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Braid (Xbox 360) artwork

Braid (Xbox 360) review

"“Still wondering if games can be art? Here's your answer.” – Dan Whitehead, Eurogamer. "

“Still wondering if games can be art? Here's your answer.” – Dan Whitehead, Eurogamer.

”Braid is made truly divine with emotional depth and a bittersweet humanity” -- Nick Suttner, 1UP.

”Braid's deep and mesmerizing tale is evergreen: it is outside of and beyond time.” -- Tom McShea, Gamespot.

There has been a lot of nonsense written about Braid. Give reviewers an artistic narrative to salivate over and they’ll lose all grip on reality. Anything that allows them to resurrect the “games can be art” argument will result in reams of absurd hyperbole as honest, grounded criticism is abandoned in favour of ridiculous superlatives.

This is the myth: that Braid is a deep and profound post-modern masterpiece.

In truth, Braid is a simple plaformer driven by puzzles that require you to manipulate time. It’s a clever and engaging adventure, yet most of the praise comes from the story that’s attached to this gameplay. I say “attached” because the abstract tale is almost wholly disconnected from the experience of actually playing the game. One minute it’s is about saving a princess (who is always in another castle), the next it’s about the atomic bomb. Little of this has any concrete relevance to what is happening in each stage, beyond a few tenuous links.

Although the ending squeezes in some dramatic revelations that hint at something or other, the bulk of the narrative feels like a loose collection of disconnected ideas. My problem with these disparate narrative strands is that they never join together to form a tale with any clear and explicit development or meaning. Braid is entirely what you make of it. This may be heaven for those with the patience to read through millions of possible interpretations, but for those of us who prefer a little more certainty the oblique plot serves only as a tiresome and irrelevant distraction from the actual gameplay.

In a way it’s fortunate that you don’t have to pay too much attention to the story, even though the narrative interludes are fairly overbearing for a platformer. Imagine Sonic the Hedgehog opening each level with a lengthy rumination on the nature of speed. Taken as a whole this is all a bit much, but some of the narrative aspects do enrich the basic gameplay. The sneaky reference to Super Mario made me smile, while the shock ending is a neat, albeit fairly meaningless, twist on platformer conventions. Equally, the melancholy atmosphere evoked by the solemn plot lends a wistful, ethereal…

Oh, sorry. I’m turning into a BRAID REVIEWER! Forget all the hyperbole. Let me describe Braid in a way that platformer enthusiasts will comprehend: it’s like Wardner meets Prince of Persia, with time travel shenanigans.

The basic time controlling mechanism is introduced in the first world. Press X at any point and time will begin to rewind. This means that death is never really an option, but Braid isn't all that concerned with survival. Solving the sixty puzzles and claiming the puzzle pieces that they conceal is all that matters. These puzzles have been carefully designed to encourage old-fashioned brainpower as well as accurate manipulation of time and traditional platforming skills.

There’s a puzzle early on that tests all three of these skills. When you first enter the room you’ll notice that the puzzle piece is off to the right in a little chamber sealed by a locked door. The key is up at the top of the room and can only be reached by navigating a short obstacle course while an endless supply of goomba-like creatures are fired at you from a cannon. Here’s the twist: in front of the locked door is a falling steel girder that drops into place just as you’re mid-way through the obstacle course. There’s no time to reach this key and return to the locked door. Or is there? The key is actually time-independent. So once you’ve collected it you can rewind time until you’re standing at the bottom of the room with the key in your hand. Simply hop off to the right, unlock the door and collect the puzzle piece. Huzzah!!

This is one of the simpler puzzles in Braid, but it’s a good example of the situations you’ll encounter. Sometimes the solution isn’t as obvious. What do you do when your path is blocked by a platform that can only be moved by pulling a lever? You pull the lever, of course. But how do you reach the puzzle piece that the platform is now blocking?

Just when you think you’ve come to terms with the basic concept of time travel, Braid throws a curveball at you. Each of the six worlds introduces a new slant on the central premise to keep the adventure feeling fresh and interesting. In World 3 moving to the left causes time to reverse itself, whereas moving to the right allows it to progress in the normal manner. So if you kill a goomba by jumping on it from the right, but then run back past it to the left, it will be resurrected. This is an innovative take on the “left to right” action present in almost every platformer since time began (i.e. 1983). You almost have to forget everything that the previous world has taught you and learn the game all over again.

Braid is not the revolution that some would have you believe it is. The supposedly "deep" narrative is disconnected from the core platforming action to the extent that it becomes irrelevant to your enjoyment of the gameplay. Despite this discord between plot and action, Braid is a charming experience when judged on its gameplay alone. It takes an inventive and unique approach to the platformer that makes it feel more relevant that many other XBLA releases (I’m looking at you MegaMan 9). It may not last all that long, but when has that ever been an issue? Hardly any of the “Golden Age” platformers lasted longer than the hour or so it takes to beat Braid, and the inclusion of a proper speedrun mode genuinely extends the gameplay. You may find it easy to solve the puzzles, but can you solve them all at the first attempt? I don’t think I’ve ever looked at a leaderboard before, but attempting a record time in Braid is a fun and very achievable challenge that keeps me returning to shave seconds off my time (currently: 43:14!).

I’ll leave you with the thoughts of Eurogamer’s Dan Whitehead: “Whatever you invest in Braid, it repays many times over.” It’s easy to dislike Braid, but give it a chance and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Rating: 8/10

JANUS2's avatar
Featured community review by JANUS2 (January 07, 2009)

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hmd posted January 07, 2009:

Jonathan Blow is the guy who made the game, not a reviewer.

Just a heads up!
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zippdementia posted January 07, 2009:

I haven't played braid, and being a devout disliker of Xbox, I probably never will.

Powerful intro to your review, though. Got me interested right from the start.
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Lewis posted January 08, 2009:

Yeah, slightly awkward for me, this one. Firstly because Eurogamer is one of my favourite games sites and I know a lot of the guys who write there (though not this one, it has to be said), and secondly - as has been pointed out - the criticism kind of loses its weight when you get the reviewer confused with the developer.

That said, Dan's review was heavily criticised net-wide for most of the reasons you cite and, while I haven't yet played Braid, the piece does sound a little convoluted. I'm just not sure belittleing other people's opinions is the right thing to do in a review, and anyone who says "shut up about videogame narrative" or similar (which I'm not saying you did, as such) tends to get a big virtual slap from me.

Still, you make Braid sound thoroughly interesting and enjoyable, despite your argument that it isn't the second coming. I'd guess that you're probably right in that respect. Didn't Edge give it an 8? They tend to be more measured at the high end of their scale.
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EmP posted January 08, 2009:

As someone who tends to slip into overly-pretentious and overlong prose from time to time, I greatly enjoyed the mocking. I even went and got you some screenshots.
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Lewis posted January 08, 2009:

I hate the regularity of claims that anything a person didn't quite understand is therefore 'pretentious'. Again, this doesn't necessarily mean you. This review just led me to think of a few bugbears I have about the critiquing of games journalism.

Reviews in review. How meta.
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EmP posted January 08, 2009:

Keep it up, and I'll start questioning your methods and thus start a new trend of reviewing the reviews of reviews, then we'll have only one place left to go. Apocolypse.

Pretentious writing exists in review sites that aren't afraid to be creative -- it's unavoidable. I can happily point out half a dozen or so of my own works that don't so much hover around this line but have taken a running start and vaulted over it, but that's fine. I think as long as you have a sense of humour about it, so that when the jabs come you can take them with a smile, there's no problem. It's when you start getting defensive and climb onboard your high-horse that you, ultimatly, prove your critiquer correct.

ITT: Two people exchange bugbears while Janus' review is ignored.
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Lewis posted January 08, 2009:

I tend to think as long as you can justify it, you're not making any pretences at all.

Which means I should probably go back to my Thief review, cover it in Kerosine and light a match...

I am overly critical, by the way, Janus. This is a good review. I'd have just scratched off the specific allusions to other people's work.
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zippdementia posted January 08, 2009:

As long as this thread doesn't get all its opinions deleted, I think we're on the good side of criticism.,
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JANUS2 posted January 08, 2009:

I hate the regularity of claims that anything a person didn't quite understand is therefore 'pretentious'.

I'm not quite sure if you mean narrative in games or reviewing, but I'll address both.

I'm not suggesting that narrative depth isn't possible in video games. I like Deus Ex as much as the next guy (lame, unoriginal example, I know). I'm saying that the Braid's "depth" is a complete illusion. It delivers a bunch of plot ideas that are so disparate and unconnected that no coherent conclusion is possible without delving into the obscure references and convoluted interpretations that exist on the net. At least it's possible to come to some understanding of Deus Ex or Half-Life or whatever when the credits roll. With Braid you have absolutely no idea of what's just happened when the game ends. This sort of deliberately obtuse story-telling is unacceptable in other forms of media (look at the critical reaction to Southland Tales), so why is it encouraged in video games?

Secondly, I wanted to include quotes from other reviewers to illustrate just how silly the reaction to Braid has been. Maybe that's unprofessional, but then this isn't my profession so I don't have to worry. Pretentious writing is pretentious precisely because it isn't justified. I'm OK, to an extent, with "poetic" writing (or whatever label you want to put on it) when it's supported by reason and logic. I've tried it myself in the past with varying degrees of success. However, I've yet to read a professional review that justifies its hyperbolic praise of Braid's narrative. These reviews articulate a range of vague emotion responses that are simply ridiculous (Braid is "evergreen"? really?). I think that they all jumped on the idea of "emotional depth" without really stopping to think whether the story actually works or means anything. This is a dangerous and empty approach to video game reviewing, especially if it's an ongoing trend.

Having said all that, I actually did enjoy Braid for what it is: an engaging, unconventional platformer with a largely irrelevant story. I hope the review reflects that.
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Lewis posted April 11, 2009:

Months later, having actually played the game now, I feel I can form a better response to this review.

Spoilers abound. No, really.

I thought it became reasonably obvious what Braid was about. The story has two main strands, which seem arbitrary to begin with, but they do slot into place. It presents a young man searching for a lost love, and later the story of those who invented the atomic bomb. These are the two ends of the spectrum of what Braid is trying to say: that sometimes we get so caught up in our own personal goals that we lose sight of the bigger picture, which can be disastrous. On the surface, Tim realises that, ultimately, no matter what he'd done, his princess would have fallen in love with someone else. His search for her (and is it even a search? Or is it just his memories playing back, or his mind playing tricks) was always going to be in vain, because you ultimately can't change the outcome. That in itself is a pretty courageous statement to make in a game where the mechanics are all about going back and doing things differently. It's actually a bit BioShock, but Braid has the guts to see it through.

In the last level, we go back and view the events with hindsight, and realise the only reason the princess is "always in another castle" is because she doesn't want you to find her. And when it's at least heavily implied that Tim may have been part of the Manhattan Project that built the a-bomb, that's kind of understandable. But again, Tim lost sight of this. And now he's going to have to live with the fact that his actions, across a broad spectrum of scenarios, led to bad things, for both himself and the wider world. Because no amount of looking back and regretting is going to change what happened.

(Of course, it's also quite likely that the "princess" story didn't happen at all. It's all about Tim's obssessive mind. If we assume the princess to be representative of the bomb, and his search for her to represent his guilt, we can infer that he'd love to go find the bomb and take it back, but ultimately the world has already embraced it, so he never can.)

It's funny, because you state that the story was largely irrelevant to your enjoyment, but it seems so intrinsically linked. Because your final judgement is that it's a good puzzle game with an extraneous and confusing narrative, and nothing more. But it is something more. You could argue that it's not successful because of a multitude of issues with the presentation of the themes, but you can't say it's irrelevant. It's key. If you vibe with the story, you're going to love it; if you don't, you probably won't as much. You didn't, and that's fine, but it seems to do Braid a great disservice to gloss over what was undoubtedly Blow's foremost focus and statement with his game.

What I say now is in no way meant to be a mean comment or a remark about your quality as a reviewer, but it's something I now feel quite passionate about. So apologies in advance if this gets a little ranty (and if I didn't respect your opinion on this sort of stuff, I'd not bother getting worked up about it at all, so take it as a compliment if anything).

As such, this strikes me as an unfathomably ignorant review. Surely the best game criticism attempts to see what makes a game tick, and then analyse it on that basis. This review identifies what makes the game tick, then completely dismisses that facet of the experience. It's exactly the same as reviewing an action game and saying "I hate first-person shooters. It's ridiculous that people are getting so giddy about the gunplay, 'cause all it is is shooting baddies." Okay, maybe that's an extreme example, but it fits under the same banner.

I suppose what I mean is this:

Most games establish their gameplay mechanics then work a story around them. It's usually the story that's fairly arbitrary. If Half-Life 2 had a completely different setting and characters, it'd be perfectly feasible to have the game play out in exactly the same way, because the core mechanics are the point.

In Braid, the story is the point, and I'd argue that the game is largely extraneous. In terms of it being a 2D puzzle-platformer at least - the time-manipulation is kind of essential, but it could be a third-person 3D adventure game and still do ultimately the same thing.

So it's a back-to-front view on the game. I'd say the same was true of my Gears of War 2 review. I criticised that for just being a game about shooting baddies, but ultimately, that's the point of it, and the story is secondary. Here, the point is the story, and everything else is secondary.

So I wouldn't be worked up if you'd analysed the story and come to the conclusion that it was unsuccessful because of A, B and C. I'm worked up because you claim the story is irrelevant. Which just doesn't make any sense to me.

(I also didn't find any of it pretentious at all. What did you find pretentious about it? The fragmented presentation? A whole load of acclaimed narratives use that method, so to pick one out that was criticised seems a bit of a cheap shot. For me, the story was earnest, touching and very human. Nothing arrogant or pompous about it.)

Argh, it did get ranty. Sorry. I love you really. Kisses.
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Lewis posted April 11, 2009:

Braid's "depth" is a complete illusion. It delivers a bunch of plot ideas that are so disparate and unconnected that no coherent conclusion is possible without delving into the obscure references and convoluted interpretations that exist on the net.

This, however, is a pertinent discussion to have, and it's something I've considered myself a few times. The pull-back-and-reveal. Would Braid have carried the same weight if we had known from the start that it's about the guy who invented the atomic bomb? Probably not. But I'm not sure that's quite what you were getting at in your review. If you'd have picked it apart like this, I'd have enjoyed the read a lot more.
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JANUS2 posted April 11, 2009:

It's funny, because you state that the story was largely irrelevant to your enjoyment, but it seems so intrinsically linked.

As you say, "the game is largely extraneous." I think it's absolutely possible to enjoy the gameplay without enjoying the story. The only way they are intrinsically linked is in the overall ambiance, that one sequence at the end, and possibly the dinosaurs, although they only add to the confusion.

Half-Life 2 is a good example. Although the core mechanics are the point, the narrative is such an integral part of the experience that you really can't separate them (which is why it's acceptable for dagoss to suggest it's an RPG). Otherwise it isn't Half-Life. This is fantastic video game story-telling. In contrast, games like Doom, Wolfenstein, etc. are inter-changeable because the story isn't integrated in the same way. This is why you can say "I hate the story but love the game" without sounding stupid.

In Braid the plot is almost completely irrelevant to what you actually do in the game. The story is "attached." I don't like this story and I don't like the way it's attached to gameplay, but I did enjoy the gameplay. I think this is a valid approach to take, because the division between story and gameplay is so obvious. For me the gameplay is always the focus, otherwise I would read a book. I can enjoy a game with a bad story, but I can't enjoy a good story with a bad game. When a game separates the two in such a distinct way then I find the narrative irrelevant, because games are games first and foremost.

It's exactly the same as reviewing an action game and saying "I hate first-person shooters. It's ridiculous that people are getting so giddy about the gunplay, 'cause all it is is shooting baddies."

I don't think this is the same at all. Braid is a platformer. It's advertised as a platformer. On the website it says "Braid is a platform game in a painterly style where you manipulate the flow of time to solve puzzles." If I was criticising The Path in the same way then I would accept your point because that "game" is obviously not a game and (if you go to the website) this is made clear by the developers. However, from what I can tell, The Path does not separate its narrative from the gameplay in the same way that Braid does. In that sense it is cohesive and attacking the story as irrelevant definitely would be ignorant.

Anyway, I suspect we will have to agree to disagree on this.
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Lewis posted April 11, 2009:

Not necessarily. I think I see where you're coming from. And I don't necessarily disagree. Outside of the time mechanics, which obviously play a part in the twist and the overall statement, there's very little connection between game and plot. I think we both just come at that from different angles. Yours is: "Good little platformer - shame they didn't know how to work the story in." Mine is: "Beautiful story - but it's kind of irrelevant that it's a platformer."

I'd concede that both suggest the game isn't doing everything entirely right.

Because, actually, I think I'd give it an 8, as well. Borderline 9, but if I was in a grump mood I'd almost certainly settle for the lower score. If you got rid of the story, it'd be a 6 or 7, though. And that's what I mean - you suggest the story is "irrelevant" to your opinion of the game, but it seems so key. It's our disagreement over the narrative that's shaping our positive and negative stances on the game, so while you could debate about the quality of the storytelling, it seems totally illogical to dismiss it as not being worthy of a mention. It's just so integral.

My main bugbear is a lack of guidence, to be honest. I mean, I'm glad you're not hand-held while solving puzzles, but I got to the end before realising I'd missed loads of game-essential stuff out. I understand why - you can skip bits and come back to them - but it should have been made clearer.

Also: The only way they are intrinsically linked is in the overall ambiance, that one sequence at the end, and possibly the dinosaurs, although they only add to the confusion.
I still think that's like saying "The big twist in Fight Club isn't linked with the narrative structure preceding it." As in, you don't notice the link at the time, but that's the point. That's why it's affecting.

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