It’s always easy to point to the PlayStation Network when one wishes to play some of the most original, artistically creative, and absorbing little video games on the planet. Many of them are exclusives but Jonathan Blow’s innovative and absolutely mesmerizing game was initially unavailable on the PSN, as it first debuted on the Xbox Live Marketplace way back in early August last year. But now, Hothead Games has finally delivered this gem to PlayStation 3 owners and once again, I’m forced to recommend one of the best downloadable productions of the generation. We’ve been doing this a lot lately but hey, developers continue to impress us with their ingenuity and the amount of polish they’re able to apply to these digital games. Besides, many are easy on the wallet – Braid is only $14.99 – and by now, you can really stock up on several memorable experiences for the price of one new, standard-priced retail release.
The very first thing you’ll notice about this game is its stunning artistic flair. It always appears as if you’re playing in a beautifully drawn painting of sorts; simply walking along with little Tim reminded me of the colorful storybooks from my childhood, and I was continually impressed by the gorgeous backdrops. One could argue that there isn’t a great deal of variety in the detail (i.e., there aren’t a whole lot of different enemies and I suppose some might call this artistic palette “washed out,” although that’s clearly the intent), but it would be a minor gripe. And when you place the ingenious level design atop these very pleasing visuals, you’re looking at yet another wonderfully appealing graphics presentation. It’s just not something you typically see, so fans of hand-drawn artistry in video games should be more than satisfied with this effort. Perhaps the perfect adjective here would be “endearing.”
Due to a fantastic soundtrack that fits the style and mood of the game, the sound also excels. We don’t have any voice acting to evaluate and the sound effects are mostly limited – we have a few crisp yet somewhat generic platforming effects to consider – but the music actually plays a larger role than usual. Why? Well, because it factors into the very gameplay; as we rewind time, the music plays backwards as well, and although this may seem like a trivial factor, it really isn’t. You’ll just have to play it to fully understand what I’m talking about. There’s also a mystical quality to the soundtrack and even a few of the sound effects that contribute to the general fairytale sensation that permeates the entire experience. In one way, I’m thinking a narrator would’ve been perfect for this well-conceived and even sensitive storyline; Trine had a great narrator that enhanced my enjoyment of the adventure, for instance. But it’s really a subjective design decision.
At first glance, there just doesn’t seem like there’s much to do in Braid. You simply start immediately without moving through a tutorial, learning about a prior history for the plot, or becoming accustomed to the various controls. Heck, if you bring up the Controls menu, you’ll see that little Tim – our industrious hero for this surprisingly emotional quest – you’ll notice that he can really only jump with the X button and grab items (like useful keys) with the Circle button. Ah, but all this only comprises the smallest percentage of the gameplay as the Square button – and corresponding L1 and R1 trigger buttons – will be the recipient of the vast majority of button presses. See, you can rewind time by holding down the Square button, and there’s really no limit to how far back you can go. Well, there is, but you could rewind to the start of the stage if you wanted to; the point is that the entire game is based around this mechanic. You not only avoid death in this way; you get your invaluable puzzle pieces in this fashion.
It’s a little difficult to explain, but you need to let your brain embrace the following concept: the past for Tim remains real, even if the environment you altered has changed. For instance, if you move a bridge after walking over it, Tim will walk back over it as if the bridge was there when rewinding time (‘cuz it was in the recent past). You also need to realize that Tim can carry items – like those keys I mentioned earlier – back in time with him, so if you fall all the way into this pit and grab a key, you just need to rewind and Tim will fly back upwards, key in tow. The point of the adventure is to gather all the puzzle pieces that will eventually make up a special painting that is part of the story. You may have to do some seriously strange things with time manipulation, all the time trying to understand exactly how everything works in every possible way. It can be insanely complex (especially later on), but that’s half t he fun. It can, however, get a bit frustrating.
Sometimes, you need to launch yourself off enemies and to make things even more difficult, you have to position those enemies in the correct spots via time manipulation. But when you consider that time effects Tim as well – whatever you just did, he will repeat backwards, of course – things get all the more intricate. There are some puzzle pieces that might just seem out of the realm of possibility but the more you play, the more you’ll come to grips with this unique concept. We’ve seen time alteration in games before, but never implemented to this incredibly detailed level of puzzle solving. I suppose I could complain that some of the enemies move too quickly and that some of the solutions are just plain obscure, but I have the feeling I just wasn’t smart enough to grasp everything correctly. And I’m willing to accept that. I do think there isn’t much of a reason to play through again and the game doesn’t last very long (especially if you get good), so a few of you may balk at that $15 price tag.
But for the most part, Braid is a great game that will force you to flex your mental muscle; in a way, it’s similar to something like echochrome, simply because you have to “bend” your mind into a certain shape before you can fully comprehend the skewed setting and premise. Our minds simply weren’t designed to work this way, which can almost be counted as a strike against this particular title…but I don’t wanna do that. It sounds far too much like whining and the bottom line is that we probably need more games like Braid. Even the story, which isn’t just about finding the princess, but rectifying a past wrong, is timeless and intriguing. The game is called “Braid” because when the princess turned away from Tim in scorn after Tim said some hurtful things, her braid hit him in the face. See? Artistic throughout. Many will appreciate it but don’t be surprised if you find yourself staring at the screen in utter consternation for long stretches of time…
11/16/2009 Ben Dutka