When you ask the general gaming scene to mention defining indie games, chances are a handful of titles will end up on the majority’s list; Super Meat Boy, Limbo, Bastion, Fez and Braid. Given my limited experience with these games in the context of their release and the less than flattering reputation some of these devs have developed, I tend to approach them with a little cynicism. I ended up feeling underwhelmed by Super Meat Boy and never reaching the full satisfaction of Fez’ pedestal. When I noticed the unreasonable amount of hype generated by the highly uninformative trailer of The Witness, a game developed in part by Braid’s creator, Jonathan Blow, I decided to sit down with Braid and try to understand just what people were seeing beyond the colorful deserted island. Turns out it’s actually pretty good.
Like The Witness, I didn’t know much about Braid before starting my playthrough. Recollecting comments and various bits of knowledge, it seemed to be a platformer based around time travel with a plot that is both a critique and a satire of Mario’s original plot. Though this describes the general idea and gameplay of the game, it is fortunately deeper than that. Of course, you will be greeted by a protagonist in the process of rescuing a princess. You will encounter Goomba clones as enemies. You will arrive at the end of each world and learn that “this princess is in another castle.” But that’s where the direct references end. Though the influence of years of platformers is palpable, few elements explicitly refer to the original game, save from the above examples and an obvious Donkey Kong reference. You’ll notice a Kirby Adventure style of world selection instead of a static screen or direct progression. The paintings above each world will surely remind you of Mario 64 or Banjo-Kazooie. If they don’t, the jigsaw pieces acting as collectables will. In fact, the techniques used to collect these most of these puzzles pieces can’t help but feel familiar. In short, Braid’s core gameplay and presentation are a tribute to platformers by more than sheer nostalgia.
Braid, however, is at its peak when the multiple and varied time travel mechanics make their appearance. In the first world, the only mechanic used is an unlimited rewind, but it mostly serves to prevent deaths and eliminate the need for extra lives. Other worlds will incorporate objects that aren’t affected by time travel, a shadow of yourself for multitasking and an item that slows down time. These mechanics combine to form quite the complex set of puzzles. But the complexity also comes from platforming precision, timing, and general skills, adding to the gratification felt when you grab each and every collectible. Braid’s puzzle solving satisfaction has been very rarely surpassed by any other video games bar a couple of Portal test rooms.
While Blow’s level design shines, other gameplay elements seem rather unwelcome. After the initial stage, the gameplay shifts towards a puzzle oriented focus where your main enemy often ends up being the dreaded one-hit KO spikes. However, one type of enemy still makes its undesired appearance once in awhile: The killer bunny. This bunny basically pops out of the ground uninvited and attacks you. It’s also hard to avoid, seems out of place within the world setting and serves no purpose in a game focused on puzzle solving. In other areas, bullet bill clones seem a tad overused and create the same effect. Their presence doesn’t hinder the game, but it does influence your experience when you have already figured out how to progress and cannot figure out how much rewinding you have to do to avoid this particular obstacle.Fortunately, boss fights are another story, despite the fact that there’s only a single boss battle repeated with three different mechanics. Granted, it helps that the game is too short to make any mechanic repetitive.
Once the game is cleared and all collectibles are grabbed, Braid offers a direct encouragement to speedrun the game with some time attack modes after. Though speedrunning never was my forte, it’s obvious that the timing elements in the puzzle solving really add to the speedrunning aspect of the game. Personally, I wouldn’t consider the game to have much replay value, as is the case with most puzzle games with no exploration elements. The overall presentation is another aspect that leaves me ambivalent. The real life painting aesthetics of the game pleases the eye, but never really adds to the gameplay. In fact, I’d argue it hinders it more often than it enhances the experience. The same can be said of the music. While the classical orchestrated soundtrack matches the visuals, the way it is used and manipulated ends up being way more interesting than the actual soundtrack.
In short, Blow seemingly wanted the presentation to deliver the feelings of the story, but ended up over delivering, because of an underwhelming plot. When unengaged by the development and background of this token character, it’s hard not to see the whole thing as pretentious. Fortunately, Braid’s gameplay overshadows all of these issues and manages to remain an incredibly satisfactory and gratifying experience.
Rocket Pants Rating: Dive In
Dive in games might not be perfect, but they are worth your time, money and investments. Once you can afford them, don’t hesitate. Grab them and enjoy!