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Squishies Review — Cute Exterior Hides a Fiendishly Challenging Puzzler

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Squishies

Back in the misty depths of time, and the dawn of the console gaming era, video games were often punishingly hard. This was both an outgrowth of the coin-sucking nature of the arcades that preceded them, and a feature that let players get as much playtime as possible from their games. Despite its colourful and thoroughly modern exterior, in many ways Squishies is a throwback to those days.

Squishies is a product of developer Brainseed, who previously produced the very dark title Typoman. Available only for PlayStation VR, Squishies is a bright and colourful puzzle title that challenges the player to guide the adorably round squishies through a level and towards the goal.

Levels are presented as platforms resembling floating dioramas which can be moved around to get the best angle. In order to move the squishies, the PlayStation Move controllers transform into two fish-like devices which can blow a puff of air, or such the squishies back like a vacuum. This mechanism is operated by using the triggers on the Move controllers, but is very tricky to get used to.

Players will need to cultivate a deep well of patience and an appreciation of the laws of momentum, as the wrong movement at the wrong time will send the poor creature hurtling off the edge and into the abyss. Players will also often find themselves twisting into a pretzel to get the precise angle needed to grab an elusive collectable. This process can become tiring after a while, and even painful if proper care is not taken.

Thankfully, since Squishies is primarily stationary, with the world moving instead of the player, players will not need to worry too much about experiencing the motion sickness symptoms that can come from playing virtual reality (VR).

The main campaign features 100 levels to complete, and each level comes with multiple optional challenges, such as attempting to grab every collectable crystal, or testing how many squishies players can successfully guide to the exit. Hidden eggs can also be found. The player cannot fail a level, as they are given as many tries as necessary, and the game has plenty of checkpoints to ease the frustration somewhat.

Despite this seeming simplicity, some of the levels can be extremely demanding, requiring a level of precision that is very hard to accomplish with the ageing PlayStation Move hardware and the slightly jittery tracking of the PlayStation VR.

The graphics are simplistic but very appealing, with a bright and cartoonish colour palette and a blocky feel reminiscent of Minecraft and other recent voxel-based titles. The graphics work perfectly for the world and supports the gameplay since the simple style means that no excess clutter gets in the way.

The vast number of levels and the challenges of beating time trials and finding all the hidden collectables certainly presents enough content to keep puzzle fans happy, but the game also adds another dimension to the gameplay that offers a more creative option.

Playing through the levels unlocks various elements that can be used in a level editor. The more levels and challenges players complete, the more becomes available in the level editor. The level editor itself is well-designed, offering a simple drag-and-drop structure for users to experiment with. This feature ends up being one of the best uses of VR in the game, as being inside the 3D space gives players a much better grasp on the design and layout of the level.

The level editor is very user-friendly, guiding players through the process of laying down terrain and building up the environment without too much hand-holding. The integration of the PlayStation Move works well in this area, such as allowing the orientation of an object to changed with a movement of the wrist.

While the level editor does not quite have the same depth and variety as titles such as Mario Maker or LittleBigPlanet, it is still a deeply satisfying experience which allows players to make some very interesting creations. Seeing what the community comes up with in this space will certainly be fascinating.

The music is pleasant, if somewhat minimalist; it makes for a reasonable background sound, but is somewhat unremarkable, lacking the kind of hummable melodies of other puzzle titles like Tetris or Columns.

Squishies is the sort of title that is best experienced in short bursts. As a way to kill time in-between projects, the game works well, but the inherent flaws of the PlayStation Move and the sometimes jittery PSVR tracking combined with the difficulty curve means that attempting to play it for long periods can lead to controller-snapping levels of frustration.

The levels editor, by contrast, is a calming and satisfying experienced, and players will be disappointed to find that some of the more interesting level elements are locked behind some of the more difficult challenges.

For fans of old-school ‘Nintendo Hard’ puzzle titles, Squishies is definitely worth checking out, and trying out some of the tricker challenges. Even those less interested in brutal difficulty can find satisfaction in completing some of the simpler challenges. The level editor is also worth spending some time exploring, and could be considered a game in its own right.

Squishies does not do anything revolutionary, but does enough right that it makes for an interesting experience, especially with the level editor taking into consideration. The game runs into problem with the limitations of the hardware, but overcomes them well enough to offer an interesting and fun challenge.

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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