Demo Driver 8: Alter World
I don’t like saying harsh things about an indie game. Every single time I do so, I realize that I’m saying unkind things about something that someone worked hard to build, a labor of love – especially when it’s a title put together by a single person, which is quite the task. I take no pleasure in it. I don’t feel like it’s a fun opportunity to get digs in, not when it’s something a small group of people created out of nothing.
No amount of feeling bad makes Alter World a fun title to actually play, though, so it kind of has to take its lumps. So you know what tone this piece is going to have. It may be a reluctant piece of work, but this is a game that’s going on retail release for money, and that means that it gets critiqued as something asking you to spend money. And the fact is that Alter World, labor of love or not, is doing something that lots of games have done before but isn’t actually fun to play.
My eye was caught, naturally, by the idea that this game was inspired by The Dark Tower. I’m not really sure how you can call a puzzle platformer inspired by that series, but I can see the connection. The idea of jumping between worlds suggests a pretty obvious and immediate gimmick, something that other games have tried, something similar to Sugar Cube: Bittersweet Factory insofar as you’re swapping between two maps.
Story-wise, it’s basically a non-starter. While it promises some vague exploration of concepts, it does so with empty words suspended over levels, and you have no basis of characters or archetypes to care about. A boy is playing fetch with his dog, then the dog runs through a portal to another world and the boy follows him. This isn’t a metaphor for anything, this is vagueness and pseudo-profundity overlaid over a game that lacks a clear narrative. I’ve seen this plot done before in Blaster Master, and at least there it was in service to a point.
Of course, if the issues started and stopped there, I would crack a joke and move on. Sadly, there’s not much else to recommend the game, because unlike most games that use this mechanic, Alter World decides that the best way to have you swap between worlds is to turn the whole thing into an impromptu memory game. Because there’s no way to see the other world except to swap between them, which is the start of a whole lot of major issues.
Most games that use this sort of mechanic don’t make you do so mid-jump. But that’s Alter World‘s whole gimmick. In its defense, your jumps are slow and have a somewhat floaty arc to them, giving you ample control… at first. Platforming by itself is fairly straightforward. Trouble crops up, though, when you get into dealing with obstacles, chiefly sets of spiky branches that will, yes, kill you instantly if you so much as brush lightly against them.
This is a common puzzle platforming thing, yes. But Alter World is made worse by the fact that a good portion of its levels don’t make success an option until you’ve leaped blindly into space, swapped worlds, and seen where the platform is that you guessed might be there. Often missing it or running into the weird hitboxes of the spikes, which seem to sometimes be wider than the actual display and other times much narrower. It’s a constant guessing game, and when many of the jumps you need to make demand pixel-perfect perfection, the fact that you cannot clearly tell where you’re safe and where you’re not is a major problem.
Also, every single one of these pixel-perfect segments requires you to go back to the beginning with every mistake. Which in and of itself is also standard, but it becomes downright infuriating when so many of your deaths feel like they’re a result of incomplete information rather than you not knowing what to do.
The issue here isn’t the challenge. I’ve been playing through Wings of Vi and I’ve been repeatedly impressed with the fact that as frustrating as each death can be, each one feels like the fault is in my hands. I have to figure out how to move correctly, yes, but if I fail it’s because I made the mistake. All of the information was right there and I didn’t use it properly. Even as my death counter racks up, I was the architect of my own downfall.
Here, in several places, I felt like the game was challenging in the same way that having the screen blank out every other minute while I play Super Mario Bros. would be challenging. I don’t feel like deaths are the fault of me not knowing what to do, but of somewhat random collision detection. Even when I succeed, I don’t get the satisfaction that I did something hard, just that I’d died so many times beforehand that I had successfully memorized the locations of nonsense mechanics.
Why hedge? It’s just simply not fun. At the end of the day, I wasn’t having fun, and it didn’t have enough to pull me along through that frustration. I felt like it was a game that promised an experience, and the experience I was given was “frustration,” and I experience plenty of that in my day-to-day life.
Like I said during the introduction, I don’t like kicking something that was clearly the product of one person with a lot of passion. But passion doesn’t make something good, it just makes it a labor of love. I can appreciate that love went into this, I can appreciate that someone worked hard, but the end result just isn’t very good in the final assessment.