I’m going to try something different with this review. Inspired by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s double bill episodes of Zero Punctuation, this will be the start of a series of mini-reviews. In these, I’ll look at two or three independent downloadable titles that share a common link, either through distribution (XBLA, PSN, iOS), or gameplay (adventure games, platformers, ect.) I’ll give each a brief analysis before offering my opinion on which of the pick is the best. Kicking things off, let’s look at a trio of Steam games that rely on unique visuals to drive their play styles.

Antichamber (developed by Alexander Bruce, published by Demruth):  A first person puzzle game reminiscent of Portal, Antichamber tasks players with finding a way through a series of rooms based on non-Euclidean geometry, where space and perspective can be warped beyond their standard conventions. This had potential to be a challenging, entertaining puzzle game, but the end result was confusing and lackluster. Areas of the chamber can change as you move through them or perform certain actions such as by looking through a window, or even something as simple as changing direction. While this does add to the enigmatic nature of the game, it also makes it very easy to get disoriented, losing track of where you are or leading you into a dead end, usually resulting in a return to the main antechamber to try again.

Disappointingly for a puzzle game, few of the challenges are solved through real logical progression. Occasionally there will be a hint provided by a drawing that contains an inspirational or motivational phrase with a subtle clue about how to progress (though in some cases the clue isn’t found until after you’ve done what’s necessary to go forward), but most of the time you’ll be left in the dark and wandering around randomly trying to figure out where to go. It’s trite trial and error gameplay. And while the messages provided try to sound insightful or philosophical, they mostly come off as pretentious. Some platforming is required in certain areas, such as when you need to jump on panels, but the shifting perspectives and landscape make this very difficult to accomplish from a first person point of view. Later on, handheld guns that manipulate cubes are introduced to help open new paths, but this addition doesn’t really make the game any more interesting. Despite some impressive design work, Anitchamber is a pretty mediocre title.

The Bridge (developed by Mario Castañeda and Ty Taylor, published by The Quantum Astrophysics Guild): Get a new outlook on optical illusions in this physics puzzler inspired by the works of M.C. Escher. Players explore a series of lonely areas modeled on impossible architecture as a dead-eyed mathematician who reminisces on his past work and the relationship he had with his late mentor. The puzzles in The Bridge are simple but effective, based around manipulating perspective by rotating the areas using the keyboard. Basic physics require you to factor in gravity, momentum, and inertia when shifting the world in order to properly use the other objects provided. The most basic challenges are based simply around rotating the world, but over time new elements such as gravitational vortices, shifting between planes, and the veils that allow you to invert the level while remaining unaffected are introduced, with some of the most challenging brainteasers utilizing a combination of these features. It can take some time to get used to the mechanics present, but once you know how to use them properly to solve each area, the result is satisfying. You’re actively thinking to get through rather than just messing around in the hopes of randomly coming across the solution.

The influence of Escher isn’t seen just in the level design but also in the art style, made to look like grayscale pencil drawings. Background music is somber, though it has a certain charm to it. My only real complaint is that the game seems to borrow very heavily from Braid: each world is accessed through a room in the mathematician’s house, you can reverse time in order to undo a death or mistake, and the narrative is gradually revealed through text after each area is completed, creating an enigmatic, philosophical, somewhat obtuse story that is never fully explained. Mystery is nice, but I would have appreciated some clarity at the conclusion. Even though it falls short in the story, the puzzles are sure to provide plenty of entertaining mental stimulation.

Proteus (developed by David Kanaga & Ed Key, published by Twisted Tree): One of the more interesting independent titles I’ve played in recent years, Proteus is an ambient exploration game where the goal is simply to relax while you partake in the environment around you. Every session sets you on an island you can freely roam about, listening to soothing music that plays with each new discovery you come across. The music is quite soothing, going for synthesized chiptunes to simulate calming sounds like the wind, waves, animals, or more distinct musical sounds depending on what objects you’re near. Sometimes the sounds come off as discordant, like the attempt to replicate the chirping of birds, but overall it’s very pleasant to listen to.

The visuals also carry a retro-game aesthetic, with a pixelated world made up of simple colors reminiscent of early Atari titles. Since both the islands and the soundtrack are procedurally generated, you’re in for a different visual and auditory experience with each playthrough. I’ve heard some people remark about howProteus doesn’t truly qualify as a game since there is no real objective or gameplay, and I would have to agree. It’s not so much a game as it is an experience, an interactive work of art that’s best used to help you unwind.

Of these three games, I would definitely say that The Bridge is the best. It does come off as a Braid clone, but it’s a very well-done Braid clone. This is a title you’ll want to return to every few months to test yourself on the puzzles once more. Definite recommendation for anyone who enjoys mental stimulation in their games, though I would suggest waiting until the price drops to about $10.

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