Thursday, June 4, 2009

Exfanding Review: Braid

Braid title screenYou are not smart enough to play Braid.

Depending on who you are, that statement should strike you as either a challenge, an egregious insult, or a statement of fact.

I can say with confidence that I am not smart enough to play Braid. But I beat it anyhow. I think.

Braid is a 2-D puzzle-platformer game from independent developer Jonathan Blow that blends elements from games such as Super Mario Bros. and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and successfully creates one of the most creative, thought-provoking gaming experiences to come along since Portal. Braid follows my favorite game design philosophy: easy to learn, difficult to master. And Braid takes that philosophy to the extreme.

Eschewing complex controls and menu options, Braid gives you very simple directions for controlling Tim, a man in search of a princess: arrow keys to move, SPACEBAR to jump, SHIFT to rewind time (on the PC, at least). Easy, right? And that whole thing about rewinding time--that's just nice way to undo mistakes like jumping into a pit of deadly spikes, right?

Braid gameplay screenshot: rewinding timeWrong.

While holding SHIFT is certainly used for such repairs, Braid gradually makes it clear that you'll need to go backward in order to go forward. Often. And in ways that may break your brain just thinking about how they work.

Consider the following situation: Two locked doors lie ahead of you, but you only have one key to use, and that key becomes worthless after the first time you use it. Now, not all objects in a level are affected by your ability to rewind time, and in this case, rewinding time will have no impact on that first door, so once it's unlocked it will stay unlocked. What do you do, then? Unlock the first door, rewind time to pick up the key again, and then unlock the second door.

Braid gameplay screenshot: undergroundThat's just a warmup. Wait until some of the later stages, where the gimmicks kick in: for instance, in one world, a shadow doppelganger of you appears and retraces your steps whenever you rewind time. Now see if you can figure out how to get through those two locked doors with only one key using your shadow doppelganger....

Not only are the puzzle solutions absurdly mind-bending sometimes, but actually executing the solution is often equally absurd. You'll need both excellent platforming skills and a very puzzle-oriented way of thinking (or a walkthrough) to succeed.

I'm proud to say that I got through the entire game without every once using a walkthrough... but I had to resort to a walkthrough to determine whether or not I had actually beaten the game! Braid is tricky like that; the credits are neatly tucked away on the menu screen, so once you complete that final level you just pop back out at the beginning of the game. Interesting.

Braid is also unusual in its storytelling; Braid's plot is developed in the little blurbs that appear whenenver you touch the books that line the way into the levels of each new world. The story appears fragmented and quite cryptic, and even if you've figured out every puzzle in the game you still might have no clue what the game is really about (such as was the case with me).

Braid screenshot: books in the cloudsLike I said, I am not smart enough to play Braid. I conquered the puzzles, but after looking back at what others have written about the game, there are so many complexities and nuances that I never would have picked up on. And I'm not afraid to admit that. Because I totally rocked the game portion of the game, and that's what counts, right?

...Maybe. Braid is more of an experience than a game; if nothing else, it's a very different approach to gaming than is usually seen. There's no time limit, there's no permanent damage done by failure, and completing the game requires critical thinking, honest-to-goodness learning from your mistakes, and true skill; if you win, it's because you've earned it, not because you got lucky.

Production-wise, Braid is a brilliant game. The visuals are stunning, yet simple, and they partner with the dynamic music to create a perfect atmosphere for each stage. The learning curve is mostly excellent, and there's almost no wasted potential or wasted space throughout the levels--everything matters. Most (emphasis on most) of the puzzles are expertly developed, although there are a few spots that even after you know what to do and how you're going to do it, actually doing it is a chore instead of a challenge. And on the subject of not-as-positive things, some of the sound effects annoy me. At least there's a touch of humor to keep things from getting too serious, and some of the story blurbs are rather philosophical and provide a nice break from the gameplay. Overall, Braid is tight, no doubt about it.

Braid gameplay screenshot: Shadow Tim in actionHowever, Braid offers very little replay value. Granted, there are hard-to-reach puzzle pieces (bonus items, essentially) scattered throughout the levels that require far more skill to obtain than it takes to just beat a level, but after you have all of them, there's not much that will be different on a second playthrough.

I have just been informed that there are bonus stars you can pick up on a second playthrough. So much for that.

Well, anycurls, Braid still isn't as perfect as Portal (one of the very few games I've ever played that gets a perfect 10/10 in my book), but it's worth the time to play if you're into platformers and puzzle games and exploding your brain. You can get the game from Xbox Live Arcade for the Xbox 360, or you can get it for PC from any of the links on the Braid website. Braid is available as a demo, or you can purchase the full version for less money than you're likely to spend at your Local Comics Shop this week.

Braid trailer from David Hellman on Vimeo.

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