Tag Archive: puzzle-platformer

Not thinking outside the box

I pride myself on being able to find enjoyment from a ton of different gaming genres. Whether it’s shooters, fighting games, RPGs, or sports titles, you’ll likely find them somewhere in my collection. Sometimes, though, the genre that really gets me pumped up is a good old-fashioned puzzle-platformer. So, when a little passion project from longtime Nintendo developer HAL Laboratory named BoxBoy! found its way on to my 3DS, I was more than ready to give it a shot.

BoxBoy! stars a walking square named Qbby who must use his ability to make box-shaped extensions of himself to overcome nearly 200 different obstacle courses on the way to repairing his damaged homeworld. Qbby can make bridges to cross gaps, create shields to block lasers or spikes, or build makeshift stairs to reach higher areas.

Unfortunately, especially with the illustrious pedigree of HAL behind the game, I was surprised to find that BoxBoy! feels empty inside. I mean, sure, there’s technically a ton of content crammed in here: hundreds of stages, unlockable challenge levels, and a score-attack mode where you use Qbby’s powers to collect emblems. But by the time I’d reached the fourth world—or after less than an hour of playtime—I’d already grown bored.

You see, BoxBoy! does nothing to innovate on the puzzle-platformer. Admittedly, it’s not the worst thing in the world to use the same traps and gimmicks we’ve seen dozens of times before—teleporters, gravity fields, lasers, and spikes. Disappointingly, though, the game never pushes your cognitive process beyond using the same handful of box creations you learn at the beginning to overcome every situation, so the gameplay starts to feel very monotonous very quickly, even when new obstacles are introduced.

BoxBoy! doesn’t offer any depth-of-field puzzles, since the game isn’t compatible with the 3DS’ 3D feature—it’s a wholly 2D world. The game doesn’t even include any physics-based puzzles. Every time I thought I might be able to use something like momentum to get through a puzzle or place a box where I needed it to be, it would almost immediately sink down in a straight line, like throwing a crumpled-up piece of paper instead of an object that actually had some weight to it.

Eighty percent of the game just feels like HAL got into a “rinse and repeat” mindset with the stage design until they got close to a triple-digit number. Each new level introduces a new impediment, but often instead of combining them with ones seen in previous levels, you only have to bypass the latest one. This fact only compounds the monotony since it feels like you’re you’re playing the same puzzle a handful of times before being allowed to progress to the next one. The stages work, but there’s nothing truly interesting about a single one.

At least until you get close to the end of the game, that is. At that point, there’s a drastic spike in difficulty that makes the last two levels boring and hard. It’s not that I couldn’t overcome them, but after walking through the previous 15 stages like they were nothing, this sudden change of pace was jarring—and not in a good way, considering how ill prepared I felt at first.

And one would think that part of the reason BoxBoy! has such a simple motif—black-and-white settings and characters, with every object in the world including a right angle—that HAL would’ve crafted more inventive puzzles to take advantage of this and defend the decision to keep the look so modest. But everything about BoxBoy! just feels bare bones.

I honestly can’t recommend BoxBoy! even for someone who loves puzzle-platformers. There’s a clear lack of creativity here, whether it’s the art style, story (or lack thereof), gameplay, or level design. I kept wondering when the game would finally start to pick up—and then, before I knew it, it was already over, with the entire experience clocking in at only a few hours. I suppose I should be thankful it only took one sitting to beat and didn’t consume more of my time, because almost from the start, BoxBoy! felt like a waste of it.

Developer: HAL Laboratory • Publisher: Nintendo • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 04.02.15
HAL Laboratory fails to innovate at all within the puzzle genre and throws many of the same obstacles at you over and over again—to the point where BoxBoy! is as plain a platformer as its monochromatic motif.
The Good A ton of levels and side content.
The Bad The gameplay is as plain as the design, with a surprisingly sharp spike in difficulty at the very end.
The Ugly BoxBoy! feels like it might’ve had a place on the original Game Boy—not on the 3DS.
BoxBoy! is a Nintendo 3DS exclusive. Review code was provided by Nintendo for the benefit of this review.

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.