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0°N 0°W Review — No Direction Home

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0N0W

Defining 0°N 0°W is a difficult task. The easy approach would be to label the title as a psychedelic walking simulator, but such simplicity negates what 0°N 0°W is trying to say as a video game. The phrase walking simulator, too, has become something of a loaded term in the video game canon. Critics of the descriptor typically fall into two schools of thought: those who attack the genre tag as an excuse to short-change the medium’s shift to narrative-focused video games and those who refuse to place walking simulators in the video game bracket at all. 0°N 0°W, the debut game from Colorfiction, manages to deconstruct the newly established tropes of the walking simulator genre by totally embedding itself in its maximalist art style. The project’s directionless design translates to a title that, ironically, defines itself through its refusal to be defined.

0°N0°W opens not as a video game, but as a film. The first two minutes of the title is a film, depicting a man as he drives through most of the United States in his car. The cinematic has a large focus on the U.S.’s cities, which is a theme carried on later by the game’s uncanny architectural landscapes. The cinematic then blends into gameplay, where the player walks into a neon-drenched theatre, alone, and steps through a door into the world of 0°N 0°W. After that, the game is procedurally generated, with no real goal in sight. The player is presented with a seemingly infinite number of doors, both literally and figuratively. After the player opens a door of their choice, they enter 0°N 0°W’s dimension-defying landscapes and wide-open possibilities.

The levels are polarising, varied, and downright schizophrenic in their designs. Visually, the game is stunning, yet its greatest achievement is that it looks completely original in an indie market flooded with homogenised art styles. Many of the worlds are a mimicry of western cities and architectures, acutely re-imagined and re-formed under a blanket of colour. Echoes of cities can be found in even the most volatile of 0N 0W’s worlds, and they appear as labyrinthine and organic as real cities. That each level is surprising, vibrant, and original certainly helps; the levels are great fun to explore on a basic, aesthetically engaging level.

The gameplay lacks purpose, but the art style does not. The foundation of 0°N 0°W’s art is a meditation on how players interpret space, design, and architecture within video games. The art does not just exist to delight, but to force players to think about how they interact with video games as a space. A deeper question is also present: on how players, as a market, engage with traditional video game goals and tropes. The goal, if one exists, is to navigate throughout the level until the player find a door, object, or the edge of the map which teleports players to another world. While some structure to how each level flows into each other is present, with certain levels having a similar artistic theme to others, for most of the game the player’s path is wholly tailored to their choices.

0°N 0°W

0°N 0°W is a total rejection of linear progression, opting for the opposite of what single-player games have been offering recently. The best part of 0°N 0°W is the game’s reconciliation of maximalist art with minimalist design choices.0°N 0°W’s carefree ignorance of the player’s expectations is as artistically mature as it is childlike, but this ignorance leads to moments where the game feels unfocused and tiring.

The closest comparison to 0°N 0°W is the cult classic LSD: Dream Emulator, a PlayStation title from 1998. 0°N 0°W’s gameplay and thematic concerns are remarkably similar to LSD, with each title acting as a response to contemporaries in their industry. What is most surprising about 0°N 0°W’s relation to LSD is the artistic similarities in their indefinable styles. However, 0°N 0°W lacks much of the charm that made LSD so great, which is symptomatic of the wider issue regarding repetition within the game. 0°N 0°W’s random and seemingly endless dimensions of worlds can become tiring as player choice and agency lacks motivation. LSD, for example, offset its lack of goals with creepiness and cult appeal, yet 0°N 0°W makes its art style too paramount at the expense of engagement. Lack of purpose eventually catches up to 0°N 0°W, which kills any sense of longevity the project may have.

Whilst most of the worlds are visually interesting, they feel empty and, at times, unfinished. The game’s hollow level design is made worse by the fact that certain levels seem to appear over and over, making the game feel a lot smaller in scope than it should. At the worst of times, 0°N 0°W feels like a glorified tech demo or art installation. The artistic depth of the game is not enough to make it a worthwhile interactive experience alone. The style ultimately makes 0°N 0°W special, but the project’s fragmented design choices can leave it feeling oddly anaemic.

A market for experiences like this one exists, though. Whilst this statement may feel like a cop out, 0°N 0°W is not for everyone, but it will appeal massively to a gamer who values non-traditional experiences. Positive aspects can be found in the project’s ambition, sound design, and overall cohesion, yet certain players may feel scuppered by the lack of purpose.

The fundamental question 0°N 0°W posits is ‘how much direction does one really need to enjoy a video game?’ The rainbowed reality of 0°N 0°W provides no answer, but the suggestion that the art form is being limited by its own definitions of what defines a game lingers.

OnlySP Review Score 3 CreditReviewed on PC.

Review

Etherborn Review — A Brief, Beautiful Defiance of Gravity

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Etherborn

Indie developers in 2019 truly have the freedom to create the games they want. When Fig-funded game Etherborn reached its funding target, developer Altered Matter set out to craft a gravity-shifting puzzle platformer. Players sold on this concept have a lot to look forward to as Altered Matter has delivered on its promise. The mind-bending mechanics of Etherborn force players to approach the world from a new perspective amidst some stunning visual landscapes. 

In Etherborn, the player takes control of a voiceless, newly-born being who follows a bodiless voice in search of meaning. Such a philosophical premise promises an experience that will answer key questions regarding self-identity and the quest for meaning. The answer plays into the age old cliche that we are born to create our own destiny. The game’s narrative discussions around these topics are disappointing, though they do demonstrate that the narrative is less important than the themes behind them. 

Etherborn

One of the biggest frustrations with the story is that the language used complicated the simple message the developer was trying to tell. The soothing yet commanding tone of the omniscient voice would have been enough to carry along a more refined script that served the themes with clarity. Instead, Altered Matter opted to write something poetic by using lots of really big words that sound like they have lots of meaning, which instead detract from the actual meaning. 

Etherborn has a linear structure that takes place across five distinct levels. The levels are completed by solving gravity-defying puzzles to collect light orbs that open the pathway forward. Once all levels are completed, a new game+ mode is unlocked, creating replayability through the additional challenge of new, well-hidden light orb locations. Including this game mode offers players a chance to enjoy a more difficult experience without an additional learning curve. 

What sets Etherborn apart is the unique mechanic that underpins the gameplay. To traverse the landscape, players must jump and use ramps to change their perspective, turning walls into floors to move through the level. The opening level does an exceptional job of introducing the player to how this concept will be manipulated throughout the game. Controls in Etherborn are simple and intuitive, allowing for an experience that focuses the challenge purely within the design. Despite being able to run, the movement speed of the character seems sluggish for the most part, yet can be too fast for easy maneuverability in levels that require finesse to execute. 

Etherborn is deeply beautiful. The soft hues and subtle colour palette create a truly ethereal experience that carries through until the final level where the tone shifts into something somewhat dark, yet utterly breathtaking. Skeletal bodies, frozen in time, dwarf the character to create a visual masterpiece that captivates the viewer. Accompanying the divine art direction is killer sound design that makes the world feel complete. The ambient music creates an atmosphere that indulges in the landscape it calls home in a way that elevates the experience. 

The short length of Etherborn leaves players wanting more. In OnlySP’s preview of the game in 2018, the Alpha build contained the same five levels that are seen in the final game. Having spent so much time on these levels has meant the final product is highly polished yet disappointingly short. The gravity bending puzzles at play are so clever, well designed, and satisfying to complete that a lack of experimentation through more level designs to satiate the player’s hunger for more is disappointing.  

The challenging gameplay, gorgeous sound design, and stunning aesthetics all make Etherborn a worthwhile experience, even for those not fond of puzzle-platformers. Every level demonstrates a craftsmanship that encourages the curiosity to think and engage with the world. Completing puzzles is satisfying, even if the length of the game is not. Some minor issues may crop up along the way, but Etherborn is still a clever, fun game that challenges players and their perspective of the world. 

OnlySP Review Score 3 Credit

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch. Also available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

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