Ever had a game put you in a endless maze or force you to double back in a seemingly endless circular hallway just to escape a room? How about a game that seems to constantly be trying to screw with you, defying logic and challenging what you know about movement and space? It doesn't exactly sound fun, does it? This is always a challenge for the developers of twisted puzzle games, and the ones that use a first-person perspective are often the most devious. Well, that sub-sub-genre has a new entry called Antichamber, and this game, which took years for developer Alexander Bruce to make, gives players a semi-free-roaming complex filled with mind-melting puzzles to explore and a very unique atmosphere to do it in.
The controls are simple, as you can run, jump, and walk, and you'll quickly get a hold of a simple tool that manipulates some puzzles in order to find solutions. This tool can be upgraded, which is both a blessing and a curse as it opens up solutions for new puzzles, but it also means you need to look at some of the puzzles you've already completed in an entirely new way; you might even find new solutions or places to explore on top of areas you've already completed. The game includes lots of little semi-motivational phrases placed on the walls along with drawings to match. Some of these act as little more than trite life-coaching tips, but others work as explanations of just-completed puzzles, tips for a puzzle you're staring at, or merely an observation about your surroundings.
These phrases and pictures are collected as you find them and put on a big board in the central hub room, which you can always return to by tapping the ESC key. From this room, you can play with your game settings - unfortunately, no detail options other than screen resolution are available, nor are there any customizable controls beyond mouse sensitivity and inversion - and look at a sort of abstract map of the puzzles in the game. You can click on any puzzle and get instantly teleported there.
It might seem at first like Antichamber is just a Portal clone with a weak, limited-use gravity gun, but many of its puzzles are entirely unique and challenge you in entirely different ways. What's more difficult is that the game screws with you by seamlessly moving you around - without even the slightest hitch, even at 60fps - so you can look through a window, and when you turn around, you'll find yourself suddenly in the room you were just looking into, and what's unsettling is that you won't "feel" the transition at all. There's more ways that the game messes with your perceptions of space, but I'd rather not spoil it. (And if I seem vague about anything else in this review, it's in the same spirit of leaving these things as a pleasant surprise.)
The thing is, a game that just gleefully throws you into brutally hard puzzles and leaves you stuck in one place for hours without a glimmer of a clue is not fun for most to play, but Antichamber finds a really nice balance that includes some real brain-melting puzzles but also gives you the option to go elsewhere and come back with a fresh perspective. Some puzzles you come across will clearly not be able to be completed until later in the game, while others will make it seem like that, only to actually be solvable - and I found that these are often the most satisfying to get through. What's important is that there is almost always more than one puzzle you can work on, and often the map in the hub room will lead you to clues that some rooms have a hidden exit that leads somewhere entirely new.
All of this is delivered with the venerable Unreal Engine and the game uses bright, saturated colors and many simple shaded polygons with only a few textures to go around. It tricks you with these lush soundscapes placed in some areas that are vastly different than what you're seeing; you'll hear frogs around a pond at night, the rush of the ocean at the beach, a windy mountaintop, or a powerful thunderstorm. Yet the whole time, you're trapped in this complex of crazy puzzles that look nothing like what you're hearing. To some, the entire effect will be unsettling: the sound not matching the setting, a few surprises (but nothing truly scary), and some of the more twisting, confusing puzzles are going to put at least a few people off of this game.
But for those that enjoy these things, though, this game is going to be sheer bliss. Antichamber includes some puzzles that I think will become favorites for at least a few fans out there - some require solid first-person jumping skills and execution, but many will have you playing with rules and systems that simply don't exist in the real world. To that end, it's important that you pay attention to the way the game trains you, both in the messages scrawled on the walls and also in how the world works around you - like how lifts sink a little when you jump on them, how looking at something closer can cause your surroundings to suddenly change, or how the game's movable blocks work and interact with the environment.
It's clear to me that Antichamber will wind up being a pretty polarizing game with people either loving or hating it, but in many ways this is exactly what indie gaming is about. Big publishers wouldn't risk money making a game like this, and the creator places a kind of trust in the player to deal with difficult puzzles and learn on their own, all without the perceived need to spell everything out - which is something that AAA games made for mass audiences can't do for fear of leaving too many gamers behind. Alexander Bruce's biggest achievement with Antichamber is that he created a game that's brilliant and inviting, something that can rarely be said for a game made entirely of difficult puzzles where what you see isn't always what you get and where the room you're standing in can change at any moment.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a downloaded copy of the game provided by Valve Software through Steam.