Carving out a niche

The big project on everyone’s mind during this year’s GDC was, of course, Sony’s Project Morpheus. Because of this, another work-in-progress at the show might have flown under a lot of people’s radar, but I went hands-on with it before the week was through—and it’s finally ready to be revealed.

Project Totem is the latest Microsoft exclusive from developer Press Play, the folks behind Max: The Curse of Brotherhood. It’s a puzzle-platformer that, like many games in the genre, has a simple premise. You play as a pair of blocks that normally would sit in a totem pole. Each block is sent down a path that often has a similar, yet not exactly identical, layout to their counterpart.  Your objective? Get both blocks to the end of the course in order to unlock larger and more intricate carvings for the ultimate totem pole.

Where puzzle-platformers shine isn’t why you’re running these courses, but in how you traverse them. Gameplay is the driving force in this genre, and fortunately, even in the six pre-alpha-build single-player stages I was able to test, there seems to be enough easy-to-learn-yet-difficult-to-master mechanics to give Project Totem the addictiveness to compete against similar games.

The first, most critical element that I needed to learn was that the totem pieces are always linked. When one jumps, so does the other. When the other runs right, so does the other. Run left, and…hopefully you get the picture. The puzzle aspects quickly become evident from this mechanic when the courses stop being as identical as the totem pieces. Some pathways can only open when one of the totems steps on a particular switch. Other pathways can only be walked through by pieces of a certain color. And sometimes the lower totem block will have to serve as a stepping-stone for the upper one to reach the next platform.

As the courses become more intricate, the totem blocks also begin to acquire special powers. The first of these makes it so the two blocks can flip-flop positions at any time, even in mid-air, to move through color-coded barriers. Meanwhile, certain powers allow you to change the gravity of a single piece so one can be walking on the ceiling while another is on the floor.

Just as I began to get comfortable with these abilities, though, I had to start using them in unison. For example, in one instance I had to swap totems while simultaneously having one of them use its gravity powers. As more powers become unlocked, it was easy to imagine how crazy it might be to use three or four powers quickly in succession or different powers for each individual piece.

Besides this single-player mode, there’s also a time-trial mode to see how fast a player can beat each stage. The game also offers local co-op, which has completely different stages from single-player. Also, instead of each player controlling an individual totem (that would probably be a bit too easy), they control two totems for a total of four totems onscreen at once. When obstacles start becoming three and four blocks high, the emphasis on teamwork quickly becomes clear.

Even though Project Totem is still in its pre-alpha phase, Press Play is confident they can have the game available for download on Xbox 360 and Xbox One sometime in Q3 2014. And from what I was able to play of it at GDC, I’m fairly confident they can hit that mark, since the seven total stages each had a layer of polish you don’t normally see from games still labeled as pre-alpha. The controls were tight, the obstacles were creative, and there was a nice feeling of accomplishment every time I overcame a new challenge. If that’s any sign of what’s to come, puzzle-platformer fans should definitely keep an eye out for this one.

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