Braid PC Review
While independent games have gotten plenty of flak from the hardcore crowd for often being too casual, lacking in depth, or not immersing the player into a believable world, here and there you'll see something brilliant come about. Some say that true game design genius started back with Alexey Pajitnov's Tetris, but while his masterpiece completely blows away almost any other single achievement in game design, you have to admit that Pajitnov wasn't up against what small teams or even single developers are staring at nowadays.
I just read that Assassin's Creed 2 from Ubisoft is being made by a team of 240 people. It's hard to imagine that a game like Jonathan Blow's Braid could somehow be better than a major AAA title from a team of hundreds, but to me, that's exactly what Blow has achieved. By starting out with striking hand-drawn visuals from artist David Hellman (the only other guy that worked on the game), a simple 2D platforming engine, and some major homages to the 2D games of its past, Braid quickly pulls you in with its updated retro gameplay.
But the story, at first, is about as strange and disconnected from the actual game as you can get. You're playing as Tim, some little dude in a suit, and the story text tells you about some elusive Princess he's trying to find, then goes into a bunch of weird stuff that just makes little sense. Jumping into a level, you'll quickly realize that this isn't a conventional platform game. Sure, you run around and jump on Goomba-looking enemies to kill them and will see many Mario-like elements like cannons and moving platforms. You'll run and jump with the arrow keys and spacebar. But with a press of the Shift key you can reverse time, erasing your mistakes and undoing your own deaths. The game's first world gets you used to the notion of shifting time, and unlike, say, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, you quickly figure out that aren't reversing time just to fix mistakes. You'll use it to unlock a door, make a shortcut before a pillar closes on you, or reach a platform that's too high to jump to. You'll use it in order to make what would otherwise be difficult and frustrating jumping puzzles a matter of a few very brief trials and errors, saving you a fantastic amount of time and moving the game on to the next challenge. And in each of the game's five major stages, you'll gain a new ability that adds
You'll also figure out quickly that getting from one end of a level to another is not really the point of the game. The first five of the game's six worlds each include a painting that's been split up into twelve puzzle pieces, and to get to the final level you'll need to reassemble each of these paintings by figuring out how to reach the pieces scattered throughout the levels. Jonathan Blow himself has said that the game's puzzles are reasonable, and while difficult, should be doable by just about everyone - and that the use of awalkthrough or a guide really ruins the fun. I do think that's true if you haven't really put much effort into the puzzles, but there's still no shame in looking up some of the solutions if you're tired of staring at the puzzles for hours and only have a few left to finish.
Initially, the story is disjointed and piecemeal, delivering tidbits here and there through strange text as well as through art, symbolism, and metaphor that you probably wouldn't expect to get from a game. And the reason you might not expect it is that Braid stands up very well as a game entirely on its own; its time-based puzzle platforming action are wonderful and add new, exciting elements with each new "world" you enter. Frankly, with a game as fun and original as this made by only two guys, you probably wouldn't be paying attention to how Braid tells a story in a way that only a game can. But this story is hidden behind metaphor and mystery; it's only going to pop out at you if you really pay attention.
Games like The Path and The Graveyard try to convey a message that goes beyond what most developers try to achieve, and for that they should be commended, but the problem with them is that they're not really fun to play at all. They're more like barely-interactive stories; just watching the videos of them on YouTube gets you pretty much the full experience. But what Jonathan Blow has achieved here combines the best of both worlds: a delightful, challenging, addictive platforming/puzzle game and a true work of art. With all that said, the "games are not art" crowd will likely find Braid to be pretentious and snobby. I certainly did at first, especially after reading a few of the levels' intro texts, but after getting through most of the game and reading some analysis people had put together for what it's an allegory for - along with some supporting evidence with a couple of key quotes pulled from the game - I am convinced.
Maybe my review could easily be countered with rapper Soulja Boy's video dismissal of Braid. To him, this game is only for people who smoke weed and get drunk, one that has "no point" and is "stupid as hell". But hey, going back in time every time you fall or die was apparently pretty badass, since his entourage enjoys it immensely in the video. Soulja Boy clearly doesn't give a damn about games as art, doesn't have the time to put in to complete the game, and probably wouldn't care even if someone explained all of its meaning to him. I don't blame him, nor do I blame anyone who jumps into Braid for 20 minutes, gets stuck trying to figure out a puzzle piece, and quits playing for good. Some people just don't have the time or dedication to put into a game that asks a little more than most would ask.
But the best part about Braid from the "games as art" perspective is that here, there's still a great game in there, and maybe the story and design will start making sense to those even when they're not looking for it. Where The Path fails to impress anyone who's looking for an actual game, Braid gives you goals, shows you some fantastic art, and makes a decent effort of enticing you into figuring out its secrets all the way until its incredible final stage that works just as well going forwards in time as it does going backwards. It's not going to reel in every gamer and subtly introduce to them its unique storytelling like it did for me, but it does a better job than I've seen most games achieve.
It's still a tough game, though, and one of my biggest complaints is that with sixty puzzle pieces in total to figure out how to collect, there's bound to be at least a few that most gamers will get stuck on. They won't be able to see the game's final level until they get them all, and that probably dooms at least half the people who buy Braid to never actually see the ending. The huge amount of effort that Blow put into telling this story will be wasted on them, as it doesn't really start making sense until the end, and that is probably the game's biggest downside overall. But even for those that finish the game and even find all the ridiculously tough extra pieces after it's over, the story is still masked in symbolism and metaphor. Apparently, that was the intent; I really do hope that Jonathan Blow's next effort can rein in the vagueness just enough to deliver a story that's a little more focused and accessible, but also one that isn't so weighted towards the end of the game.
Another potential issue is what seems to be a rather haphazard release. Braid has pretty much zilch in the way of detail options, and only supports a screen resolution of 1280x720. It's also a port of a game designed for the 360 at first, so this is not your usual casual/independent game that will run on just about anything - it's got a lot of special effects, many of which can't officially be turned down or off yet. While the creator is working on a patch to add screen resolution options and support older graphics cards and laptops, it's not quite here yet. For now, if you're unsure of how the game might run, make sure to check out the demo to see how it plays and check the Braid blog for updated builds.
Braid may lack accessibility for some of its audience, but it's still a landmark in design that should stand as an example for how games can create stories in a way that no other medium can. But it's not just that; this two-man-show has got some great action, wonderful plays on time and fiendish (but entirely doable) puzzles that blow away some of the best ideas many game developers have had in the last couple years. And hell, most major studios aren't even trying to include the kind of symbolism and meaning like Braid has accomplished. While the story here winds up being tough to uncover and even tougher to fully understand, I find it to be absolutely worth the attempt. If you just want to kill some aliens or blast some zombies after a long day at work, there are hundreds upon hundreds of great games out there to choose from. When you are ready to see how a game can challenge conventional storytelling while still delivering on fresh ideas and great action, give Braid a try. The demo's available here at AtomicGamer and the full game, DRM-free, is about $15 on Steam, Impulse, GamersGate, and Greenhouse.