Review by Dr. Deezee

"Describing Braid as a 2D platforming puzzle game is as telling as observing that Abraham Lincoln and Adolf Hitler are both imperfect human beings."

Introduction

I have gamed far and wide in my twenty year odyssey through digital delights. Because of this, people have often come to me for my opinions on what makes a good game and what games should be checked out. And due to this chronic solicitation of my opinion, I've formed a theory about why people play games in the first place, and developed some abnormal criteria about what makes a good game (compared to the norms of graphics, sound, story, gameplay, etc).

People play games either because the game is incredibly immersive or because it is executed very well. By immersive, I mean the game pulls you in because of the combined effect of its presentation – story, graphics and sound are all considered when evaluating how immersive a game is. Execution refers almost exclusively to the gameplay mechanics of the game, including how well developed gameplay ideas are and generally how “fun” the game is. Innovation could be considered another criteria for video game evaluation, being a sort of switch-hitter if the other two criteria are particularly weak but a game is still viable – sort of like how “y” is only a vowel when the other vowels aren't around.

Every now and again, a rare and special breed of game comes along that is both immersive and well executed. (Even more rarely, that game will be innovative too – though it's hard to think of any examples off the top of my head.) Braid is one such game – it sucks you in with its unique and charming presentation, but keeps you coming back for its slick gameplay mechanics.

Immersion

It will be difficult to talk about the various immersive factors of Braid without at least touching on some gameplay concepts, as again, this is one of those rare games that blends the two together so well, the whole effect seems greater than the sum of its parts.

Braid is, on face, a simple game. Upon loading, you are greeted with an atmospheric, hand-painted cityscape at night with a sunset hue. The title of the game meshes perfectly with this scene, contrasting just enough with the artwork to be distinct but not so much as to feel intrusive or distracting. Your character exists as a black silhouette, ostensibly enjoying the night air. A contemplative and texturally rich orchestrated track begins to kick in, heavy on the strings, and the game displays perhaps its only tutorial: “Use the ARROW KEYS to move.” Should you oblige this prompt and move forward – revealing your character, Tim, in business casual attire – you are told to “Press ESCAPE if you want the menu.”

Inside Tim's house, you start to get a sense for how the game will teach you how to play it – none of this overhanded, immersion breaking tutorial nonsense, where an NPC treats you like an idiot and explains that to move to the right, you press the key mapped to moving you to the right – no, instead, Braid simply displays the key that you might need to use to interact with an object when you'd need to interact with it. As you pass a large painting in the only lit room in a house (ostensibly Tim's), “WORLD 2” is displayed. Hmm, curious – what happened to WORLD 1? As you pass the door, the game prompts you to press the UP key to enter.

Once you do, you're greeted with one of the interlude screens, where the bulk of the game's “plot” is delivered. It seems that Tim is searching for his princess. You enter the first area, and the game has small signs attached to the background prompting you to use the jump key, teaching you how to climb netting/ladders, those sorts of things. Never once does the game remove control from the player, and never once does it pull a Half Life – which claims to never remove control from the player, but also the traps the player in small cages where s/he can do nothing but watch the game unfold before him or her. No, with the exception of (arguably) the ending, Braid leaves the player in full control at all times. This helps maintain immersion in the game world, as you never have anything forcibly or artificially separating you from the game in order to deliver some expository nonsense or tutorial tip about a new gameplay power. All of the game's plot can be thoroughly ignored, in fact, should the player choose to do so.

Each world you go to has a unique and distinctive feel, and the deeper into the game you get, the more you learn about Tim and his search for the “Princess,” that is, again, if you choose to read the plot in between the stages. I don't want to spoil anything, but suffice to say that Braid's plot works on many levels, and allows the player to take from it what they would like to take from it. The ending “cut-scene” is marvelous, and part of the reason it resonates so well is because it is superbly paired with gameplay mechanics that have been ingrained into the game.

In fact, the gameplay mechanics tend to bleed into the plot – WORLD 2 is named “Time and Forgiveness,” and its chief gameplay mechanic is the very forgiving ability to rewind time. Another example is WORLD 4, “Time and Place,” where the chief mechanic is that every mobile object's position in time is dependent upon Tim's horizontal place in that world. This marriage of gameplay mechanics with the themes being explored in the plot really do have a synergistic effect in bringing the player into the game – paying attention to what's going on in the plot may help give the player the right mindset to solve the puzzles, for instance, or may cause the player to stop and think about the gameplay events being depicted in light of the context of the topics under consideration for each world.

I suppose you could ignore all of the subtleties and nuances of Braid's sublime and intricate plot – surely, it is not without its criticisms. I think most would agree, however, that regardless of how you feel about the game's somewhat surprising ending and epilogue sequences, getting there was incredibly immersive. Even without the plot, Braid's rich and unique visual style (supplied by David Hellman, who previously worked on one of my favorite web comics which also received much critical acclaim - “A Lesson is Learned but the Damage is Irreversible”) coupled with its sophisticated choice of licensed music are likely to suck you in as well. It's heartwarming to see that even in the modern age of 3D “photo-realistic” graphics that are approaching the uncanny valley, essentially two guys can create a beautiful and compelling 2D game every bit as atmospheric (and often times more so) than a multimillion dollar blockbuster.

Execution

Where to start? To put it simply, Braid is a pleasure to play. Tim responds fluidly and smoothly to player inputs. Generally, I prefer to play action oriented games such as platformers (which Braid is, in addition to being a puzzle game) with a controller, as it often seems hard for a keyboard to offer the same precision a controller can. I've played both the XBOX360 and PC versions of Braid, and both control excellently. (Note that you can use “WSAD” to move in addition to the arrow keys on the PC, and “z” to rewind time instead of “shift.”)

Braid has a unique (and, in my humble opinion, superior) way of handling difficulty. There's no real curve to speak of, as each of the different worlds revolves around a different time manipulation mechanic, and certain players may find early levels hard and latter levels easy while other players may have the opposite experience. The game designer (Jonathan Blow) seems to have accounted for this by allowing the player to essentially skip any puzzle at any time by proceeding forward towards the area exit. In fact, it is possible to reach the end of Braid's content without solving a single puzzle (though you will have to fight two bosses) – doing so provides no reward, however. Blow has stated that the reward of Braid is in the journey, not the destination, and this is represented in the gameplay – every puzzle solved results in the minor reward of a jigsaw style puzzle piece. Each world has 12 such pieces, and the (pent)ultimate goal of Braid is to assemble every puzzle in order to reach Tim's attic and access the ending of the game.

The ultimate goal is a little more subtle and I don't want to give it away, but it involves collecting stars and rewards the player with an alternate ending.

Each game world, as mentioned above, revolves around a specific time manipulation mechanic. WORLD 2 breaks the player into using Tim's ubiquitous power to rewind time by holding down the shift key – the speed can be controlled using the up and down keys, allowing for Tim to rewind and fast forward through the past (but never beyond the “present,” which is to say, when the player initiated time rewinding). Time can also be paused, which is useful in certain puzzles. WORLD 3 introduces objects that are immune to the time rewinding ability. WORLD 4 has time passing in accordance to Tim's horizontal position – as the player moves forward, time flows forward, and as the Tim moves back, time flows backward. WORLD 5 grants Tim the ability to create a doppelganger that mimic's Tim's actions, so to speak. WORLD 6 introduces an item that can be dropped to disrupt the flow of time, slowing it down within a certain radius of that item.

Each world fully explores these concepts, and offers several mind bending puzzles that require the player to think cleverly in order to arrive at the solution. No puzzle is ever so hard as to be impossible, and what may seem incredibly hard one night may reappear frightfully simple the next morning. You never feel as if Braid has cheated you – in fact, you are more prone to feel shamed that you didn't think of the correct solution the first time. Regardless, this is one of the only games I can think of that is legitimately rewarding to play, in the sense that it rewarded me with contentment and the satisfaction of a job well done. Too many games reveal themselves either to be ludicrous or too formulaic (involving otherworldly logic in order to create nigh unsolvable puzzles, as in the case of most adventure games; pitting the player against impossible odds which can only be surmounted through hours of repetition and rote, as in the case of most action or FPS games; or requiring specific character builds and attribute alignment plans, as in the case of most RPGs; all in the name of “challenge”) in order to be truly rewarding experiences. Blow even made a comment somewhere that a lot of games are confused about what they want to be – offering up the “reward” of cut-scenes, which attempt to emulate movies, in return for “slogging through” gameplay. He expressed a desire to make a game rewarding in its own right, and I think he succeeded brilliantly with Braid.

Closing Remarks

Braid is a difficult game to review. It could be described as a 2D platforming puzzle game – which it is – but to do so also seems to be an insult to it. Braid is like every 2D platforming or puzzle game you've played before, but it's also unlike any other game you've played before. I'd describe it as a rare and legitimately unique gaming experience that hasn't yet been tarnished by endless amounts of copy-cat clones and “me-too” cash-ins. If you need a sound bite to describe the game, I can only offer up what I've said elsewhere: Braid is a game in which the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts, each part having a synergistic effect with every other part to create a truly memorable and rewarding gaming experience. It is a game that must be played to be fully understood, and is easily recommendable to anyone who enjoys games with any measure of substance to them.

Justifying the Score

As I've stated in other reviews, I do not like rating games on a numeric scale - it is too ambiguous and one wonders what a game that rates an 8/10 really means. It'd be far more useful to talk about how much enjoyment can be derived from a game - in terms of hours that could plausibly be passed, and how rewarding those hours spent are. On those metrics, Braid offers up a very rewarding 5-12 hours, perhaps more, depending on how fast you plow through the puzzles and whether or not you want to pursue that alternative ending. (If so, perhaps the 12 hour estimate is a bit shy.) In any case, GameFAQs requires a numeric value, which I assign almost solely based on the description that follows. 9/10 is classified as "Outstanding - very enjoyable and engrossing, almost perfect" which fits Braid to a T. I would not describe any game as perfect (were it so, I would never require another game for the rest of time) and thus Braid receives the highest possible marks from me.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 12/07/09

Game Release: Braid (US, 04/10/09)


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