Tag: puzzle platformer

Celeste and my frustration with puzzle platformers.

You know, there’s a kind of genre I don’t quite get why people like it: The puzzle platformer. I’ve tried playing some of the ones so highly recommended to me, only to leave with frustration and disappointment. A lot of puzzle platformers get me so frustrated that it soured the overall experience for me. But there’s one I played recently that got me rethinking my outlook on this genre, transgender memes notwithstanding.

Celeste. The puzzle platformer from EXOK Games that came out on 2018 that has become a transgender allegory in recent years, due to some of the plot relating a lot to trans folk. Lead designer Maddy Thorson realizing her own trans journey through the game after the release probably helped a bit too. We always need more queer game designers, after all.

I’m not gonna get too much into the non-gameplay elements here. The art style’s cool by using pixel art in a way that’s unique without feeling too much like deliberate retro bait, Lena Raine’s soundtrack is tense yet touching at the right moments (and I never got to play any of the B-sides which also sound like a bunch of bangers), and the story is rather touching and something I can relate to as someone who struggles through life. But I wanna talk about this game further cementing my belief on puzzle platformers.

This part from Blood of the Werewolf still haunts me to this day.

When I mention I get frustrated by these kind of games, I’m not kidding. When I think about some of the action/puzzle platformers I played for the blog last year, like Hell Yeah! Wrath of the Dead Rabbit and Blood of the Werewolf, I leave those games with frustration and anger. How one mistake will usually result in death, with little chance to redeem yourself. Some parts of these games are so malicious to the player that requires so much perfect timing that I’m surprised I haven’t thrown my controller into my computer screen after some of the bullshit I had to go through to beat it.

This is apparently the only screenshot of VVVVVV I took. Rather fitting, really.

But it doesn’t just apply to those mostly-forgotten niche platformers. It applies to the more popular ones as well. For example, I never finished the critically acclaimed VVVVVV. The gravity-shifting puzzle platformer with a pseudo-DOS art style and catchy chiptune music was an absolute chore to play at spots. A lot of hazards and pixel-perfect precision to make it across made it maddeningly to play, so much so that I only got about halfway through it before giving up on it.

Magrunner: Dark Pulse – Now you’re thinking with polarity!

It really cannot be overstated how much Portal made an impact to video games when released in 2007. Valve snatched up a few Digipen students with an ambitious project, gave it that high quality Valve polish and released it as part of The Orange Box. The game was considered tertiary to the rest of The Orange Box – the more hyped games being the long-awaited Team Fortress 2, and Half-Life 2: Episode Two, the continuation of the Half-Life 2 saga – but Portal somehow became that surprise smash hit that started making small waves in the puzzle platforming genre.

In the years following, a fair share of games would copy Portal’s first-person perspective but try it with different ideas. Antichamber did puzzle-solving in impossible spaces. Quantum Conundrum involved shifting between dimensions to affect objects in the world. Even something like The Ball had the titular ball be used to solve tricky puzzles. But I couldn’t think of a puzzle game that involved gravity and polarity. Until now.

He looks like Cole MacGrath from inFAMOUS‘s dorky half-brother. (Cover courtesy of Mobygames.)

Enter Magrunner: Dark Pulse. A first-person puzzle platformer that involves polarity and gravity to solve puzzles. Released in 2013 for the PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, it’s another one of those puzzle platformers that involve shooting objects to solve puzzles.

This was developed by 3AM Games, a small development studio based in Kyiv, Ukraine. They had done contract work with Frogwares, the developers of the myriad of Sherlock Holmes games. Funded on the crowdfunding site Ulele, they received €110,000 in funding, just barely hitting their €100,000 goal. With some help from Frogwares and distributor Focus Home Interactive, they were able to make this game a reality. As far as I know, this would end up being 3AM’s last known project, as most of the team joined Frogwares proper not long after. 

I had gotten this for free on GOG not long after its release, and had mostly thrown it into The Pile that is my neverending backlog. Struggling to figure out a game to play, I let The Backloggery’s Fortune Cookie feature do its magic, and it picked this. Though I opted to use my Steam copy, of which I don’t remember when I got it. Maybe around the same time as I snagged the GOG edition. So if you’re wondering why this game might be in your game library, that might be it.

2 Unlimited not included. You gotta go to BioMetal if you want that.

You play as Dax Ward, an orphaned child whose parents died rather unexpectedly. Being mentored by a mutant scientist named Gamaji, Ward enters a contest to be one of the first people to use MagTech’s space training program, sponsored by LifeNet, a major social media conglomerate. The whole Magrunner event is broadcast and shown, featuring Magrunners from all walks of life.

Everything starts out smoothly, where Magrunners are solving the puzzles within. Parts of Magrunner start out feeling very Portal-esque at first. Dax moves from test chamber to test chamber through elevators, the test chambers are very clean and scientific like Portal’s Aperture Science test chambers, stuff like that. So far you’d expect that it’s gonna be similar to that, right?

Then the power starts malfunctioning and people slowly are dying. Dax must survive and get to the bottom of this mess by solving puzzles involving polarity. Which sounds silly, but hey, it’s a puzzle game, those things don’t need that strong of a plot.

The polarity in action, with a fancy cube. Yes, it does look like Christmas by default.

If you’ve played Portal, most of Magrunner’s mechanics will make sense pretty quickly. Dax has two polarity colors – Red and Green by default, though they can be changed to any color – of which he can put onto objects highlighted in yellow. Much like magnets and polarity in real life, two objects of the same polarity color will often stick together, while two objects with different polarity colors will repel them away from each other.

Throughout Dax’s journey through the catastrophe, he’ll solve a multitude of polarity puzzles, flinging boxes, using platforms, trying to avoid turrets that’ll shoot him on contact – sorry, these ones don’t talk with a cutesy voice – all the typical puzzle platformer stuff.

This section required me to bring three platforms to an ideal height so I could jump off the box at the top. This… took a while to complete.

Gemini: Heroes Reborn – A puzzle platformer based on the biggest TV show of the 2000s.

If there’s anything I kinda miss about the modern age of video games is that there’s not enough tie-in games based on TV shows or movies. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s where we had classics like Disney’s DuckTales and Goldeneye, and were rather ubiquitous during that 8 and 16-bit video game boom. They slowly started dying off by the early 2010s, during the start of the Xbox One/PlayStation 4 era, and haven’t really shown up since. These days when I think of promotions with licensed properties, it’s usually as crossovers in other games, like Bingo Story and The Price Is Right, or John McClane of Die Hard fame in Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War. The most recent tie-in game I can think of is, amusingly, a game based on Space Jam: A New Legacy made by the people at Digital Eclipse.

Even though they’re not as common these days, there is still a video game based on a TV series or movie released here and there. Most of them are relegated to mobile devices, but sometimes a game or two does make it to the mainstream gaming consoles – or in my case, Steam. Gemini: Heroes Reborn is one of those rare cases.

“Hey, could you like, help me here? I can’t dodge bullets and lift people forever!”

Developed by Phosphor Games – a studio mostly known for making mobile games and Virtual Reality titles – the game was released in early 2016 as a tie-in to the TV series Heroes Reborn, a science-fiction drama that is a sequel series to one of the biggest 2000s-era TV shows: Heroes.

Would you believe it was pretty hard to find a good promotional image like this?

Admittedly I don’t watch a lot of television, so my knowledge of Heroes is through friends that did watch it: The show’s premise involves a giant corporation simply called “The Company” that was experimenting with human beings and giving them superpowers, of which a small group of people slowly find out that they have through a solar eclipse. Eventually they team up to stop the big-bad-of-the-week and eventually figure out the Company’s ulterior motives. Basically a serial TV show that would sow the seeds for things like the later Marvel Cinematic Universe.

From what I gathered, Heroes started out great in its first season, then the Writers Guild of America had a strike midway through the second season. The strike basically threw the whole planned storyline out of whack in such a way that the show never really recovered, eventually getting canceled after the fourth season concluded in 2010. In 2016, a sequel series called Heroes Reborn came and went for a single season, of which its story is the basis for Gemini‘s plot.

(Warning: Plot spoilers for Gemini: Heroes Reborn follow.)

I assure you that this game doesn’t have cutscenes that look like they were hastily made in Photoshop.

You play as Cassandra Hays, a woman who suffered amnesia as a teenager. She’s taken to an abandoned military base called “The Quarry” by her friend Alex to hopefully make sense of what happened to her. Eventually Alex gets captured by soldiers who apparently are still at the building, and Cassandra must find a way to save him. Cassandra later finds out she has special powers that allow her to travel through time, switching her between the then-present timeline of 2016 and the near-past of 2008, when the building was still operating. Eventually acquiring telekinesis powers in the past, she uses that and her time abilities to figure out what happened to her and what the purpose of “The Quarry” was.

Our antagonist, Trevor Mason. I wonder if he has a brother named Alex

The plot itself isn’t particularly remarkable. It falls into a lot of the common fiction tropes of characters double-crossing you and having to do bidding for the big bad – who’s unique to this game, voiced by Robin Atkin Downes of all people – while also figuring out the mystery of Cassandra’s family and her past.