Puzzle games and narrative games have a natural tendency to collide. I mean, yes, all genres want to hybridize these days, but the original "adventure game" was puzzle-narrative before anybody thought to disentangle the two. Besides, your narrative wants pacing -- that's puzzles -- and your puzzle game wants some kind of push-pull beyond "see the next room".
All of which is just to say that even though these are narrative game reviews, I also play a lot of puzzle games. I'll list some notable ones here. Not gonna be long reviews, and anyhow I've written some of these up before.
- A Monster's Expedition
- A Fold Apart
- Shady Part of Me
(Note: I was on the narrative jury. I bought and played all of these games before IGF judging started, though.)
A Monster's Expedition
- by Draknek & Friends -- game site
This is the lancing beacon of the puzzle world this year. It's already got awards piled around its feet; it's up for two IGF categories and got honorable mention for the grand prize. Last fall, I wrote, "A Monster's Expedition (Through Puzzling Exhibitions) is going to be a landmark of puzzle design for generations. [...] Its craft is so understated that it's easy to overlook it entirely."
I also said that there basically isn't a narrative, which is fine. Play it.
Read my full post on AME: Puzzle games of the year: my favorites (November 2020)
A Fold Apart
- by Lightning Rod Games -- game site
Puzzle platformer where you fold the screen over itself. Yes, it has a back side.
I liked the idea but I didn't think it translated to a great puzzle mechanic. My mindset wasn't so much solving puzzles as "try a couple of folds, see what works". That can be fine in games where I'm engaged by the story, but the story here is the sort of awkward rocky-romance which leaves you saying "You know, maybe you two shouldn't be dating."
On the up side, the two-sided paper mechanic fits nicely with the story of two people who can't manage to get on the same page. It's very pretty and the gameplay is perfectly tied into the theme. Just didn't work out great as a puzzle experience.
- by Sunhead Games -- game site
An adorable little fairy-tale puzzle game where you rearrange map segments to rearrange the world.
This mechanic could have made a very technical, deep-state-space sort of game. It's not! The puzzles are as much about intuitive jumps and thematic patterns as about the careful arrangement of tiles. It's a nice change after the long ascendancy of the Portal-likes. Which I also love, don't get me wrong. But a little thematic apperception now and then soothes the soul.
There is a bunch of careful tile-arrangement, to be sure. The game does a lot with its map mechanic. It doesn't push any variant of the gimmick to exhaustion -- it's a short game -- but that's fine; it keeps you on your toes. And it succeeds in making a toy world feel expansive and explorable.
The storyline is pleasant (and multicultural in a cute, harmless sort of way). I have to admit that, after six months, not much of the story has stuck with me. Definitely cute, though.
Shady Part of Me
- by Douze Dixièmes -- game site
A third-person platformer where you control both the protagonist and her shadow. You must remain in the shadows; your shadow -- naturally -- must remain in direct light. The puzzles thus involve a lot of moving lanterns, pushing crates into beams of light, and so on. It's not extremely difficult stuff but the mechanics are very well explored. There are optional bonus items to grab if you want more challenge.
The story framework is something about mental health, therapy, and self-care. It's pretty unfocussed, though, and I didn't feel like it came to much. All the tropes of psychological horror (padded cells, giant looming childhood toys) without the horror; they just sit around signifying confusedly. I strongly suspect that the tropey concept art came first and then they added a story.
Solid puzzles, anyhow.
(Compare this to Iris.Fall, another platformer about a little kid with a shadow. That one leaned more into the "tormented children's nightmare" -- still a cliche, but more of a story with it. Also had solid puzzles, as I recall.)
- by Amanita Design -- game site
(Comments originally from this post, November 2020.)
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.
Added comment: Creaks got a
nomination honorable mention for Best Audio, and it deserves it. The soundtrack is gorgeous. It's generative audio system -- they have a demo up called Creaksbox that you can play with.
- by Tunnel Vision Games -- game site
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!)
(Comments originally from this post, November 2020.)