Review by SephKatana

Reviewed: 08/17/09

Superb -- if only the stupid bomb weren't in the way.

Braid starts by showing your character, a sharply dressed little guy named Tim, looking over a foreboding sunset from a city rooftop, set to a minor-key violin dirge. Tim then goes off to his house. Each door in his house leads to a strange, dreamlike stage where Tim has to solve mind-bending puzzles, with some 2D platforming elements, in order to obtain pieces of a painting. Every stage begins with some books that give you a few screens of story text. It appears that Tim is trying to rescue a princess, but as the game goes on, this simple story becomes a lot more confused...

Braid has quite possibly the most beautiful 2D visuals that I have ever seen anywhere. Every stage is lushly hand-painted with gorgeous watercolors. If you read about the game a bit, you'll learn that it doesn't use "tiles" to construct its environments. Each platform was hand-drawn individually. This adds a great deal to the game's atmosphere. Each stage has its own distinct mood: the peaceful rolling landscapes of Stage 2, the colorful winter setting of Stage 4, the autumnal, dreamlike melancholy of Stage 5, and the full, ominous storm clouds of the final stage.

The amazing soundtrack also contributes to the mood. It consists of atmospheric, melancholy string and piano compositions. However, they are more detailed and melodic than the typical ambient video game soundtrack. The majestic Celtic fiddle in Stage 2 really adds to the colorful storybook atmosphere that opens the game. The very last section of the game has a suitably ominous, dark soundtrack, which is played backwards for a more disconcerting effect.

Tim's abilities consist of standard Mario fare -- running, jumping, bouncing off enemies' heads, climbing fences and carrying keys. But the true core of the gameplay lies in the way the game's world manipulates time. The first and simplest innovation comes into play when you get hit by an enemy. You have no life bar, and no lives. When you "die," the game just invites you to press Shift. When you do this, time starts flowing backwards -- you can "rewind" the flow of time to before the point when Tim got hit, and resume from that point on as if nothing happened! Now, how many platformers have you played where you wished you had that ability?

But every subsequent stage introduces crazier and crazier ways of manipulating time. In Stage 3, you encounter certain objects that cannot be "rewound." Like, if you open a glowing green door, and then rewind, Tim will pantomime running up to it with the key, but it will not close again. There are also certain platforms that make Tim himself immune to "rewinding" when he steps on them.

It sounds weird, but in the game, it creates a brilliantly designed system of puzzles. In one part of Stage 3, there is a barrier that starts moving down as soon as you enter the stage. When it descends all the way, it blocks off a painting piece. If you just run up to the barrier from your entry point, you will not be able to get there in time to run through to the painting piece. What you need to do is find a nearby glowing platform, and then rewind. While you're standing on the platform, Tim is immune to rewinding, so he will stay in place -- but the barrier will move back up, reopening the way to the painting piece. Then you can run from the platform and get to the barrier in time to collect the painting piece.

If that sounds complicated, you've seen nothing yet. In Stage 4, time (meaning the platforms and enemies) moves forward when Tim moves to the right, and it moves backward when he moves to the left. And you can still rewind any sequence of moves you've made. So if you go right, left and right, time will go forward, backward, and forward. Rewinding will make time go backward, forward and backward again.

Around Stage 4, you begin to realize that you don't really have a lot of freedom in Braid. In Stage 4 especially, it is clear that the game is completely deterministic -- there is only one sequence of moves that will get you through the obstacles. You have to figure out that sequence of moves, which is not easy at all. There's one area of Stage 4 called "Fickle Companion" where you have to pick up a time-susceptible key. That means that, as soon as you go left while holding the key, its movements are rewound. So, let's say there are two paths, top and bottom. You go right along the bottom path, and then go left along the top path. Then, as you turn left, the key will drop out of Tim's hand and hop down the bottom path back to where it started. It is confusing and often frustrating to figure out the exact moves that you need to make.

Thereafter, the game gets more and more complicated, until you reach the final stage, when time itself moves backward, and rewinding makes time move forward. This leads to the grandiose final section -- Tim sees the princess, and runs forward to save her as a monstrous wall of fire devours the path behind him. Then, at the end of that section, you have to hold down Shift to watch time flow in reverse. You see the exact same movements you made to go forward, but there is a shocking twist that only becomes clear after you rewind time to the very end. This last stage is one of the most powerful examples of video game storytelling that I have ever seen.

The use of time manipulation is mindblowing. The game is short, but I have no problem with that -- if it were longer, the difficulty might have worn out its welcome. And yet, as creative as the game is, I think it has two small flaws. The first has to do with the fact that the game is so heavily oriented toward puzzles. I like the puzzles, but it would have been nice to have a few more platforming elements. The "Leap of Faith" section in the first stage is short, but very fun. It is not a focus of the stage, but it's a nice little addition that makes the experience just a bit more varied. If the game had more little bits like that, it would have created a few opportunities for some more diverse visuals that could have made the game's world a bit deeper and more varied -- like how the cliffs in "Leap of Faith" make a nice contrast with the flatlands earlier in the stage. And it would have been a great way to make the player relax a little in between the difficult puzzles.

The second small flaw, and the more important one to me, has to do with the storyline. In the early stages, the protagonist seems to be on a romantic quest to find a princess. It is hinted that he wronged her a long time ago, and is now filled with regret and longing for a way to make amends. The last stage of the game, as I already mentioned, is absolutely brilliant in the way it wraps up this part of the story.

But, you see, Braid is not really about lost love. It's about the construction of the atomic bomb. Well, it can sort of be read both ways. But the reason why it can be read both ways is because the text you read in the books in the latter stages becomes extremely vague and ambiguous. Instead of the subtle melancholy of the first few stages, you get artsy, incomprehensible passages. Not to mention the nasty bit about pounding tungsten into the brains of monkeys in the epilogue. Those parts are really talking about the bomb, in an oblique fashion. But you see, I don't like the bomb. I also do not like pounding tungsten into the brains of monkeys. I think that the bomb metaphor is really forced and unnatural, at least with this vague and pompous writing style (with references to "The Ethical Calculus," even). I prefer the love story and the references to abandonment and loss. I understand how some people might be amazed by the bomb metaphor, since games rarely try to create multiple layers of meaning, and this dimension makes Braid stand out even more. But I think it's not good writing. The game designer's inner art student got the upper hand, sadly.

Braid is a powerful experience that has the ability to stay with you long after you've finished it. It is full of amazingly innovative ideas that put a completely new spin on the old 2D platforming genre. But although it has a lot of great storytelling, the attempt at deep metaphor kind of kills the mood that the rest of the game builds up so carefully.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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

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