Video games are quite fond of the work of M.C. Escher—you’ll see his influence in the mundane labyrinths of Control, the disorienting symmetry of the stealth game Echo, or in the clever puzzles of games like Monument Valley and echochrome. You can now add Manifold Garden to that list. And, like those other games, it’s pretty damn great.
Out today on Apple Arcade and the Epic Games Store, ManifoldGarden is a minimalist puzzle game played from a first-person perspective. You begin in a plain room, and after a spare tutorial teaches you the basics of movement, you’re set loose to wander through a mind-bending maze of stairs, corridors, and strange rooms full of machines made almost entirely of right angles.
Manifold Garden’s most disorienting trick is that you can flip gravity by hitting a button whenever you’re facing a flat surface. That surface is your floor now. It doesn’t take as long as you might think to wrap your head around, largely thanks to some clever design—while the rooms and corridors of Manifold Garden have a muted color palette approaching monochrome, they actually have a color assigned to them that you can’t see from afar but fades in as you get closer. So an off-white wall will move towards violet as you get closer and become full-on purple once you trigger your gravity flip and have its surface beneath you. It does a lot to keep you from losing your damn mind.
Like a lot of clever puzzle games, Manifold Garden teaches you how it world works through play. It’ll present you with colored cubes for opening doors, and then in a later room show you a keyhole that you need to flip gravity to get to. But once you do that, you learn another rule: You can only pick up cubes when standing on a surface that matches their color.
Manifold Garden’s simple, aesthetically pleasing design makes it soothing to play through, even if it is often dizzying. Its world is infinite; you are surrounded by countless copies of the structure you are navigating, suspended in an endless void. If you leap off the edge of a platform, you will fall forever, continually passing the ledge you jumped from until momentum carries you back to where you started. It’s a trip, man.
I like to think Escher was a game designer born too soon, fascinated with the strict rules of mathematics and how they can be followed into a maze of the nonsensical. That’s what games are, sometimes—bewildering towers erected from rigid code, somehow folding together to form a thing that seems to defy simple logic.
You should play Manifold Garden, but perhaps not on a smartphone. You can’t get a good look at infinity on a screen that small.
Playing Etherborn is like taking a hike through a series of colorful terraria that have been warped and torn apart by mysterious cosmic forces, causing gravity to shift like the sides of a Rubik’s Cube. It can be bewildering, but it’s never unpleasant—like a dream you can’t quite make sense of, but don’t want to end.
Out today on Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC, Etherborn is a puzzle game that plays on your perception of space and physics. One second, you’re running past a small clump of glistening shrubs; the next thing you know, the path you’re on has curved and taken you up the side of a tower headed to the sky. Moments later, you accidentally step over the side, only to plummet to a platform below it that connects you to the bottom of said tower, letting you stroll along its underbelly when you should be falling to your death.
The rules are simple enough, but they’re so counterintuitive that they never start to feel old. Your character, a translucent bag of pale flesh, can run, jump, and collect glowing orbs. If you run up a curved surface, gravity will reorient itself so that it’s perpendicular to the direction you’re moving. Hit a wall and you won’t be able to move past it, but find a ramp and you’ll be able to run up it, or maybe even fall on top of it from above. Every once in a while, the glowing orbs you find can be deposited into holes in the ground, transforming the landscape around you to create new paths forward—if you can grasp the invisible logic linking it together.
It’s a lot like if gravity were a rain cloud always hovering just above your head, so that no matter how you moved or turned, it kept you glued to the surface below your feet. Figuring out Etherborn’s puzzles is a lot like navigating an M.C. Escher drawing. Stumble around long enough and eventually you’ll find the exit. More likely than not, all it takes is putting one foot in front of the other and trying to walk as many as possible of the paths laid out in front of you.
This might sound tedious, but the scenery makes it all worth it. Beautiful background gradients fade from warm orange to fluorescent yellow, while pink stone bridges contrast with vibrant green paths. The overall look draws a lot from the colorful minimalism of Monument Valley. Although Etherborn feels less narratively and thematically sophisticated than that mobile game and its sequel, it also has the benefit of letting you explore its dreamscapes in 3D.
Despite being a short game, the type you could finish in one sitting if everything happened to click, Etherborn drew me deeply into its world. It was as if I had reached its ghostly plane of existence from deep within a meditative trance, one I’m eager to slip back into again.
In 1996 Capcom released Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, a competitive puzzle game featuring chibi versions of Street Fighter and Darkstalkers characters. The closest Capcom’s gotten to making a sequel is a failed free-to-play mobile game. It’s cool, though. Indie developer Nicalis just released Crystal Crisis, and it’s all current-gen gem-fighting fans could possibly need.
The only thing Crystal Crisis, out now for Switch and coming soon to PlayStation 4, is missing is the licensed Capcom characters. Instead of chibi versions of Ken, Chun-Li, and Morrigan, developer/publisher Nicalis has populated its take on puzzle combat with a cast of indie darlings. It’s got Quote and Curly from Cave Story. Aban Hawkins from 1001 Spikes makes an appearance. My favorite sword-wielding princess, Solange, takes a break from Code of Princess. Astro Boy? Sure, why not? I particularly enjoy the inclusion of Turbo Duo mascot Johnny Turbo, who’s both a fighter and the voice of the game’s tutorial.
It’s an eclectic mix of characters, each bringing their own quirks and special abilities to the puzzle-fighting arena. The core game involves two or more players matching gems as they drop from the top of the screen in pairs. Players match same-colored crystals into clusters. When a special gem called a “spark crystal” appears, matching it with a similarly colored cluster will cause it to disappear, dropping garbage gems on their opponents. Garbage gems can’t be matched until a timer counts down. The goal is to bury opponents in garbage gems until there’s no more space for blocks to drop.
As players make matches, their “burst gauge” fills. Once filled, they can activate a burst power. Each character has unique defensive and offensive burst powers. For example, Johnny Turbo’s attack burst slows the speed at which his opponents’ gems fall and prevents them from insta-dropping (slamming) gems. His defense burst increases the rate at which garbage gems count down, making it easier for him to recover from strong enemy attacks. Burst powers can turn the tide of battle in an instant, so choosing a character is much more than a cosmetic decision.
Bursts aren’t the only way Crystal Crisis sets itself apart from Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo. Pairs of gems in the new game can wrap around the sides of the screen. If the player has a red-and-blue pair dropping, they can have one drop on the far left of the screen and one drop on the far right. It’s just a slight change to the Puzzle Fighter formula, but it makes a big difference. And for those who hate differences, both bursts and screen wrapping can be turned off in the game’s menu.
Crystal Crisis gives players a lot of different ways to play. There’s an arcade mode, where players can run each character through a gamut of battles. Story mode is slightly more guided, giving players a choice between which two combatants they wish to play as for each stage of the narrative. There’s local versus for up to four players, which is lovely but lacks the flashy presentation of two-player battles. There are ranked and casual online matches as well. Most of the game modes can be played in multiple ways as well, with options for survival, tag-team, and memory battles unlocked as players progress. There’s even something called inline mode, which removes spark crystals, turning Crystal Crisis into a basic match-three style puzzle game.
What impresses me most is Crystal Crisis’ presentation. The music is excellent. The menus are lovely. Best of all, Nicalis got a legendary voice actor to narrate the game. Listen.
That’s Peter Cullen, AKA Optimus Prime. When Optimus Prime says you’ve won the round, you’ve really freaking won the round, dammit. If Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo had gotten this level of love and care, we wouldn’t need a Crystal Crisis. But it didn’t, and we do, and it’s awesome.
The first time I played Trine, which came out in 2009, I found its combination of high-fantasy, 2D side-scrolling, and co-op puzzle solving to be such a perfect blend that I was surprised I hadn’t already played a dozen other games like it. Even since the release of Trine, there haven’t been many games like it, so I’m relieved that Trine 4: The Nightmare Prince appears to be double down on that basic formula as much as possible.
At a recent hands-off demo for the game, two developers from Frozenbyte, the studio behind Trine, told Kotaku that the studio has abandoned the 3D journey it embarked on with Trine 3 and is instead returning to the series’ 2.5D origins. “We felt that was the way for us to make the most compelling Trine game—by defining skills, puzzles, combat, everything by the 2.5D side scrolling,” said the studio’s marketing manager, Kai Tuovinen. “It’s what the fans have been asking for, what we wanted as well and the way for us to make the most complete Trine.” This return to form also happens to coincide with the series’ 10th anniversary.
Frozenbyte released Trine 3 on Steam in Early Access in April 2015. Four months later, the game was released in full, but many players felt the game was still incomplete. In addition to having somewhat poor controls, the story’s third act also felt like it had been cut short. Frozenbyte acknowledged these shortcomings and blamed them on the decision to push the series into a 3D space it couldn’t afford. “We tried to make something too ambitious, and it ended up financially impossible,” wrote Frozenbyte VP Joel Kinnunen in a Steam post at the time. “What we sold on Early Access was the ‘realistic’ vision and what we promised is what we have delivered, in our opinion.”
This time, Frozenbyte has set out with a much more reasonable goal. Trine 4 refines and adds to the original Trine formula rather than trying to massively overhaul it. Once again, a knight, wizard, and rogue are sent on a quest; this time, they must retrieve a prince whose nightmares have begun taking shape in the real world, threatening everyone in it. The trio of heroes must traverse a labyrinth of obstacles by weaving together their disparate abilities. Trine 4’s setup will be instantly familiar to anyone who has spent any time with the previous games, but it looks like it will have better visuals and more intricate puzzles. It’ll also have some new stuff, like a seperate four-player mode in which each person can swap through their own set of the three characters independently, but for the most part it’s more Trine.
The demo began with a tutorial section for the knight, Pontious. He rolled giant pumpkin across ravines with his feet and bashed them into barriers with his shield to clear the way forward. There were also sections where magical force fields appeared, preventing him from progressing until all the enemies on the screen were defeated. The combat doesn’t look super intense, but it does encourage a type of problem solving that is different from the platforming puzzles. Defeating enemies also rewards the heroes with additional experience points they can use to unlock new abilities.
A second section revolved around the home of a badger whose nightmares had been brought to life by the dark prince’s powers. A disheveled living room transitioned into an even more shambolic library, and from there, into a cavernous basement overgrown with poisonous plants. Frozenbyte’s sumptuous art direction was on full display in these areas, with the occasional beam of sunlight or warm glow of a lantern hanging gently on every little inviting detail. I’ve always wished there was a Wind in the Willows video game, and what I saw of Trine 4 inadvertently convinced me that Frozenbyte is the studio that needs to make it.
Some of the new tricks the developers showed off included the rogue Zoya’s ability to tether two objects together using a rope tied to one of her arrows. Doing this can link platforms together, or it can tie a metal ball to one of them, thereby creating a counter-weight system. It’s an elegant tool for playing around with various objects’ momentum, but it also plays to the game’s 2.5D strength, keeping the possibilities for problem-solving limited to a more manageable system.
A lot of playing Trine comes down to shuffling through characters, abilities, and targets until some combination of them reveals a path forward. Being back in the X and Y plane helps make these periods of trial and error easier to manage. That limit in scope has also appeared to have helped Frozenbyte focus on building out the game in a systematic manner, rather trying to keep problem-solving the adaptation of the game into a third dimension. “After Trine 3, we really needed a break,” Kinnunen said. “The realization of letting people down was pretty hard on us.”
Frozenbyte spent the next year after its release working on unrelated projects before returning to begin planning out the next Trine. The team first plotted out the story, then moved to designing the levels that the game would consist of, before eventually bringing in the artists to breath life into them. Tuovinen and Kinnunen told Kotaku that Trine 4 will be the studio’s longest game ever, with several cutscenes that tell a new story, this time with an actual ending.
In The World Next Door, a group of plucky high school students harness the power of magic to help a visitor from another world get home. The use of magic plays out through action-packed match puzzles, and also, the students are monsters. The game as a whole is a heck of a lot of fun.
Developed by Rose City Games and available now for PC and Nintendo Switch, The World Next Door is the story of Jun, a rebellious young teen who has spent her young life dreaming about visiting Emrys, a magic-fueled world that exists in a dimension parallel to Earth. The good news is Jun is chosen as one of a handful of humans to cross over into Emrys during a rare convergence. The bad news is the convergence only lasts a day, and Jun doesn’t make it back to the portal home in time. Trapped in a dimension dangerous to humans, Jun and her growing group of magic friends must find a means to re-open the portal that will return the teen to regular, boring Earth.
That last part is the only problem with the premise of The World Next Door. Emrys, at least the parts Jun and her friends visit, is an amazing place, and I can’t imagine ever wanting to leave. It’s a gorgeous, colorful world, populated by lovely anime-inspired characters created by artist Lord Gris. There’s Liza, Jun’s purple-haired demonic penpal. Rainy is a timid merboy. Horace is a brash and obnoxious skull with teeth and horns. Cerisse is an alicorn, which is a hybrid of pegasus and unicorn. It’s like a grown-up Monster High.
It’s part magical adventure, part teen drama, with compelling characters who grow and change as the story progresses. Rainy the merboy starts to assert himself a little more and eventually stands up to the teasing of Horace, who turns out to be more sensitive than he looks. New characters join the group, adding layers to the narrative and complexity to existing relationships. It’s a good group of kids.
Jun and her spoopy friends learn that the key to opening the portal back to Earth involves traveling to Emrys’ off-limits magical temples. Defeating each temple’s guards and guardian involves matching runes and casting spells, two of my favorite things.
Jun freely roams grid-based battlegrounds, looking for matching runes. If three or more of the same type of rune are connected, she can activate a spell that damages her foes. Fire runes cast fireballs. Lighting runes transform the spaces they’re on into electrical traps that shock pursuing enemies. The purple runes on the board generate a slow-moving projectile, so they work best in concert with the lighting runes, slowing down enemies for a big hit. Should the bad guys get the better of Jun, green runes are what she can use to heal her hit points.
Jun is not strictly at the mercy of chance. She possesses the power to pick up runes and swap them into new spots. Using this power, she can create massive fireballs, string together spells, or pull off some clutch healing when in a jam. Jun can also call on her friends by creating special shapes with white gems. Each friend sports their own unique special ability, but not everyone can come with Jun into a temple, so players must choose Jun’s friends wisely.
(Jun’s busted cellphone not only works in the magical world, it also acts as an in-game menu.)
I wasn’t sure The World Next Door’s disparate elements would work well together. Turns out it’s a perfect combination. It’s a visual novel with puzzle battles. It’s a frantic puzzle game with a strong narrative. It’s the best of two things I enjoy a lot, with wonderful art and music. It’s an excellent challenge for arcade puzzle fans, and there’s even an option to turn off damage for players who just want to enjoy the story stress-free.
The World Next Door is the first game published by manga and anime distributor Viz Media. I’d say they’re off to a good start. More like this, please.
Last week, Nintendo added the cult-classic 1990 NES game StarTropics to the Switch Online library. There’s just one problem: it doesn’t contain the secret clue necessary to actually beat the game.
StarTropics follows a young boy named Mike Jones as he searches a mysterious island for his researcher uncle who’s gone missing. In the process he encounters all manner of weird creatures, including a race of strange aliens responsible for his uncle’s abduction. And he does almost all of it with a yo-yo to boot.
The game came out at the end of the NES’s life-cycle, just a couple weeks after the SNES had already come out in Japan. As a result, it was one of the more complex and sprawling games available on the console, mixing platforming, over-world exploration, and real-time combat into the story of a role-playing game.
It also had an extreme puzzle that, depending on how many times you smacked your head against a wall trying to figure it out, was either one of the most clever or most evil things ever put into a game. At one point Mike has to use his uncle’s submarine, but it won’t work without a secret code.
That’s when Baboo, his uncle’s assistant, becomes possessed and says, “Evil aliens from a distant planet …tell my nephew to use Code 1776. Tell Mike to dip my letter in water.” Entering 1776 into the control panel causes the submarine to go under water, but a second code is needed to do anything further. That second code is nowhere to be found in the game. You could search everywhere, press every button on your controller while standing on every tile in the game, and never find it.
That’s because the code is actually hidden inside a paper map that came packaged with the game. On the back of it is a letter from Mike’s uncle asking him to visit the island. Dip the map in water and the code 747 appears on it in invisible ink. You can watch Kotaku’s Chris Kohler do this with a sealed version of the game on Unboxed:
It’s very clever, but it can also be a royal pain the ass. Especially if you bought StarTropics used, or borrowed it from a friend, like my brother and I did back in the day, and didn’t have access to the letter.
Now Switch players are in the same boat, since the digital version of StarTropics players can currently download doesn’t include that part of the instruction materials. Previously, when Nintendo put the game on the Wii U Virtual Console, it included a page in the digital manual that showed an animation of the letter being dipped in water and the code appearing. The Switch version doesn’t have that.
It’s possible that Nintendo might patch something like the Wii U’s workaround in at some point, or that the company just assumes players will search the internet for the answer when they hit upon the puzzle. If that’s the case I hope they’re right and no one else is driven mad by their inability to solve the riddle on their own.