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If we always learn from our mistakes then why on earth are we always being punished for the mistake rather than rewarded for our learning? That is the philosophy approached by Braid, a deceptively puzzling platform game that promises Mario but delivers something else entirely.
Now if you happen to be a console owner then you will already be familiar with Braid from the Xbox live arcade and PSN Market Place (Online services where console owners can download budget games that often do not make it to shops) where it has received rave reviews and been garnered with many 'Best DLC' awards. This is the chance for PC gamers to get in on the action.
In Braid you play the role of a young artist who has lost his Princess due to some mistake in his past. This artist must travel through a selection of different worlds (all located within his home) searching different castles to rescue his lost love. Said artist has always had an uncanny ability to control the flow of time to his advantage, which offers the added bonus of protecting him from the error of his ways. Now why the princess has left him, and why he did not rewind the mistakes, are questions that will be answered as a somewhat warped and often haunting exploration of the main character's psyche evolves.
Thankfully if that all sounds a bit much for you then the story can be skipped entirely. The whole story is told through a series of books at the start of each world which you can run past without reading. In which case the story becomes 'Time controlling midget decides to do a jigsaw', and that is a nice story to.
On a first glance you could be forgiven for mistaking Braid for a cheap Super Mario knock off. It definitely has the look of a 2D platform game where a hero travels to a fantasy world and jumps on the heads of mushroom like monsters. You must even avoid large green pipes that are hiding some fierce killer plants. That, however, would be a huge misrepresentation. The similarities are undeniable, but the fact remains that you could make your way from the entrance to the exit of each level in around five seconds. It is the things that you do in between that matter.
You see before you can get to the final level (a poignant level one) you must collect and piece together the parts of five jigsaw puzzles. Each of the game's worlds hide its own jigsaw, and to find the pieces of these puzzles you must strategically utilize the games time bending mechanics.
This is far more advanced than a game like Prince of Persia could ever dream of. In Braid time control plays a very active role in the games puzzles as each world offers a different twist to the formula. So in the first world you can reverse time, but in the second you find items and platforms that are immune to your powers. Figuring out how to rewind the world around these items is the key to retrieving the puzzle pieces. Other levels meanwhile twist time around your movements; so that every step towards the exit moves time forward, while every step towards the entrance reverses time. Seems simple until a monster freezes at the top of a ladder and you have to get around it. Another level even throws a spectral replay of your previous play through, enabling you to literally do two things at once.
None of these powers can be transferred to other levels, so you will not have to worry about doing too much backtracking. With the exception of two very early examples each puzzle piece can be retrieved on your first attempt at a world. That will not be as easy as you first think though. This is because as each world introduces you to a new power you will have to completely re-think your approach to solving each puzzle. As a basic example; there is one moment with your spectral self where you approach a ladder guarded by a killer leaping bunny, with nary a holy hand grenade in sight. Figuring out that you need to let your ghost be savaged while you run for the ladder requires a completely different thought process to a level where your every step alters time around you.
Thankfully none of the puzzles are ever unfairly hard as they can all be solved with a bit of logical thinking. However the game has that same affect as Lemmings, where logical thinking can give way to irritation if you are not patient enough.
In terms of presentation I would have to say that the game is spot on. The lack of voice acting and haunting musical score fit the twisted story like an old pair of boots. Meanwhile the sound effects add a touch of Mario to the proceedings. Though I am forced to admit that the constant rewind sounds irritated my wife no end!
Visually, I would have to describe it as a combination of Mario and not very much like Mario at all. The basic look, with its bold but basic 2D sprites and colorful environments is pure Mario. Yet there is at the same time a far more ethereal feel to the visuals that Mario could never boast. By making the clouds appear hazier and less solid the developers have molded the whole Mario look into something that fits their story. The opening shot in particular sees you run past a major city at dusk and looks stunning.
Others areas of importance would be the controls which define the term simple but effective. Arrow keys move you left, right, and up and down ladders. Space bar makes you jump, while shift rewinds time. It's all very easy to get to grips with which prevents you from worrying too much about the platform aspects so that you can get down to this business of solving puzzles.
Is Braid a perfect game though? Sadly the answer would have to be no. Braid comes with one very glaring fault. It is short! It was designed to be a download game and as such the lifespan is only around 5-6 hours. So as amazing as the game is it is definitely not worth the full price of admission. Since most shops are selling it for a fiver ($7.75) now then the game is a bargain, and could very well be described as perfect.
It may look like Mario, but the challenging logic puzzles and sedate pace makes it far more Lemmings at its core. If that type of game appeals to you, then consider Braid to be a must play. Do not let the visuals fool you into buying this for children because; while there is not anything overly bad in it, they just would not understand the game at all.
Processor Speed: 1.4GHz
DirectX -Compatible Sound Card
32MB Video Card
200MB Free HD Space
Platform: PC, Xbox360 (through live) Playstation 3 (through marketplace) and Mac OS
Jonathon Blow, self funded independent game developer, released Braid in 2008 after the input of webcomic artist David Hellman. Hellman, perhaps best known for his work with www.alessonislearned.com worked collaboratively with Blow throughout Braid's development, which took well over two years.
It achieved top rated Xbox Live arcade game and numerous awards, including critical acclaim and "Innovation in Game Design" award at the 2006 Independent Games Festival where Blow premiered his initial evaluation version. On it's final release Braid has attracted positive reviews from peers and consumers, Metacritic reviewers awarded it a spot in their top percentage, earning the game over 93%
Is it worth paying out for however?
It has seen release as part of the humble indie bundle, http://www.wolfire.com/humble which only chooses the cream of independent gaming for its releases, but is this enough of a mark of quality?
Story: Why is all this happening?
There's no big bad here chasing our hero through space and time. In fact, it might be worth questioning whether our character, Tim, is a hero at all. He progresses through different worlds collecting scraps of paintings that depict memories. Piecing together the story is what this game is all about. It isn't a sweeping dramatic plot by any means, but it does give you a motivation, and a bit of meat for the shiny things to hang off.
Looks: Is it pretty?
First answer to this question is a resounding Hell Yes! Hellman created a watercolouresque dreamscape for this game that creates very stylised environments for the different worlds the character must move through. Add his rich colours and layered platform levels to the stunning soundtrack and I could honestly have this game running in the background all the time. The soundtrack is certainly worth looking into on its own. It's a feast for the eyes and ears. I could honestly do without some of the monster sound effects however, especially the bunnies. Evil, toothy bunnies....
Gameplay: Is it worth your time?
Well, this is a platform game, if you don't like jumping about from ledge to ledge this game is honestly not going to press your buttons. That said, this is more than retro Mario style gaming. There's a nice nod to the Mario Piranha Plants in a not very subtle homage. In fact Blow has used them in nearly every level.
The big mechanic in Braid is the ability to manipulate time. Tim, our protagonist, has the ability to rewind time. That is the first skill, and will be used in every level. Added to that is the ability to create pockets of slow time and create shadows of himself that repeat a previous action. Some things in the environment may not be affected by these skills...as denoted by glowing auras of specific colours. The trick is to find keys, jump on monsters heads or use your special skills to reach the painting scraps without being touched by anything sharp or in some cases...furry. If you do get squished however, you can always rewind a few seconds to time that jump again.
A nice touch is that the music also rewinds when you rewind the time, something that really only adds to the dreamlike quality of the game. Same with using the pocket of slow time, as you get closer to it, time slows down, same for the music, it's really quite trippy!
What I will say is that some of the puzzles are fiendishly, fiendishly difficult, with no obvious solution. Fodder for the noggin? Certainly. Cause for screaming frustration? Possibly. Fun? Undoubtedly.
Replayability? Will you want to return?
Unfortunately, despite the fantastic game design here and the effort you'll spend to complete it there will be very little reason to come back to this game once you've finished. The only exception I can think of is to show it off as a demo to friends to convince them to play it through as well. I do feel as though Blow could really have extended this game though, it is far too short for both it's price and the experience. Hopefully he will consider a sequel or an expansion of some kind.
For all that, I think it's definitely worth a purchase. I'm all for supporting independent developers, especially when they can pull their skills together to create something this tight, this enjoyable and overall this special.
If you liked this try: 2DArray's 'In the company of myself' at Kongregate (free)
I must admit, when I was given the opportunity to review Braid I wet myself with excitement. Not only did I know nothing of the game prior to my playing of it, but the honour and respect it has ascertained from many of the industry's aficionados made me believe I was in for one hell of a treat. Once again - the general public, fellow reviewers and most importantly designer Jonathan Blow have let me down, and what I was once lead to believe as being a work of genius, is in actual fact far duller than watching paint dry (it's an old saying, I'm bringing it back... screw you. )
It's always best to start on a positive, and what a positive it is! The ending of Braid, I can safely say - is one of the best endings in video game history. Without giving anything away, it is without a shadow of a doubt the most unexpected and most intelligent ending I've ever experienced in my many years of gaming. I feel that every gamer out there should at some stage have the opportunity to play the game just for its conclusion. It saddens me then to think that in order to get to that stage; you must endure hours of what can only be described as head-boredom.
Yes, Braid is a game touted on its originality and visuals. It plays like the lovechild of retro Super Mario, the latest cell-shaded Prince of Persia and LittleBig Planet - and that's no bad thing. You hear gamers' complaints all the time, "It's not about the graphics, it's about the gameplay," and this is a biggie for me when it comes to reviewing. Yes, Braid looks special - taking place within a painterly world with interesting characters and design features, but at the end of the day it's just a dull, dull game. The level of intelligence required to complete some of the puzzles in no way hinders your enjoyment, but its repetitive nature and relatively average conundrums leave you feeling just plain bored. Braid is simplicity at its best, using the X/Square button to rewind time in the event of death, the analogue sticks to move and A/X to jump. Simplicity is effective in games such as Mario and LittleBig Planet - as they were games created with innovation in mind. The worlds, bosses and gameplay of Mario defined a generation, and LittleBig Planet was so successful at what it did that Sackboy became the mascot of Sony's PS3. Braid does nothing except regurgitate essentially another Gameboy Mario title, with more of a story and better visuals. I saw that Jonathan Blow created and funded Braid - and that's admirable. We are in need of fresher, more independent titles - but developers really do need to get their thinking caps on, because Braid plays like one of those flash games you can find and play for free on the net.
It also does little to excite and reward its players, and seems to pompously rely on its time reversal technique and artsy visuals. Oh yes, and that's my final quarrel! Braid seems proud to boast 'you can do so much original stuff, like reversing time!' on both their website and trailers as one of their marketing reasons for you to purchase the game. Hang on a second... Are we just completely over looking Prince of Persia? Do we all suddenly just stop and think 'Well Mario could never reverse time... Woah - this game's onto something!' NO. So stop bragging about it Braid, and get back to the drawing board.
For people who enjoy intelligent, yet unnecessarily complicated narratives and repetitive puzzle-solving gameplay - Braid will be your chocolate cake. However for people who enjoy a varied experience with their gaming, with lots of content to keep you hooked and immersed - then I sincerely suggest you look elsewhere, as Braid seems to lack in major departments... like Profiteroles filled with air.
Johnothan Blow / Puzzle-based game.