September 15, 2012 22 Comments
Update: Gateways now includes an easier mode that will still eat your ass for lunch.
Halfway through Gateways, I had it pegged as the new #1 game on my site, and that Escape Goat had been slain. No joke. It has the most awesome hook of any XBLIG to date (2D Portal, enough said), a developer with big time credentials (a game on XBLA and a game already on my leaderboard), amazing retro-graphics, and some of the most clever puzzles I’ve ever seen in any game. #1? It’s a lock.
Actually, describing Gateways as essentially being a 2D Portal is way over-simplifying things. Portal was never this smart, nor did it give you this many things to do. You had two portals and maybe a cube to drag along with you. Even Portal 2, with its tractor beams, gels, and variations of the companion cubes, can’t touch Gateways for literally mind-numbing complexity. Strange as this sounds, Gateways is actually too smart, to the point of turning off some of my Uprising comrades.
Once again, a puzzle game on XBLIG made me question what I thought I knew about gaming. As a kid, I always figured puzzlers were the product of a publisher pulling an Arliss Loveless, kidnapping top eggheads from around the world and forcing them to create puzzles, for profit! But no, it turns out you don’t need shackles, chloroform, or threats of bodily harm to create puzzles, meaning those things can stay in the bedroom where they belong. One dude came up with all the puzzles in Gateways. One fucking dude, presumably with a brain that outweighs a Volkswagen Beetle.
Playing as a kooky scientist who is trying to return to his lab’s command center (why doesn’t he just have Zordon teleport him?), you have to search around for new portal guns and abilities. Gateways is laid out like a Metroidvania, meaning you’ll end up doing a lot of backtracking, retracking, and teleporting around the map. This could have been hugely risky, but Smudged Cat put a big “go here” arrow on the map that appears as soon as you clear the latest puzzle. Smart. However, I still found the design somewhat problematic. Although there are special shortcuts that open up as you make progress, I feel some kid of magical “return to the starting spot” item would have cut down on some of the tedium involved. That, or include the ability to warp at your will from save point to save point, like LaserCat did.
Which brings me to the puzzles. They’re genius, and this is commendable. But the difficulty of finishing them, ahem, scales. My biggest complaint with Escape Goat was that there was no difficulty curve. Because you could pick levels in any order, Mega Man-style, that game couldn’t escalate the puzzles and make them tougher as you went along. Gateways has no such limitations. However, the curve of it was allowed to grow out of control. As a result, Gateways is possibly the most difficult platformer-puzzler in gaming history.
Things start out smoothly with the simple portal gun. It plays more or less exactly like a 2D Portal game. The first twist comes with the size portal thing, which allows you jump through one portal and come out the other end either larger or smaller. Sort of like Alice and Wonderland without having anything tell you “Eat me!” At this point, things are still pretty straight forward. And then comes the Time Travel gun. The idea behind it is you place one portal and then wait for some time to pass. Then, you place the second portal and hop through it. When you come out the other side, you travel back to that point, with your former self doing whatever it was you were doing while waiting for the time meter to fill. At this point, any sense of wonderment in the puzzles is replaced by conundrums designed to blow your cerebral cortex.
Doc Brown would be thrilled with Gateways, which requires you to think 4th dimensionally. Once you’ve made “clones” of yourself, you have to use them to stand on switches and line up mirrors to deflect lasers, all within a small amount of time. Although you can get items that extend how long the time portal works, it never really eases up on the tension of getting everything absolutely fucking perfect, with no room for error. This is harder than it sounds, because moving from portal to portal is disorienting. Solving puzzles requires concentration, coordination, and cognitive thinking on a level no game in history has. That’s not hyperbole.
The first time I encountered a puzzle that used the time gun and required you to make clones of yourself that reflect a laser, I literally froze in my chair and processed the turn the game just made. Gateways wasn’t fucking around anymore. But the game wasn’t done. It added more abilities and guns. By the end of the game, puzzles require you to use multiple guns, time windows, and abilities. It’s so much to juggle that I sincerely doubt 99% of all people who play Gateways will ever actually finish it. Don’t believe me? Here’s a video of the solution to the final puzzle. Mind you, even with this video, people are having trouble finishing it. Don’t worry about spoilers either. There’s no possible way more than 5% of this will stick anyway.
I get a headache just from watching it. Now imagine trying to solve it yourself. Not just knowing the solution, but selecting the right guns, the angles of the mirror, lining them up correctly, paying attention to the orientation of the room, remembering where the already created clones will be standing, the locations of the switches and the lasers, what portals do what and lead where, and what order you’re supposed to do everything in. Hell, most people can’t stand on one foot and with their eyes closed.
Earlier puzzles offer a “help” system which really is just a “we’ll solve it for you” system. Throughout the game, you collect orbs. Every puzzle is marked with a “help” station that works in two parts. First, you have to pay five orbs just to see if you have the equipment necessary to finish it, even if you already know the answer. Then, if you get truly stuck, you can pay 40 orbs to have the game take over the control and finish the puzzle for you. I wasn’t a big fan of this set-up. I almost wish there had been some middle-ground option that steers you in the direction without outright playing the game for you. To solve some puzzles (including the final one), I cheated by putting numbered masking tape on my TV so that I would know where exactly to stand. Maybe something like that for 10 orbs would be preferable to having the game solve itself for you. Oh, and you can’t buy the solution to the final puzzle.
Needless to say, this difficulty spike makes Gateways a title that won’t be enjoyed by everyone. Or most people actually. I really, really enjoyed it, but I didn’t forget what it was. Or the many annoyances I experienced playing it. Not just the brain freezes, but little things. I found switching between the flashlight, mirror, and guns to be somewhat unintuitive, and that really makes the final few puzzles more annoying than they have to be. I found the flashlight stages aggravating. I don’t think the game really needed enemies at all, or dying, and these things could have probably been comfortably edited out. And I wish the game had a bit more personality. That’s really the difference between this and Portal: I wanted to solve the puzzles in Portal so that I could hear the next bit of hilarious dialog from GLaDOS or Cave Johnson. Gateways is played completely straight, and that’s really disappointing.
Right before publication, my buddy Tristan of Clearance Bin Review became the latest of many players I follow on Twitter that threw in the towel at some point on Gateways. I stuck it out, and I’m happy I did, but overall I believe Escape Goat is still the better game. It controls better, is more accessible to everyone, and has more personality. Gateways is hyper-intelligent, but that actually works against. It’s still, as of this writing, the second best game time I’ve ever had with an XBLIG, but such experiences will not be typical, so purchase at your own caution. You can’t possibly get a feel for how much grey matter this requires just from the demo. It catches you by surprise.
Let’s put it this way: imagine if every XBLIG had a human counterpart at a bar. Gateways would be the genius of the room who traps you in a corner, forgets who he’s talking to, and starts to practically speak in tongues. At first you feel like you’re privileged to be in the presence of such intelligence, but after an hour, with no end in sight, you start to look for any excuse to break up the conversation. By the way, Cute Things Dying Violently would be the frat boy making inappropriate dead-baby jokes, Don’t Die Dateless Dummy would be the slow, awkward kid who trips over his own tongue every time a cute girl walked into the room, and Sententia would be the guy who gets drunk, passes out, falls off the bar stool, and lands face-first into a puddle of his own vomit.
240 Microsoft Points heard Raventhorne has been doing the Dance of Joy ever since Sententia came out, as it’s no longer the defacto “disappointing game in an XBLIG showcase promotion” poster child in the making of this review.
Gateways! is ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. Click here to see where it landed.