[24 September 2012]
There was always an element of puzzle-solving to games like N+ and Super Meat Boy. For the most part, whatever avatar you happen to be controlling starts at one end of an enclosed room about the size of a single screen, and before you make a single move, you have to figure out how to get that avatar to the other end of that room. Sometimes, the way is obvious. Other times, there are projectiles, razorblades, machine guns, and bottomless pits in the way, and you have to think about it. Once you solve the puzzle—and, granted, most of the “puzzles” are fairly simple—the issue becomes executing the plan. The challenge of these games is in the execution. Figuring out how to get from point A to point B happens pretty quickly. Actually doing it is the tough part.
Colour Bind shares a lot in common with those games in its basic structure, but it shifts that balance. By giving the player an “avatar” that looks like a barbell and a color-coded approach to playing tricks with gravity, more is expected of the player in the planning stage of getting through these approximately single screen-sized levels.
Granted, the game helps a little. There is no tutorial, at least in name, but the titles of the levels and a dynamic text system ensures that the game is having a say in whatever it is that you’re doing, giving you little hints and pushes in the right direction almost any time you’d need them. I spent a solid half-hour stumped, jumping my little barbell around almost at random, trying to figure out just what the hell I could possibly do to get it to the goal, and nothing worked. I went back to the level select screen, ready to try a different stage given that I was at risk of putting a pencil through my LCD, when I noticed the title of the level:
When you have a barbell-shaped avatar, such a title does make it pretty obvious exactly what is to be done. Of course, doing it is another matter entirely.
This is where the game falters a bit. It is fairly unique in its mechanics—in that it feels similar to other one-room platformers while feeling nothing like anything else at all in the specifics. On the bottom of each level, there is a key of sorts, telling the player which colors will make gravity work which ways. Gravity can go up, down, left, right, or even diagonally in some infuriating cases. The barbell moves by rotating its wheels, which means that when the gravity goes up, pushing right actually moves it to the left. It has brakes, and it has a “jump” mechanism that essentially inflates the wheels quickly and suddenly enough to make it hop. I don’t know that it would be possible to accurately describe the possibilities that the variable gravity and the shape of the barbell introduce. It twists and turns through the air on a jump, and then it falls against walls and floors and ceilings with equal abandon, utterly awkward one moment, perfectly controllable the next.
The problem that this presents, then, is one of consistency. In any given level, the first problem, once you decide on a plan of action, is to get used to exactly how the barbell is going to behave in the gravity. Control in high gravity is very different than control in low, and when that gravity changes, the spin of the barbell can make the difference between success and hurtling endlessly through space until you push the restart button.
The typical platformer finds success in allowing the avatar to become an extension of the player. The player knows exactly how the avatar is going to behave in any situation, and the challenge is in the way that the level is designed around that behavior. Changing the gravity from level to level essentially changes the behavior of the barbell, and after a while, it starts to feel as though every level is like starting from the beginning. With no narrative drive and no truly defined goal other than to complete the set of 50 stages, it can be difficult to stay motivated when you feel as though you are starting from scratch with every level.
Honestly, though, this is a minor nitpick in a game that takes its inspiration from a number of established genres, mashing those genres together until they are nearly unrecognizable. The presentation is simplistic but slick, the sound design is minimal but effective, and the controls… well, they keep things interesting, and their behavior always makes sense when you take all environmental factors into consideration. There’s even a level editor that allows the player to come up with puzzles beyond even those that developer Finn Morgan came up with. It feels more like a diversion than a lasting experience at times, but it’s the type of diversion that can have you up well into the night trying to put together the puzzle and the platforming that will get you to the goal.
It won’t set the world on fire, but it’s different and it’s good at being different. Surely that’s worth a look.