Degrees of Separation is, in the simplest of terms, a lighthearted game with stunning visuals and a cute story. In this challenging yet lovingly crafted game, the player takes control of Ember and Rime, two contrasting characters on the search for answers in the ruins of a former kingdom.
The first and most beautifully blatant thing to note is the game’s outstanding background art. The sharp contrast of Ember’s warmth to Rime’s frosty landscape is extremely appealing; not only does it affect the world and how each character interacts with it, but it also creates a visual narrative for the two characters, truly demonstrating the separation between them.
The narrative follows the deuteragonists on their quest to collect black scarves throughout a fantasy land. Each level expands on a different aspect of the pair’s relationship and adds a new mechanic that is only used in that level. Each mechanic is unique and intuitive, focusing on a different narrative point. Most of these mechanics work well, but a few can get especially irritating if the player is playing alone.
For example, in the third level, a spark is created between Ember and Rime, and it explodes whenever they get too close, sending them firing off to opposite sides of the screen. This forced separation can get frustrating quite quickly, especially if the player commands the partner to follow them. Usually, the second character will remain close to the player, often causing an explosion.
Aside from the explosive side effects within this level, most of the puzzles are well thought out. However, a few can be easily cheesed or are too hard. One specific puzzle requires the use of an object from a puzzle two levels ahead, leaving the experience feeling unrewarding. In some ways, certain puzzles in the game lack a nuanced approach to problem-solving, with completion being met feelings of unsatisfaction.
Another problem emerges in the third level, when a character is supposed to jump on the other’s head, creating an explosion that is supposed to send them up to a platform. The issue is that Degrees of Separation is not a precision platformer and getting the characters to intersect at the right angle can be frustrating—not to mention recreating the setup is a tedious process.
The game drops the player in the deep end, with only a brief tutorial level in which the player learns to jump, climb, and roll objects. Degrees of Separation does not hold hands, but that is not really a problem since the mechanics are relatively simple to understand. Some of the more difficult puzzles can leave the player wondering if they missed something or if there was a mechanic that they did not quite understand. That is probably the biggest issue the game faces: that and the fluctuating difficulty of puzzles throughout. However, these faults do not stop the game from being an engaging experience, especially with a partner.
Ideally, Degrees of Separation is designed to be played with another person—specifically a significant other. Doing so takes away a few of the aforementioned issues with some of the levels.
Indeed, given that the narrative focuses on a couple, the game, therefore, seems better experienced by one. The story provides insight into the struggles and pleasures of a relationship, with each level describing a different obstacle that couples may face. All the while, the game buries its themes within an easily digestible fantasy context and an overarching plot about a fallen kingdom and mysterious black scarves.
The fact that the narrative and gameplay is based around two people does not mean that the game is not fun and satisfying for single players. The entirety of Degrees of Separation can be played alone, and it is still enjoyable, with only a few gripes concerning the AI. The NPC protagonist works mostly fine aside from the few times it forgets how to climb a rope or runs into the other character, sending them both hurtling across the screen, skipping several puzzles and jumpstarting a new voice line.
The narration seems to be recorded on a low-quality microphone, which can be jarring at first, especially in comparison to the clear sounding music. The audio quality is certainly not a deal breaker, but rather a noticeable flaw in the execution. Similarly, climbing and running cycles of the character models look stiff and out of place in comparison to the otherwise stunning visuals.
Aside from the small gripes and varyingly difficult puzzles, each level is beautiful and brings in novel mechanics and an interesting outlook on relationships. Degrees of Separation is a fresh and challenging game designed to be played with a significant other but remains a worthwhile experience alone.