The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom Review
The last couple of years have been good to side-scrolling/puzzle game fans. What with Henry Hatsworth, Braid and the Professor Layton games, it's safe to say that things are looking up for these quirky game concepts. Shooting for the title of “quirkiest game of 2010” is new XBLA offering, The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, which (surprise, surprise) follows the bizarre antics of gluttonous pie thief, P.B. Winterbottom.
Brought to us by 2K Play, a family-friendly subsidiary of Take Two Games, the game builds on the unique time-based mechanics of Braid, 2008's indie phenom. Characterized by a unique black and white art style, P.B. Winterbottom starts with its namesake hero pursuing the mysterious Chronoberry Pie—a giant, vaguely scary confection that leads him on a merry chase throughout the village of Bakersburg. The chase wreaks havoc on the village, sending its pie factory up in flames, shutting down its waterworks etc, and the villagers are forced to go without water or—ack!—dessert.
The main story mode consists of five chapters made up of many varied levels set on or near clock towers, within burning pie factories, in underground waterworks and inside theaters. Between levels, the story advances via funny little illustrations accompanied by limerick-like rhymes. The point of each level--and the game--is to collect all the pies. It sounds simple enough, but the placement of the pies makes them impossible for one man to reach, even a talented pie thief like P.B. The game lets you (literally) help yourself through this dilemma by letting you create clones of P.B. by holding down (and letting up on) the right trigger to record your actions. This way, you can use your clones to activate levers, give you a leg up onto ledges or bounce you high enough to snatch those out-of-reach pies.
It's funny how easy this all sounds when compared to the reality of doing it. The game's first levels start out fairly simply with only a few pies to grab, all of which are fairly accessible. As you go however, things get much ahem...stickier as the pie-grabbing becomes timed and the pies are more cunningly placed. To succeed, you have to be able to predict a complex chain of causes-and-effects, then figure out how to make them happen. On top of that, sometimes in order to clear the level you'll also have to (when you only get one clone to work with) augment your ingenious strategies with no less than lightning-fast reflexes. Later levels expand on the clone mechanic by having your clone recordings rewind, or by creating dangerous red clones that'll kill you on contact or by introducing blue clones that bat you around the level like a ping pong ball. Not only do the clone mechanics get harder—the levels become increasingly difficult too, using all manner of ledges, switches, niches, trampolines and sinking platforms.
The bottom line is that P.B. Winterbottom is not a game for people who are impatient or mentally lazy. Some levels throughout the game are simpler and serve as a breather as you progress, but overall, the challenge ramps up steadily as you move through the five chapters of the story mode. Getting through the game requires you to be able to do three things: envision complex movement and strategies, perform these complex movements without a single stumble, and be patient enough to try again and again until you succeed. The last of the three can really be the most critical; some levels are so difficult, so exasperating, I sometimes had no choice when playing but to walk away for a while or risk having a tantrum right there on the living room floor. The flip side of that is, the game can be very satisfying when you can work through the pain and finally complete a particularly difficult level.
The gameplay of P.B. Winterbottom is certainly singular but at least half the collective appeal of the game is its art and sound. The black and white art, based both on silent films and the art of famed illustrator Edward Gorey, is executed brilliantly, and makes the game more visually memorable than 95% of the titles released in recent memory. And composer David Stanton's off-beat music is a perfect accompaniment to the art; it sounds like it's being played by Lurch from the Addams Family, and would be perfectly at home inside Disney's Haunted Mansion. In every way, the game is extremely polished—more so than many big-budget releases.
The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom is an impressive first effort by Los Angeles developer The Odd Gentlemen. Like Braid before it, it proves that great games don't require huge teams, huge budgets or huge production times. And with its lengthy story mode, five bonus challenge modes, unique art style and quirky approach to gameplay, it's an extremely entertaining, standout XBLA title that's sure to put its makers on the map.