's satisfying. Plus the visual style is "bioluminescent Tron jellyfish", which is so entirely up my alley that I spent the whole game with a goofy grin plastered on my face. Great soundtrack too.


Yet another entry in the "gravity shifts as you go around a curved corner" category (see Alucinod). Like Alucinod, this is pretty solid until the last level, which bloats out in an excess of "our last level must be enormous and mind-expanding". Spoiler: it's just too big and hard to get around. Fun otherwise, though.

Arise: A Simple Story

A wordless platformer about a person's life, and by the way, you're dead. This is the "tragic and touching" subtype (see Rime) rather than "tragic and creepy" (Inside, DARQ). As usual, the game wants to be a lot more heartrending than it is, but whatever. Pretty good platformering.


A Portal-like with light beams and hungry shadows. Don't step out of the light. Nice visual style. The only flaw is the narrator, an overdone Cave Johnson wannabe. (He even says so, which doesn't help!)


A Portal-like with light beams and mirrors. (No hungry shadows.) Redirect colored beams at targets to unlock doors. It's fiddly but basically pleasant, up until the last level, which -- say it with me -- bloats out in an excess of "must be enormous and mind-expanding". The enormousness is mind-expanding, I grant, but you have to get incredibly fiddly with those last few mirrors. I finished it, but I wasn't having fun at the end.


Two-character action-adventure; one character is deaf, the other is blind. Natural state of their species, not disability. If that distinction makes sense in a fantasy game where you can't avoid the metaphor. I don't know. "Blind" uses the fantasy-standard trope of "not really blind, you have echolocation which is represented visually". I think that was worn out when Ben Affleck was playing Daredevil, which is not, you know, recent news. But as gameplay it works well.
I'm not sure it's a great game, but it got me nostalgic for the golden age of PS2 action-adventure puzzlers. Cyclopean architecture with elevator platforms! Weird character abilities! Inexplicable gongs!

Phantom Path

Top-down Zelda-ish puzzle game with keys and gates. It was fun up until the point where they added deathtraps. Why does a puzzle game need deathtraps? The second time I failed to dodge a poison jet and had to restart the level, I gave up.
(Maybe the designers were caught in the Zelda mindset? Dungeons of puzzles and danger? But if you delete the combat from a Zelda-like, you need to delete all the dying. Or else provide lossless checkpointing.)


A 2D puzzle platformer in a giant creepy run-down mansion. Very much in an Edward Gorey style, down to the enormous fur overcoats. Which grow fangs and try to eat you. (It also strongly reminded me of James Stoddard's Evenmere trilogy, which probably doesn't mean anything to you, but there we are. Dodging hungry end-tables.)
This avoids the "creepy dark platformer" cliche by being sweet, in the end. Some of the creepy inhabitants of the High House turn out to be congenial, and you wind up celebrating the success of a cooperative venture. Cheers!
The puzzles are not intense, but you can explore assiduously in dark corners for bonus secrets. And you get to go all up and down and around an enormous House, using stairways and ladders and minecarts and rickety collapsing floors -- all carefully mapped out. I always love that.


A Portal-like with magnet cubes. Good puzzling. More story and worldbuilding than this sort of game usually bothers with. I appreciated the well-worked-out non-Eurocentric future history. The plot runs into a midgame twist which feels extremely recognizable. (I won't list games where you've seen it before, but trust me, you have.) Nonetheless, good job.


A lot of recent puzzle games flail around the Portal / Talos zone, trying to do what The Witness pulled off. This one comes closer than most -- not as deeply involuted as The Witness, but still admirably creative in its puzzle design. The theme is the five senses; it carries it through surprisingly well considering that videogames only have two to work with. (I suppose haptics makes three, but this isn't a rumble-pack sort of game.)
The puzzles are based on wires and logic gates, but trust me, this isn't another tedious exploration of truth tables. Cleverness and variations abound, laid out around a pleasantly explorable map with secret passages and just a bit of environmental logic. There's a skull-rattling endgame that crosses all the sense-puzzles with each other. And then a set of extra secrets with more off-the-wall puzzle mechanics. I found those to be a mixed bag and didn't bother finishing them off. But the main game is entirely satisfactory.


A bit of a hybrid. It's not a Myst-like world with tangible history and environmental logic, but it's not quite a Talos-style sequence of framed puzzles exploring a single mechanic. There's a wide variety of puzzle types; but each one is revisited a few times with increasing complexity. And the puzzles tend towards "figure out the logic of the machine" rather exploring a really tricky state-space.
Really, what this reminds me of is casual puzzlebox amusements like Hoshi Saga or Bart Bonte's colors. Anything can happen; figure out what it is. Except you can climb around on the puzzlebox and it's an Unreal 3D pretty-landscape.
I got through most of Zof. The puzzles sometimes devolved into "figure out what the author was thinking". (I peeked at hints for the space-station droids.) Unfortunately, the big finale world combined moon-logic with some delicate footwork which I just couldn't manage with my controller, even after reading a walkthrough. So I stopped a little bit short of winning.


This is lightweight but it does such a great job of embracing its mechanic that I have to recommend it. You run around a little cartoon world. You can pick up map tiles, move them around, and rotate them. Yes, even the tile you're standing on. You can arrange tiles however you like as long as the edges match (think Carcassonne).
That's the entire game, but they get a really astonishing amount out of the gimmick. In one chapter you're following tracks through a trackless desert; in another you're looking at a lake and trying to match it up to local legends. I wish all puzzle games were this dedicated to their core idea.
I said it was lightweight; the puzzles are entirely suitable for kids. But the notion of rearranging the map gets brain-bending even for puzzle fiends. Plus the story is sweet (in a tiny-cartoon-world way). I liked it.


Top-down stealther, but you have a pause button and a timeline slider to plan out your sneaking around. If you get caught by the evil robots, rewind and adjust your path. So it's really more like Hitman Go -- turn-based move planning. You also have a cat.
This is such an obvious variation of the stealth-game concept that I'm surprised I haven't run into it before. (Let me add a note to my Spider and Web: The Remake file...)
There's a story-like framework, but it doesn't amount to much more than "you have a cat and robots are chasing you". It's evocative but doesn't fit together. The protagonist doesn't have magic time powers -- notionally, you are visualizing your moves in advance. When you complete the level, you watch yourself carry them through perfectly. Except later you get magic hole-fixing and robot-smashing powers (tightly limited, of course). These are sort of presented as magic time powers -- rewinding the collapse of a floor -- but this doesn't really make sense and the game doesn't try. Just enjoy the puzzles.
The puzzles are nice! You mostly don't need to do fiddly move optimization. Generally, the level has a clever idea; you have to figure it out, not bash around the move space feeling for a gap. Each level introduces a different clever idea. (Okay, a couple of the levels require fiddly optimization.) There's a lot of cleverness going on. More in the last chapter, which involves revisiting earlier levels in nifty and thoughtful way. As I said, it doesn't exactly wrap up into a story, but it's pretty.


(Note: I'm about halfway through Ethereal as I write this. I haven't given up; this just happens to be the game I'm in the middle of.)
Abstract grid puzzler which isn't quite on a grid. The gimmick is that you can move freely east and west, but to go north and south, you must jump adjacent walls. Arbitrary, right? But it means that the apparently maze-like grids are mazes with a completely different geography than you're used to. I still can't visualize paths easily, although I can bang around and get where I'm going.
In a sense this is just a maze game with added mental friction; but that's valid. And then it tosses in new elements like "rotate the board 90 degrees", which of course changes the entire geography again. Selectively movable walls, vertical conveyors, and I don't even know what will turn up in the fourth chapter. It's been consistently challenging albeit somewhat repetitive in its minimalism.
The visual style is heavily glitched-up. I didn't have any trouble telling geography from decoration, but I know some people prefer a cleaner presentation. Look at screenshots, see what you think.

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