Puzzling (Mis)adventures: Volume 2 - Lucidity, Max & the Magic Marker, P.B. Winterbottom
Our regular round-up of puzzle-platformers and other puzzle-centric games
While puzzles may be an integral genre staple, they certainly aren’t the exclusive domain of adventures. In fact, at the rate they’re now spreading to other types of games, “puzzles” may once again stop being a dirty word before long. (Call ‘em “minigames” all you want, but puzzles are still puzzles.) A new casual sub-genre has sprung up from a combination of puzzle-solving and scavenging hunting, but hidden object games aren’t the only ones incorporating brain-teasers. Entire games are now built around puzzles (hello, Professor Layton!), while RPGs, light action games, and even platformers are becoming a far more balanced mix of reflexes and reflection. If it’s not Portal, it’s the likes of Scribblenauts taking gamers deeper into the puzzling milieu, frequently wiping out genre lines in the process.
Earlier we took an in-depth look at three other creative and remarkably different puzzle-platform hybrids in Braid, And Yet It Moves, and World of Goo. But the search for mentally stimulating gameplay never ends, so today it’s time to introduce three newer titles of cross-genre interest. The surreal, dreamlike Lucidity marks a welcome re-emergence of original LucasArts game design, while Press Play’s Max & the Magic Marker challenges players to use their (even marginal) artistic skills to overcome obstacles. The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, meanwhile, came from nowhere to capture imaginations and a whole lot of pies, and if that doesn’t make you hungry for more, read on and maybe the following will.
So apparently there was once a developer that specialized in beautiful, brilliantly-crafted puzzle-based gameplay. They went by the name of LucasArts. Perhaps you’ve heard of them. But as any adventure gamer knows, that was before the company turned to the dark side of the Force, neglecting the genre that helped make them famous in favour of outsourcing and rehashed franchise sequels. But 2009 marked something of a mini-renaissance for the former adventure giant, as they not only resurrected the long-dormant Monkey Island series, they also set their sights on a brand new, internally-developed property. The result? Lucidity.
This game is not an adventure by any means, but it’s no mere run-and-jump twitch game, either. Over the course of 27 main levels and 16 bonus levels, players control an imaginative young girl named Sofi, who falls asleep by her elderly grandmother’s side only to awaken some time later, afraid and alone. When a mysterious frog-like guide appears, Sofi has little choice but to follow on a surreal quest through a variety of fantastical environments, overcoming not just the many obstacles in her way, but her own fears as well. Yet as the game’s title dares us to ask: Is she dreaming? Is this real? And where has Sofi’s nana gone?
To be more accurate, players actually don’t control Sofi, which represents the key difference in Lucidity. All on her own, rather Lemmings-like, Sofi playfully skips through her journey as the screen scrolls relentlessly left-to-right along with her. The challenge is to protect her from the many dangers in her path, whether it’s giant dragonflies or snails, barbed wires, swirling vortexes, or simply the nothingness that begins to chase behind her, threatening to engulf Sofi if her progress is hopelessly impeded. The player’s only influence is the ability to place helpful items strategically in her way, from simple planks and stairs to springed shoes, slingshots, and fans to propel her upwards. Bombs are the only offensive “weapon” in your arsenal, but you’ll need those more for blasting through walls and barriers than hunting down foes.
While this may sound like a useful selection of tools, the catch is that you have only two at a time at your disposal. Items are arbitrarily generated in one of two boxes: the currently selected item for use and a storage slot in reserve. Left-clicking an accessible spot on screen will place the current object, and right-clicking will swap it with your secondary item. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but it does introduce a significant element of randomness. Often only one item will work in a particular situation, so you’re left quickly trying to place unwanted stuff elsewhere on the screen just to discard it. Making matters worse, cursor control is rather jittery using either a mouse or gamepad, clearly moving in defined increments on an unseen grid rather than smoothly sweeping across the screen. When stuck in close quarters with no time to spare, it’s frustrating to be fighting the interface just to hope lady luck will smile on you with a better item next. Allowing for a more tactical selection of items would have added a welcome layer of complexity and control.
You can “die” in Lucidity, whether by succumbing to a fatal trap or being hit twice in rapid succession by enemies. When hit once, you become more vulnerable to the next, though if you can avoid any immediate threats you’ll recover soon enough. Dying means either restarting the level or picking up at a midway checkpoint, a feature not originally included when the game was released on Xbox LIVE Arcade, only added later as a result of public feedback. This is a helpful addition, though most of the levels are quite short, taking only a couple minutes to complete, and many are fairly easy. Bonus levels are decidedly harder, often limiting your items and making the obstacles more demanding, but these are entirely optional.
The goal of Lucidity isn’t simply to reach the exit, however, but to collect magical fireflies as you go. Each level has dozens of little light clusters that you must pass Sofi near enough to collect. It isn’t necessary to gather them, but it’s the only way to unlock bonus levels, and they do provide a certain degree of replayability. In fact, it’s absolutely impossible to collect all of them in one pass, as they’re usually spaced high and low throughout the level. Unfortunately, this highlights one of the game’s major weaknesses, which is the lack of camera control. While the fixed perspective is generally adequate for getting Sofi across the screen, the inability to zoom out means there’s no way to get an overview and plan ahead. Particularly when moving vertically, you’ll never know if there are collectibles or enemies above or below your position until you stumble blindly upon them or realize (too late) that you’ve made the wrong choice.
That’s not the only reason you’ll find yourself wishing to see more, as Lucidity displays a charming aesthetic. The delightful dreamscapes are colourful and creative, taking players through wildly different environments that represent Sofi’s childlike memories. From “underwater” blue/greens to starry night skies, through fog and snow and gloomy, rain-drenched woods, the scenery is continually vivid and varied in a stylish hand drawn art style that’s somewhat reminiscent of paper cut-outs. It’s not overly detailed, but the abstract simplicity suits it wonderfully. You can’t stop to admire it anyway, as Sofi keeps moving ever-forward in perpetual motion. There is no voice acting or significant sound effects in the game, but Sofi emits a cute little grunt when she exerts herself, and the sound of crickets is almost melodious. Speaking of which, the haunting, melancholic soundtrack provides a lovely aural backdrop to the action.
Surprisingly, the one place the art feels like a letdown is the rather plain, uninspired postcards you get as your reward for completing levels. Each card contains a new thought of Sofi’s or her grandmother that help you understand what’s happened and how it’s affecting the child. Apart from a few cinematics that take Sofi back to her still-empty house, these brief written musings are the only real story element in Lucidity, but they do a nice job of expressing the kind of hope and fear, joy and sorrow that come from growing up and facing challenges, troubles, and even the most profound kind of loss. It’s a shame this narrative backdrop is so completely divorced from the actual gameplay, but it does provide ample encouragement to see the “story” through to the end.
It won’t take long to reach that point, however. Lucidity can easily be finished in 2-3 hours, though only by leaving many fireflies behind and new bonus levels unlocked, so you can always go back for more. The handy map screen shows how many fireflies are left in each level, and you can replay a scenario any time. Whether you’ll want to is debatable, mind you, as you’ll simply be retracing your steps and charting a different route through, using all the same items in all the same ways. Even the first time around, the number of objects available seems rather limited, leaving little sense of progression beyond the first half hour or so. A little more variety, or at least better spacing of new elements, would have gone a long way.
Despite its brevity and relative simplicity, it’s hard not to feel some fondness for Lucidity. Available for both PC through Steam and Xbox 360, its dreamy atmosphere is endearing, its bare but soulful storyline touching, and its quirky gameplay feels fresh and new, even if it does start to overstay its welcome before you’re done. This certainly won’t be the game that makes everyone forget Monkey Island, but it sure isn’t Star Wars, and here’s hoping that LucasArts, like Sofi, keeps pressing ever onward with more original designs. Hey, we can dream, can’t we?
Next up: Max & the Magic Marker...
Max & the Magic Marker
While most puzzles are designed to challenge the logical left half of your brain, Press Play's Max & the Magic Marker is determined to make you use your more creative right hemisphere as well. At least, that’s the theory behind this journey through a living world of childhood drawings. In reality, this physics-based 2D puzzle-platformer is designed even for people with no artistic talent whatsoever. If sticks, blobs, and mutant doodles are as close as you’ll ever get to fine art personally, then breathe easy, grab a marker, and leap right in – literally.
In the opening comic cinematic, a young boy named Max gets a mysterious marker in the mail and unwittingly draws a monster that springs off the page and dashes into another drawing. With his newfound power, Max decides to scribble himself into the same picture in order to stop “Mustacho” from wreaking further havoc, and the chase is on. That’s really all there is to call a story, as the rest of the game is spent simply running, jumping, and inking your way through fifteen increasingly challenging levels before finally catching up with the chortling purple monstrosity.
Even if your own art skills aren’t up to snuff, the developers’ thankfully were, as Max & the Magic Marker delivers a bright, cheerful visual presentation that’s a pleasure to spend time in. The scenery starts to get a little repetitive throughout the three main areas, including Max’s own neighbourhood, pirate-infested tropical islands, and a robot factory, but it’s impossible not to be tickled by the vivid colours, skewed architecture, and cartoon-like design. In a nice touch, pausing the game at any time freezes the screen in a sketch-like variation of itself, then re-animates when you resume. The jaunty tunes are fun accompaniment at first, but they become even more repetitive over time, and there’s no voice acting or notable sound effects to distract you from the endless looping.
Of course, most of your attention will be occupied by the gameplay itself, controlling both Max and the mysterious pen. With no gamepad support of any kind, Max is moved easily enough with the arrow or WASD keys, though for some reason there’s no option to remap the configuration. (No matter how many times I pressed it, the space bar would NOT become the jump key!) Max has no remarkable physical abilities beyond a light run, push, and climb, so all but the most basic of obstacles must be overcome with the ever-present marker. This giant disembodied instrument, as orange as Max’s wavy hair, is used by clicking and dragging the mouse in something resembling a functional (if barely recognizable) shape. On the Wii, Max is guided with the nunchuck, with the Wiimote handling the drawing, losing a little precision in the exchange.
Like most side-scrolling platformers, the action progresses mainly in a left-to-right direction, but you’ll sometimes reverse course and often find yourself forced to climb upwards to new heights. Assuming you have enough ink, that is. You may be holding a magic marker, but it’s not a magically refilling one, so you’ll need to routinely collect ink orbs along the way. There are two other kinds of orbs to gather as well, usually far more difficult to reach, but these are strictly for bragging rights and unlocking minor extras, so they can easily be bypassed.
Once “armed” with ink, you’ll need to make good use of it to achieve your goals. Usually the solution is fairly obvious, like building ramps and staircases to reach high ledges, or platforms for crossing chasms and riding waterspouts, but occasionally a more creative obstacle presents itself. Rope lifts, hot air balloons, and pressure plates need weight, see-saws require momentum, deadly rain storms and volcano eruptions demand makeshift shelters, and even the odd eggplantish enemy needs disposing. Since the pen is mightier than the sword, defeating them is a simple matter of dropping a newly-drawn object on them from above. (Hard lesson learned: Max is NOT Mario! Instinctively jumping on their heads equals instant death.)
Yes, Max can die, and probably will quite often in the later stages, either by plummeting into a deadly pit, being crushed by mechanical pounders, fried by lasers, or getting caught up in spinning gears. At times the camera is to blame, as there’s no manual control and there will invariably be times where you just can’t see an obstacle or your goal, imposing some trial-and-error to succeed. The game’s physics are the bigger culprit, however. While an integral and very welcome aspect of Max & the Magic Marker, the physics here tend to be a little loose, as if the game takes place in a slightly lower-gravity world than our own. It’s never insurmountable, but it wasn’t uncommon to see Max inexplicably bounce off a wall or my seemingly-solid block tower wobble around and topple over at the slightest touch.
Fortunately, dying simply results in respawning (rescribbling?) at the nearest checkpoint, which is never too far away. The trade-off for this frequency of checkpoints, on the other hand, is that you’ll have all your ink sucked away each time you pass one. Indeed, perhaps the most difficult challenge of all is rationing your precious pen juice. There’s no way to hoard away for moments of need, as the game forces you to constantly replenish your rather meagre supply. I guarantee a few temptations to backtrack just to make sure you didn’t miss a vital orb, certain you don’t have enough ink to make do. But you didn’t, and you do. The allotment is really that tight. There’s no concern about waste, at least, as right-clicking your design will erase it and suck the ink back up to try again.
There’s a challenge of another kind waiting at the end, as Max finally gets to confront Mustacho head-on in a “boss fight” level. This can actually be quite difficult, as the game’s jump command is never as responsive as it should be, and one mistake here starts you over from the beginning. In fact, though its central gimmick relies more on thought than reflex, I don’t particularly recommend Max & the Magic Marker to people with little or no action game experience, as it inevitably requires a deft hand and some steely nerve to finish, particularly as you’re leaping blindly into the great unknown, drawing as you go. Kids should have no problem, though don’t let its childlike appearance fool you, as this is a game that anyone can play.
Game length will vary widely depending on how diligent you are about collecting orbs, but most gamers can probably expect to put in 4 or 5 hours at least. Beyond that there’s very little replay value, or even much incentive to return for more collectibles, and the freeform “playground” mode is a total waste of potential. In fact, “wasted potential” was a recurring thought the longer I played. It’s great fun to be a human cannonball, play Whac-A-Mole (with real moles!), or maneuver past a sleeping octopus in a pirate hat, but the novelty soon wears off. More importantly, rather than promote imagination, the constant ink restrictions discourage much experimentation, leaving you to ponder what you can do instead of what you could do. Even so, Max & the Magic Marker is bright, pleasant puzzle-platformer that’s hard not to enjoy, with a browser-based demo that’s well worth checking out. I could write more, but why waste the ink?
Next up: The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom...
The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom
I like pie.
No really, I do, though not nearly as much as a certain Bakersburg pie thief. The portly pastry pilferer’s (don’t say that with your mouth full!) insatiable lust for crusty desserts is the stuff of legend, as recorded – again and again, as you’ll come to find out – in The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom. This very odd game by The Odd Gentlemen is easily one of the quirkiest, most absurd titles available on the PC and Xbox 360. Yet like its oven-baked subject matter, it also happens to be one of the tastiest, most rewarding puzzle-platforming treats anywhere. Just don’t expect it to be cak… err, a piewalk.
As players learn-by-doing in the opening tutorial levels, it seems the titular villain’s greedy pie pillaging has resulted in all sorts of town damage, and now a giant mystical Chronoberry Pie has come to set things right, whether Winterbottom likes it or not. Not that it matters much to him, whose goal is still the same: see pie, catch pie, eat pie. It’s sort of a redemption through temptation. The only difference is, these new pies are a whole lot harder to catch, and it’ll take a little help from his friends. But since he hasn’t got any friends, he’s going to have to rely on the next best thing: clones of himself. (As if one wasn’t bad enough!)
Somehow or other (hey, it’s a game about magic pies; it’s a little loose on science), the dastardly Winterbutt is transported back in time and given the ability to briefly record his actions and re-enact them through replicated doubles. He’s going to need them, too, if he’s to overcome the many devious obstacles spread out over the course of five worlds and 50 puzzling levels. There are perilous gaps to cross, impossible heights to scale, fire to avoid, timed levers to hit, and pressure plates to weigh down – often all at once, and usually with an unforgiving, unseen timer ticking down.
Since being a glutton isn’t a skill (if only!), the diminutive P.B. will need to make strategic use of his fellow selves to succeed. His only innate abilities (mirrored by his clones) are short jumps and slow runs, but he can also whack what’s in front of him and glide briefly mid-air with his trusty umbrella. When acting together, this allows him/them to climb each other vertically like ants, spring from teeter-totters, and propel themselves like human catapults. It’s a deceptively limited repertoire, as the when and how are just as important as the what, because proper sequencing and perfectly synchronized timing are crucial.
Adding to the challenge, it’s not just the environmental hurdles that need to be cleared, but the individual level conditions as well. Some screens limit you to a minimal number of clones to aid you, while others demand so many that it’s literally hard to get out of your own way. Many levels add the completely arbitrary requirement of collecting pies in a certain order, each remaining active for mere seconds after the last. A few levels scroll past low-hanging ledges and crumbling platforms, but many are just single screens, leaving you free to ponder, plan, and experiment with your approach. You’ll likely breeze through the early levels of each new stage, but some of the later ones will hit you like a… well, a pie in the face, only not as funny.
Just when you think you’re got the basics licked (so to speak), the game introduces new problems that add some welcome flavour, although they aren’t always integrated as seamlessly as they could. Your regular blue-tinged clones are the only ones who can collect blue pies, red clones are hostile and kill the real P.B. on contact, and clones near the end of the game will inexplicably begin running in your direction with umbrella-whapping malice (a fact you can use to your advantage, if a little hard on the hindquarters). In one world, Winterbum loses command of his powers, so clones can only be generated from the same fixed portals. Such changes are duly noted in subtitled instructions, but they’re introduced (and often abandoned) so abruptly that the shift can be difficult to adjust to on the fly. A more user-friendly introduction of whole new mechanics would have been beneficial.
While it’s possible for Winterbottom to die, he simply respawns immediately from a nearby portal when he does. Clones aren’t so lucky, disappearing in a little puff of smoke. You won’t be growing too attached to your duplicated selves, however, since you’ll regularly be zapping them yourself. If you realize you’ve botched a clone recording, just wipe it out and try again. Even if your recording is correct, you may find yourself needing to repeat it, as it’s easy for your clones to become disoriented if bumped off their pattern. At times this can be a nuisance, as you can only undo your last recording, and with all the trial-and-error needed here, it’s not always immediately apparent when your sequence is futile. For the most part, though, the levels are compact and quick-paced enough that it’s easy to retrace your steps.
Given P.B.’s limited number of skills, the controls are very simple to master, whether using the keyboard or gamepad, and you can rebind them to your liking if you don’t like the default setup. Like most puzzle-platformers, this game is far more about tactics than dexterity, but quick thinking and decent reflexes are still helpful in the levels with tight time restraints or particularly devious obstacles. If you do get stuck, either mentally or physically, there’s no way to bypass a troubling level, and very little opportunity to explore, as progression through Winterbottom’s misadventures is almost strictly linear, accessed through a hub-based “Theatre of Time”. Only the third and fourth worlds can be played simultaneously, and even then, within each world the ten levels can only be completed in order, giving you a choice of only two levels at any one time at most.
Then again, there are always the “bonus shorts” to play for a change of pace. There are 30 of these available (also unlocked as you progress in the main game), and here the goal isn’t simply to collect the requisite pies, but to do so in a limited time or using the fewest number of clones. These “shorts” (which really aren’t any shorter than most regular stages) are just as enjoyable to play as the main “movie” levels, though actually meeting the level requirements is far more challenging.
Why are the main missions called “movie” levels? Because this game features a ridiculously charming silent movie-themed presentation. “Filmed” almost entirely in noise-filtered black-and-white, with just a few slight traces of colour weaved in for effect, a series of clever rhyming poems and caricatured artwork introduce each mission. The levels themselves are set in a distinctive Victorian era landscape of off-kilter proportions, taking players from crooked city streets to the upper levels of a clock tower and the lower depths of the sewer system, passing through the heat of a blazing bakery in between. All the while, a piano-heavy, pre-talkie period soundtrack playfully provides the musical backdrop. The tunes are pretty repetitive, but they’re just so darn peppy that you won’t mind. The more ominous setting-specific chords are all struck as well, with one world offering a kind of Elfman-meets-Ragtime vibe, and another skillfully adding musical bell gongs to the numbers.
Without accounting for any serious stuck time (which I encountered two or three times), The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom isn’t a particularly long game, as many levels can be whipped through in mere minutes, the bonus levels offering the only source of replay value. But whether you spend three hours or double that, it’s time very well spent, and its outrageous budget price at Steam (or even twice the equivalent on Xbox LIVE Arcade) makes it even more enticing. Its story is crust-thin and there are minor quibbles to be sure, mainly centered around new mechanic integration and the occasional jarring difficulty imbalance, but the wonderful old-time aesthetic, enchanting backdrop, and frequently clever puzzle design make up for that and more. There’s no demo available for a sample taste, but it’s worth every bite, so if you have any platforming ability at all, dig in!