Monday, May 30, 2022

Recent puzzly games: summer 2022 edition


Three scientists of Taiwanese descent explore a mysterious ecology. This is an oddly lumpy hybrid of parkour metroidvania, tetromino puzzles, and character-centric story game. Each mode is pretty enjoyable but switching felt like an interruption.
This didn't bother me too much, and I progressed through a large part of the game. (Through four key species.) Unfortunately, I could not get my head (or fingers) around the wall-running-and-jumping mechanic. I got as far as I did through sheer bloody-minded flailing, but I never really understood how to chain moves to get where I wanted to go. This is a pity -- the parkour mechanics are puzzle mechanics; I was enjoying the challenge of looking around and figuring out how to proceed. Like the best Prince of Persia games -- except that PoP made you feel great at executing moves, and this game does not. Eventually I fell too many times and quit.

The Inheritance of Crimson Manor

A pleasant first-person puzzler in a creepy Victorian mansion. The puzzles never get very hard; nor do they achieve the hands-on haptic satisfaction of the Room series. But there's lots of them. You can have a satisfying wander around, happily overwhelmed by an abundance of locked doors and mysterious puzzle-boxes.
(There is one sliding-block puzzle, but it's quite easy of its kind, so I didn't have to flip off the developers.)

Skábma: Snowfall

An action-platformer in the traditions of the Sámi people. You fell asleep on reindeer watch -- oops! While pursuing an errant doe, you discover a noaidi drum, the tool of the Sámi shaman. Good timing, because the village is falling ill from some strange infectious ooze...
This is really well done! You run around a big, knotty mountain landscape, chasing spirit familiars and gaining metroidesque powers. The platforming is puzzly, not reflex-oriented; you are trying to figure out what to do, not trying to execute it. It's not on rails, but the margins of error are extremely generous.
You can explore freely -- plenty of collectibles to root out -- but you're meant to follow the trails which are revealed by the beat of your drum. The drum is central to the game, just as it should be: besides showing your goals, it also lets you manipulate ooze outbreaks, illuminates dark caves, restores your health, and keeps time with the background music. (That last always put a smile on my face.)
My only complaints are, first, some of the cave and forest scenes are really too cramped for the camera mechanics. Yes, you need those narrow tunnels and dense trees to contrast with the mountaintops and vast caverns later on. (Landscape: gorgeous! Highly varied!) But when you're scurrying through a rabbit warren and the camera can't see around corners, it's more annoying than atmospheric.
And, second, they fell victim to one of the classic blunders: the climactic action scene is the hardest. You have to use all your jumpy powers, fine -- but with a giant kicking your butt! That's not how you've been practicing. Sigh. I powered through but it threw the tone off.
(Third, there are ooze zombies. I usually have a no-zombies rule but these aren't the really threatening kind. They're very slow. You just have to drum and sometimes jump on them.)
Satisfying, beautiful, educational -- if you're unfamiliar with Sámi traditions, which certainly describes me -- and very approachable. Try it.

Recursive Ruin

A first-person puzzle game with a "nested" world. The space contains itself at a smaller scale, and so on infinitely inward (and outward). Now you're recalling Maquette; but Recursive Ruin feels quite different.
RR has a glitchy fractal aesthetic rather than cozy toy tilt-shift, but that's not the main difference. In Maquette, you stayed the same size as you walked inward or outward. So each copy of the world was smaller or larger than the last. In RR, you shrink or grow to match the world-instance you're entering. You can go inwards/outwards forever.
This is brain-twisty from the get-go. Maquette allowed you to distinguish where you were by size; but in RR, every instance is the same size. Sort of. You really have to visualize the world as cyclical. On top of that, you have a "shift" button which slides the inner/outer world up or down, changing the relative locations of everything.
RR's mechanics drag you into its warped reality -- and they just work better. Maquette's scaling meant that you couldn't go very far inward; the world got too small and crowded to deal with. Similarly, going outward, the world became vast boring stretches of pavement that you had to run through. RR avoids this problem and feels much better laid out.
RR tends to flip back and forth between pure-puzzle mode and a narrative about an artist's traumatic past. Plenty of games have alternating scenes like this, but RR has alternating chapters -- sometimes you get a full-length walking-sim episode in between puzzle chapters. Mind you, it's a good walking sim (in the psychological-horror mode). A bit heavy-handed, but mostly I just wanted smoother pacing.
At any rate, the puzzles are pretty solid. Not extremely difficult once you wrap your head around the geometry, but a good variety of stuff built on that basic idea.
And, hey, after Maquette I thought "That is a cool mechanic but I bet more could be done with it." Now more has!
(Sorry, this whole review comes off as backhanded shade on Maquette. I enjoyed Maquette! It did interesting story things! The last chapter had clever puzzles! But the puzzles felt hit-and-miss before that point, and you had to spend a lot of time running across vast boring stretches of pavement.)


A first-person puzzle game in an abstract low-poly world. This would be Yet Another One Of Those except that the puzzles are really well-designed! I finished it a couple of days ago and now it's high on my puzzle recommendation list for the year.
It's definitely in the Myst sphere of influence rather than Talos/Xing/Portal. Every enviroment, every mechanic, and every puzzle is unique... except that's not true. Each idea comes back deeper. You'll solve a puzzle, move on, and then realize there was more to the original mechanic than you thought. So you return to it -- or solve a similar puzzle -- but now you're working at a different level.
(I suppose a better comparison is Antichamber or the recent Sensorium. Abstract world; simple visual style; not a trace of story; a deep, serious focus on the puzzle design.)
The "progression by learning" idea recalls Outer Wilds. I don't mean that Platonic is a pure-information game. It's not; when you unlock a door it stays unlocked, when you solve a puzzle it stays solved. But there's still that sensation of space opening up around you. And this happens a lot. The designer has done a really creditable job of having every puzzle idea recur and build on itself. They get tangled up with each other too. Sneaky stuff.

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