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Braid (PC) artwork

Braid (PC) review

"Heaven forbid I have to move to the left while writing this review. Over the past few days, I've become so wrapped up in Braid's warped fourth dimension that I can't get these crazy time laws out of my head. If I move to the left, I'll lose everything, erasing my progress as the timeline reverses. That said, if deadline looms too close, maybe I can wear my special ring and slow down the clock. I could always rewind if something went awry..."

Heaven forbid I have to move to the left while writing this review. Over the past few days, I've become so wrapped up in Braid's warped fourth dimension that I can't get these crazy time laws out of my head. If I move to the left, I'll lose everything, erasing my progress as the timeline reverses. That said, if deadline looms too close, maybe I can wear my special ring and slow down the clock. I could always rewind if something went awry...

Impressively, I've managed to avoid Braid until now. Heralded on the 360 last year, it stayed surprisingly far from my radar at the time. I knew it was a platform-puzzler with inventive time-control mechanics and an elaborate story. I'd seen the glowing reviews and stratospheric marks. Going into Braid's PC release heavy on hype but light on details proves interesting, mainly because it's the sort of game Iíd never have imagined to be so exclusively acclaimed. It's superb - let's get that down straight away - but it hops around quirky themes, relentless symbolism and abstract gameplay methods like nobody's business. It screams "cult classic." That it's already become much more is a delightful thing indeed.

But, Christ, enough of that. For now, at least.

For those of you also meeting Braid for the first time, it's a side-scrolling, two-dimensional platformer. Only it isn't really. Breaking up the stages is a series of environmental puzzles, usually solvable by manipulating the timeline according to the rules that govern each area. In the first world, you can rewind and undo your mistakes. In the second, time flows forwards to the right and backwards to the left. In the next section, rewinding also creates your ghostly double, meaning you can perform two tasks at once, and in the one after that you gain a ring that slows everything down. In the final world, things defy expectation completely, but I'll say no more of that. It's the set-up to a sucker-punch twist I defy anyone to see coming.

Everything Braid does has a purpose. It looks a bit like Mario - there's a reason for that. The princess is always in another castle Ė that too. Lead character Tim wears a suit, looking completely at odds with the fantastic world around him. There's a reason. The writing drops into insufferable, teenage Livejournaling at points, but even that conveys a specific message. It's all part of the impressively intelligent plot strands that begin to form around the half way mark, twisting Braid into an uncomfortably dark beast indeed.

On the surface, it's the story of Tim's search for his long-lost "princess", who left him after he made a series of mistakes. Braid inverts the heroic image of most platformers, placing Tim in a subordinate position; one where hope and optimism are often misplaced. The whole game is drenched in melancholy, but it's not emotionally vapid or self-indulgent. It's very, very clever. And it knows it. Jumping between different narrative fragments, spouting as many allegories as it does, it's inevitably going to put players off on the PC as much as it did on the 360. But, fortunately, the thematics are never thrust in your face; only gently alluded to, before things hauntingly clunk into place in the final chapter. For some, it'll be a chillingly human tale of obsession and regret. For others, it could quite feasibly be nothing more than a brain-scratchingly addictive puzzle game.

While other games have effectively employed time-control features, and the most obvious reference point initially seems to be the Sands of Time trilogy, no game that springs to mind has truly revolved around such mechanics. It becomes quickly apparent that this is a game about hindsight, and 'going back to do things differently' is the very reason you're playing. While stages can be superficially cleared by running and jumping, unlocking the ending requires you to collect jigsaw pieces, protected by complex environmental puzzles. There's no physics system at play here, and very few collectable items. These conundrums are only solvable by utilising the rules of time governing that particular zone of the game.

Like all the best videogames, Braid constantly evolves, and nothing outstays its welcome. For one, it's certainly on the short side, lasting just a few hours. But, importantly, each stage is vastly different. From the visual style, to the types of challenges, right down to the core gameplay mechanics, everything changes on a regular basis. The difficulty never really ramps; it's a consistent challenge. As soon as you master one technique, you have to cast it aside and learn another. You're never complacent, you're always engaged, and always being put to the test. You're always thinking in terms of the new rules, whether you're playing the game or sitting in front of the television on a break. It's delicious, absorbing game design.

Admittedly, it's not all delicious. One collection of levels around half way through demands you do everything right on the first go, or you have to restart. Certain objects in Braid, those coloured in green, exist outside the laws of time in that area. They keep moving no matter what you do. And there's more than one occasion in the third world where certain things almost instantly move into a new position, and rewinding for just a second sets you back enough to completely break the puzzle.

I don't think it's a mistake, but it is an error of judgement. The first of these levels is called "Irreversible" - it's very intentional, and probably asks questions about whether we really ever can rectify our past mistakes. That's admirable, but it makes for an irksome design decision, and an unusual section of the game that quickly irritates.

If I ever take real issue with Braid, it'll probably be because the platforming feels a little incongruous to everything else. It uses its Mario-esque leanings to convey a particular message, but it feels somewhat tacked-on. And the actual running-and-jumping bit of the game isn't quite as precise as it should be, leading to minor frustration from time to time. Certainly minor, though: it's peripheral stuff that's only so apparent because of how thoroughly I enjoyed this thing. The irreverent nit-picking is testament to Braid's admirable quality.

There's something for everyone, but I'll concede that it won't necessarily be expectation-defyingly brilliant for anybody who plays. The way the ambiguous narrative fragments and confuses could be off-putting for those who prefer something a little more concrete. But you shouldn't be put off. You can literally run straight past the story if you so choose.

Do be wary of the score, though. Braid is a game with something to say, but not everyone will engage with its statements. They're regularly clouded by thick metaphor, thrown around in seemingly arbitrary motions, and some will dismiss it all as artsy pretension. It is, probably. But it's also key to Braid's breathtaking appeal. Though there's something for everyone, it's clearly targeted at a specific subculture of the gaming community. It's clever and addictive puzzling either way, but if you fit into that category, it's damn near as beautiful as gaming gets. Triumphant.


Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (April 26, 2009)

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