I have a personal love-hate relationship with Xbox Live Arcade. I love arcade style games and think that Xbox Live Arcade is a fantastic idea with some truly great little games (and some not so great little games) that are available for a decent price. But I’ve also had instances where my first Xbox broke, and after getting a new one there was a problem with my apartment building’s DSL connection. Since I wasn’t able to connect to the internet I wasn’t able to play games I previously purchased. This obviously did not make me happy.
So now I mostly avoid purchasing Xbox Live games that aren’t released on a disk in a compilation, except for the ones that have been offered for free.
This week I couldn’t help myself however, as two titles were released to Xbox Live Arcade that I just felt compelled to pay for. One of those titles is Braid, and artistic platform game that uses time as a mechanic to solve logic puzzles. Despite my wariness about DRM issues and the cost of the title, 1200 MS points ($15), that artistic style of the game and reading about the game mechanics drew me in.
Let’s break Braid down and see if the one of the most expensive Xbox Live Arcade titles is worth your money.
Before we get into the mechanics of the game let’s talk about what separates Braid the most from other video games, the unqiue artistic style.
First thing that you will notice about Braid is the amazing visual style that permeates every aspect of the game. The backgrounds in particular are a thing of wonder. At times they seem like an oil painting or like a watercolor and each of the backgrounds is amazing to behold from a visual standpoint. The character and enemy sprites stand out from these backgrounds since they have a different visual style of their own. The main character and the enemy sprites all are in much sharper detail. If the background art appears as though from an oil painting than the character sprites are done as if in colored markers. This effect is further enhanced with the time mechanics of the game. Rewind and the colors of everything fade and become dull, fast forward and the colors not only become sharper and more vibrant, but that seems to smear across the screen.
The same thing can be said about the sound. All of the music used in the game are licensed tracks, but the selection works and blends perfectly into the gameplay. This is also heightened by the time mechanics of the game. When you rewind time, the music also goes in reverse. In a different level time is going backwards and when you reverse time the music instead plays as normal. One of the levels utilizes a time mechanic where you can slow down time within a sphere. When you use this sphere the background music also slows down, or screeches to a halt entirely. All of this enhances the experience of the effect of time manipulation within the game.
There is a story within the game, and that is where my love of the art of the game stops. The story is told in fragments before (or in a certain case, after) each level in the form of books that you can walk by. When you walk past one of these books text is displayed on screen that adds a little bit more to the entirety of the story. The person who helped with the art of the game also works on the web comic A Lesson is Lost. Go check the web comic out for a moment so that my next point makes a little bit more sense to you.
Have you read it? If you have and the writing style of the comic seems a little pretentious to you, well, expect nothing less from the story that is told in Braid. Saying that a story is told in the game is an exaggeration. The story is revealed through different parts of texts in these books, including some books that have hidden text that is only revealed when you manipulate time. The story in the game isn’t so much told as it is found. There have been multiple interpretations of the story, including one which I believe is correct, but no one really knows what the story means except for the creator of the game. This is because the story is intentionally obscure.
So congratulations to the developers of the game, you’ve created the video game equivalent of the movie Donnie Darko. Both feature the manipulation of time, throw around talk about the Manhattan Project and until the directors cut of Donnie Darko, both have plots that are confusing and cause people to spend way too much time debating what it actually means when in the end many of the theories are better than the actual plot.
The actual gameplay is a platform game that is more about solving logic puzzles than making tricky jumps, even though you do have to make several tricky jumps in the game. This is the type of gameplay that’s seen in other similar titles such as The Lost Vikings, EXIT, N+, Abe’s Odysee, Mario vs DK and the sequel, etc. Only in Braid instead of guiding vikings or toy Marios you are manipulating time to try and get puzzle pieces. If you are looking to just run through the levels you can gain some easy achievement points by just running from one side of the screen to the other side and leaving through the exit. Getting through a level is not what this game is about; the game is about collecting puzzle pieces.
To collect these puzzle pieces you will need to use the basic platforming abilities, such as jumping on enemies heads to jump a little higher or crossing movie platforms, and as mentioned earlier you will need to manipulate time. Tim, the main character, has the ability to rewind time, an ability that you have in all of the levels. Each level also presents an additional challenge, for example in one level you’ll be able to drop a ring that will create a sphere that slows down time for everything within it. In another level when you move Tim forward everything in the level moves forward in time, and if you move him backward everything moves backwards.
The trick to collecting the pieces in each level is solving these logic puzzles. These logic puzzles for the most part are great. None of them are impossible to figure out, though some are tough enough that they will take some time to figure out. Generally when you do realize how to solve it the answer will seem so obvious that you’ll wonder how you didn’t notice it before. If you are ever stuck on how to proceed I recommend turning the game off for awhile. I was trying to figure out one of the puzzles and I turned the game off to go shopping, and even though I wasn’t thinking about the game the answer suddenly came to me. I think I surprised the other shoppers around me when I smacked myself in the forehead loudly once I realized the answer. Above all, the final level is just brilliantly done.
So the gameplay never feels cheap, the puzzles are great, and the art style is beautiful. It’s just too bad that it’s also a really short experience. Depending on your aptitude for these type of logic puzzles the game might only take you 4-5 hours, or even less if you’ve played this type of game before since while the time mechanic is new, many of the puzzles are similar in ways to other games of this type. Once you’ve solved everything and know all of the answers there is little reason to play the game over again, unless you want to complete a speed run of the game.
Considering the price and low replay value it’s hard to recommend this game over similar offerings on XBLA. For $5 less you can either purchase EXIT, which has more puzzles to play through than Braid and also has an interesting artistic style, or N+, a puzzle platforming game with a level creator and multiplayer. There just seems to be a whole lot of potential in Braid that is just not capitalized on. In the designer’s blog about the game, Jonathan Blow has said that Braid is a complete game and that there are no plans at the moment for downloadable content or a sequel. This is a shame since many of the puzzles in the game just seem to scratch the surface of what’s possible. While each level introduces a new time mechanic, there is little in the way of introducing environmental challenges (like a slippery surface such as ice, or having gusts of wind). Only simple platforming devices are used, where are ropes to swings from or things like rotating platforms? Heck, there is a free flash game called Chronotron that has 50 different levels that also uses the idea of rewinding time in logic puzzles.
The problem is that while Braid certainly goes above and beyond in terms of artistic quality, the gameplay design takes a backseat to this and Braid does just enough with some of it’s time mechanics to get by on a few basic puzzles and one great level. I would rather have a game that focuses less on art design and more on further exploring the new gameplay mechanics. Braid is art first, game second.
Story: Below Average (If few people understand the story, then it’s not well told)
Control and Gameplay: Classic
Originality: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Above Average
Final Score: Enjoyable Game.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Braid is a good logic puzzle/platform game with a great art style. However, there are other games of that type on XBLA that not only expand on their gameplay mechanics farther than Braid, but they’re are also cheaper. I’d recommend waiting for a PC version of Braid simply to see how the mod community expands the ideas presented in the game. As art goes, Braid is beautiful, but as a game it is merely just a decent way of killing a few hours.