Winter puzzle games

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Comments: 4   (latest 16 hours later)

Tagged: reviews, pony island, crossroad os, 20 small mazes, the longing, portal revolution, portal

I caught up on a few puzzle games since IGF wrapped up. Also The Longing, which is not a puzzle games, but I did have to look at hints, so you decide.

  • Pony Island
  • Crossroad OS
  • 20 Small Mazes
  • The Longing
  • Portal: Revolution

Pony Island

The first outing from Daniel Mullins, who went on to do The Hex and Inscryption and generally to have a fine old time messing with the structure and conventions of videogames and also making my head explode.

I picked this up because I heard Pony Island 2 was in the works. Also I heard PI was a programming game. It's not; it's a your-computer-is-messing-with-you puzzle game which uses the conceits of programming.

Imagine you're building a very simple jumpy-unicorn game, only demons have taken over the code and your desktop. A lo-fi 1990-era desktop, haunted and hacked. You have to hack back by solving puzzles styled around programming -- not actual programming, but flow-of-control grid puzzles.

It's pretty good stuff. However, the story and demons are uninteresting, just high-school-punk Satanism. Nothing like the awesome creepy-folklore schtick that Mullins had going in Inscryption. And then I got up to a level of the pony game (updated with lasers and demonspawn) which I couldn't play; the controls were too awkward. Diegetically awkward, given how much the "game" had been hacked at that point, but I still couldn't finish it. Oh well. I think I exorcised the first of three demons?

Nonetheless, I look forward to PI2, since Mullins has been upping his game with each release. As it were.

Crossroad OS

A demons-have-invaded-your-desktop game with lo-fi haunted 1990-era hackery. Not related to Pony Island! This time you get trapped in the Win95 "maze" screensaver, only it's festooned with puzzle-panels. Beware Clippy.

The puzzles are quite good grid puzzlers -- not extremely difficult, but with a nice range of mechanics. As is thematically proper, the game takes great delight in messing with your UI. Your mouse cursor is sometimes a physical object which can bump objects, get stuck in a corner, or be eaten by demons. Then again, sometimes it's just a cursor. Sometimes you're the cursor. Occasionally parts of the screen fall off.

Short, and as I said, not too difficult. There's some precision mouse-steering in a few places, but no timed challenges. Lots of secret doors and codes. I enjoyed it.

(Footnote: Apparently a major content update came out the day after I finished the game. Yay timing. I see they fixed the credits bug too.)

20 Small Mazes

(Note: this game was an IGF entry, but it didn't make it into my IGF roundup posts.)

Just like the tin says, it's twenty little mazes. It goes well with the games mentioned above: no demons, but it definitely has the feel of "desktop accessories gone wild". (Or maybe index cards on an actual desktop, but who thinks like that any more?)

Anyhow, the mazes start simple and then get sneaky: logic mazes, hidden clues, secretly related mazes, gleeful interaction gimmicks. It's a bagatelle -- won't take you a full hour -- but sharply designed for what it is.

The Longing

A peculiar combination of exploration, idle game, and atmospheric tone poem. You're a soot-sprite, or perhaps a dream in the mind of a subterranean King. In 400 days he will wake up. What will you do until then?

I played The Longing in 2020 when it showed up on Steam. I got to a (sad) ending. Then it popped up on iOS and I thought hey, this is perfect for a mobile game; I will play it again! And maybe get to a happier less sad ending!

(In theory, once you reach an ending, the game is over. No restarts, no save slots. I bypassed this by playing on two platforms but that was cheating. Sorry.)

It is indeed almost ideal for mobile. Open the game, see where you are, maybe start walking to a bookmarked location, check back in a few hours. The only UI weakness is the dialogue-choice menus which are almost too small to select on my iPad. On a phone-sized screen you might need a stylus.

The thing is perfectly lovely in its commitment. Your Shade travels the deeps with a placid, uncomplaining deliberation. You can't even think "hurry up" at the figure, and so you accept the underworld's other obstacles in the same spirit. People have compared The Longing with Susanna Clarke's Piranesi; the game was published before the book but you can see the comparison.

Like Piranesi, this story's protagonist eventually finds that unseemly desires are the fruit of knowledge and may seek other endings than the King's. If you are as patient as the Shade, you may discover them on your own. Me, I googled wiki without regret... well, without much regret. (See above.) I admit that I lacked the patience to see some of the really secret stuff.

Play it, if only to experience a game that "values your time" in a completely different way. The soundtrack is excellent too.

(Footnote: If you want more discussion of The Longing, I enjoyed Carl Muckenhoupt's posts at The Stack.)

Portal: Revolution

  • by Stefan Heinz & Contributors -- game site

Every few years a massive fan-mod of Portal 2 shows up with a few new mechanics, some new scenery, and (if the fans are especially enthusiastic, and they usually are) a bunch of original voice-acting. I am always happy to see one of these; so is Valve. I've played Portal Stories: Mel and Portal Reloaded (the one with the time-portal).

Portal: Revolution is this year's offering, and it is pretty solid. It doesn't stray far from its roots, to be sure. The environments mostly flip between familiar test chambers and familiar Aperture-backgloom, enlivened by a few showoff scenes in the surface world. Nearly the surface world. Open to daylight, anyhow. Then you plummet into the Cave-Johnson-era basement, just like in P2.

(Just like Prince of Persia and many other games, come to think of it. When I hit that scene, I joked about "wake up in the sewers" being a stage of the Videogame Monomyth.)

And, of course, puzzles. I'd rate them as somewhat more complicated than P2 puzzles, but not more difficult, overall. That is: the underlying idea of a given puzzle might not be harder to grasp than the average P2 puzzle. But you'll have to go through more gymnastics to carry it through. Revolution is particularly fond of a layout where you (a) make your way through a messy level; (b) change one bit of state: place a portal or a crate or a laser cube or whatever; (c) fall back to the beginning; (d) run through the level again, only this time you have to be mindful of your state change. A puzzle with extra logistics challenges, as it were.

Well, I enjoy that sort of exercise -- keeping track of stuff in my head. And it's on top of perfectly good P2 style puzzles. Plus extra new gimmicks. And there's amusing companion chatter along the way. Two original characters, some snarking, some sniping, a bit of backstory. A giant chamber with a giant machine that you have to fix and then (inevitably) destroy.

The pacing is perhaps a little draggy. A few too many "whoops, gotta solve a test chamber now" lines jammed into not quite enough plot. But of course this is a game by and for puzzlers -- fans jonesing for a bit of the old Portal in-and-out. I had a good time, and if I felt a bit puzzle-worn at the end, it only meant that I wound up seeking a hint for the very last puzzle. Which I should really have figured out for myself. Shame on me.

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