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Distortions (PC) artwork

Distortions (PC) review

"The review about that one game I really wished I could have liked more."

There’s this moment, quite early on in Distortions, that suddenly turned my expectations of the game on their head. Until then, it had been the tale of an amnesiac girl slowly exploring a weird world that was full of whimsical landscapes and hints at painful memories, but nothing that hadn’t been seen before. It felt like it borrowed C.S. Lewis-styled fluff, but leant heavily on a wonderfully captivating introduction that rapidly cycled through various game locations in an effort to purposefully disorientate, linked together by hissing static. After that, for a while, it’s all wandering around, finding journal pages and listening to the on-again-off-again narrator drop infrequent slivers of information.

But then you see something sparkle in a nearby rock formation, and you move on to investigate. It turns out to be one giant, hollow stone; you enter it at ground level, climb its rocky innards to investigate the light source and then leave via a convenient ledge. It takes less than a minute but, during this time – and with zero fanfare – the outside world has changed. Sixty seconds ago, it was as normal as a small woodland patch situated on a chunk of floating earth could have been; now, the ground is covered in a wispy fog. Visibility is low, and stumbling off the edge means a fall into infinity.

Everything feels wrong. Just on the edges of your vision, you can make out blurry humanoid silhouettes, but they melt into nothing if you try and draw near. For a while, you’re hopelessly isolated, left to stumble around in the mist without direction. And then you hear a faint off-key wail. It grows louder as you move towards a small grove, so you follow the sound because that seems to be the only option you have. It leads you to your violin; a significant discovery awarded just the right amount of fanfare.

This is just a small section of Distortions, probably only lasting a scant handful of minutes at best, but it demonstrates one of the strongest moments of the game. Like when you find yourself running through a rapidly darkening forest, following fluttering ribbons tied to trees to reach scattered shelters. Dawdle or lose your way, and the things that live in the descending gloom stake their claim on you. Ghostly figures or wisps of light sometimes act like guides but, for the most part, you’re on your own. Moments such as these are captivating and powerful, and they sometimes do enough to help you forget what an often clumsy and laborious game Distortions can often be.

Your unnamed protagonist doesn’t have any clue where she is. There’s a massive chained monster hidden behind a painted mask that’s forever looming in the background, and the closest thing she has to a goal is that, if she wants to get out of this world with her memories returned, she needs to wake it up. So she’s left to explore the floating world she’s stranded on, collecting handwritten pages, because it’s always handwritten pages. You learn early on that there’s power in your music, and that by playing the right sequences of notes on you violin, you can make subtle changes in the world. Only, they’re not always for the better.

For the most part, though, your musical hacks help you explore the island while you hunt for a way to wake the giant monster. You’ll find songs that let you summon temporary bridges, or little spheres of light. The first skill you find is a silence power that mutes the world. You’re going to need that to get through the numerous underground caves, because it stops the shadows from tracking you down and killing you.

The first cave comes along shortly after you find the violin. It’s initially a welcome change of pace; what was once a whimsical, colourful land is suddenly subjected to subterranean passages starved of light. Here, the shadows live; mostly blind monsters who hunt through sound. In the best case scenario, this just means you play your silence song a lot and slip right through. But this isn’t always the case; it doesn’t seem to be a wholly reliable work around. To exit the first cave, you need to play the song and slip past a shadow guarding a solitary platform leading to a sunlight-illuminated exit. I tried this a couple of times, timing everything so I bypassed his dodgy eyesight, slipping past him when his back was turned. It didn’t seem to matter; he caught me and sent me to a game over screen instead. After a few deaths, I decided to spam the song and just sprint past him. I ran straight through him, inches form his face, to no reaction. Happy to finally be free of the stage, I strolled out the exit. The game glitched, electing to drop me into a floor that didn’t exist past the exit rather than load up the outside environment I was supposed to move into.

Which was…. annoying. Distortions has both an excellent and awful checkpoint system, which doesn’t punish you for missing a jump and plummeting into the void (perhaps to make up for its slightly floaty and imprecise controls) respawning you right where you fell. But it will punish you with a trip back to a sparse save point in most other circumstances. Death via shadow often relegates you to running the same cave areas over and over, removing the sheen from some excellent locations cheapened by the need to continuously retread them.

It’s a shame because it makes Distortions one of those games; the ones you wished you enjoyed more than you actually did. First time developers, Among Giants, built an impressive world bolstered by a great soundtrack so as to try their best to elicit some emotion. They want you to want to protect the girl, fear the shadows and invest in her plight enough to want to restore her memory and escape the world she’s trapped in. But once the source of that plight is revealed, it’s underwhelming. There’s no real payoff to the long stretches of game you limp through in order to experience the moments that genuinely manage to create something inspiring. All too soon, the fog fizzles out and the ribbon-strewed forest is left behind and you’re back slowly trudging towards what you hope will be the next stand out moment.

Sadly, that’s not often where you’ll arrive.


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (April 07, 2018)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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Masters posted April 07, 2018:

Nice job on this. I think we've all felt this way about some game at some point: It’s a shame because it makes Distortions one of those games; the ones you wished you enjoyed more than you actually did." And with that, your backlog is clear! Just like mine...! >_>
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EmP posted April 11, 2018:

Yeah, it's always a shame. There's some good ideas in the game and some stand out moments, but there's also long stretches where nothing interesting happens or what does happen feels like a core. It really could have done with a better reveal, too.

Still, it's a first time game, so it shows a studio with some creative muscle to flex. I'll be keeping an eye on them.

Thanks for reading!

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