'Braid' PC Review

April 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

Flashback to August 2008: Jonathan Blow releases Braid on Xbox Live Arcade to much critical and popular acclaim. As it turned out, it was to be a monumental and defining year for indie gaming in general as World of Goo, released in late 2008 for the Wii and PC, again won the plaudits of critics and gamers alike. It was to be the year where the industry stood up and took notice of what was going on right under their noses; the bedroom coder — previously thought long dead in these times of large development teams with even larger budgets — had risen again.

Flash forward to April 2009: Braid is released via several digital distribution services (Steam, Impulse and The Greenhouse, to name but a few) and lands on the PC. Having skipped the initial wave of hype following Braid‘s original release and the inevitable backlash from those claiming that ‘it ain’t all that, cuz’, PC gamers are in the unique position of being able to play and judge for themselves whether it lives up — and without having to breath in the cloying atmosphere of heightened emotion and trying expectations.

Braid is fundamentally a 2D puzzle-platformer, where the onus is not so much on the player’s ability to time jumps but on their ability to think conceptually, logically and ‘outside of the box’ (if you will forgive my use of this rather trite catchphrase). It’s a game which deftly mixes the nostalgic and traditional conventions of old-school platforming games — such as Super Mario Bros. — with more in vogue gaming mechanisms such as time travel. Braid‘s unique use of old gameplay standards combined with its intriguing use and perversion of them, makes the game truly unique. Added to its impeccable use of time as a function and expansion on gameplay, it features beautiful artwork and composed music — again, completely unique to this game. As a piece of work, Braid lives up to its name of being so integrally woven in every facet of itself; as a byproduct, it’s a fairly challenging game, not just in how it essentially forces the player to use parts of their brain they didn’t even know they had, but also in the way it tells its story (if you can call it that).

Gameplay-wise, you play as Tim, a man who’s searching for his princess. There are six different worlds in the game, each with their own novel use of the game’s central time mechanic. The aim of the game is to transverse these worlds in search of the princess, recovering jigsaw pieces, which have been scattered throughout, and then piecing them together at the end to form a painting. These paintings often serve as visual analogies for the theme of that particular world and the general themes of the game. Tim can move, jump, kill enemies and collect items — just like a regular platform hero — but also has the added ability to rewind and fastforward time. The result is that Tim can never die as he can always rewind himself to the point before death, and, as I said, each world involves different variations of the rules of time travel. In some worlds there are items and platforms which are invulnerable to time manipulation; in others, the world itself moves forwards and backwards in time according to which direction Tim is moving in. There is even a world where you can exploit parallel dimensions — essentially allowing Tim to be in two different places at once.

These variations to the time travel mechanic could appear, at first glance, to be trivial gimmicks. But it doesn’t take long to recognise just how well-thought out and developed these elements are, and how expertly they’ve been fitted in to the gameplay. The majority of the game’s puzzles are really quite conceptually complex and, amazingly, rarely cross over into being frustrating or unfair. What is so impressive is Blow’s use of an incredibly simple formula for a game — namely, a primitive, 2D-scrolling platform game — and how he expands upon it with time travel. Time travel isn’t an original idea in video games, but the manner in which Blow has devised certain consistent laws around the concept, while also allowing enough space for them to be bent, and even broken — it’s nothing short of ingenious.

The story itself is also representative of the game’s main theme of time travel, but also of several sub-themes such as the nature of love, relationships, forgiveness, regrets etc. Braid‘s plot is, to be frank, incomprehensible — but then, it’s supposed to be, isn’t it? Appropriately, the plot is told in an anachronistic manner and it is only at the end that you begin to build a picture of what’s really going on. But, even then, you are still left confused with how it all ties up. It is to the game’s credit that it stays true to the theme of being out of place, out of time, but it sort of shoots itself in the foot by making the narrative overly ambiguous and, ultimately, impenetrable. Personally, I found myself becoming frustrated and eventually bored by the incongruity of the narrative; I especially resented the, at times, rather cryptic and pretentious narration introducing each world.

As such, Braid is less of a story and more of a series of allegories, a smorgasbord of metaphors. This is not to say that these metaphors are ineptly handled: visually and aurally they convey their respective messages beautifully, and they dare to approach subjects which are, by nature, difficult and elusive. While the narration can be overly wordy and evasive, it’s a difficult tight-rope to walk between mysterious and obtuse — and it is something which can be forgiven considering how successful the game is in all its other aspects.

Something else that should be forgiven is Braid‘s length, which can be considered to be extremely short. I completed the game, with a little help on a couple of the more difficult puzzles, in just under ten hours. There are further secrets that can be explored and time trials to challenge yourself with, but, in reality, these don’t offer enough of an incentive for the player to go back and play the game over. Once you’ve figured out how to solve the puzzles the game is over — doing them again, but faster, doesn’t hold much appeal.

Braid is an exceptional game, which is all the more impressive for its relatively low-budget roots; I would recommend anyone with an interest in platforming games, puzzle solving or quantum physics to try it. It really is ‘all that’.

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