Review by Suprak the Stud
Sweet and Satisfying, But It Leaves You Hungry
I've embarked on quests for a plethora of reasons in video games. I've collected stars to save princesses, defeated lizards to rescue banana stashes, battled mutants to escape an underwater prison, and chainsawed my way through zombies to survive the apocalypse. But I can't remember ever doing anything just for pie. Not too many people can, I assume, unless you are morbidly obese and need to be lured out of your bedroom so your parents can clean out the stench of donuts, chicken grease, and virginity. However, that is exactly the impetus for the titular character of The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, a puzzle platformer for the Xbox 360. While pie isn't perhaps the most lucrative incentive for individuals not currently large enough for small pieces of trash to be orbiting their enormous girth, the game itself is actually fairly enjoyable. It is a bit short, both in terms of length and ideas, but what is there is a solid puzzler that is fun to play through. It just feels a bit more like a slice rather than the whole pie.
You play as P.B. Winterbottom, notorious pie thief of Bakersfield. I'm not sure at what point a pie thief is promoted from "pathetic" to "notorious", but to earn a moniker like that he must have murdered a few bakers. As you the game starts, a mystical pie begins leading Winterbottom along as Winterbottom attempts to go from notorious pie thief to notorious sentient pie murderer. I'm not sure why a giant talking pie has started haunting Winterbottom, but I'm assuming it is either a Scooby-Dooesque attempt by the bakers of the town to scare him away or hallucinations are a symptom of terminal diabetes. Either way, his initial attempts of trying to catch and gorge himself on the pie go about as well as you can expect a fat man's quest for food that involves him jumping on rooftops to go, and he ends up screwing up and breaking pretty much everything in town. He also gains time manipulation powers, because well, I'm not really sure. It apparently has something to do with the pie, but if pie was all you needed to disrupt the time space continuum than Kirstie Alley should have shown up in historical records as far back as the Industrial Revolution. Regardless of how it happened, ith your new powers in stow you must make your way through the town, setting things right and hopefully rewarding yourself with some food that screams when you bite into it.
People have compared this game to Braid, an indie game about time manipulation divided into several segments each with a new mechanism and a minimal story that serves as a framing device for your time based powers. But that isn't fair, because The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom is an indie game about time manipulation divided into several segments each with a new mechanism and a minimal story that serves as a framing device for your time based powers WITH PIE! I guess that isn't entirely true, because the puzzles also aren't as good and it feels more like Diet Braid than anything else. What Winterbottom has over Braid is that it is a bit more light hearted and fun, and the way the game is presented is quite charming and enjoyable.
There are five separate levels, and each one has this overarching storybook framing device. Each level is introduced with a little rhyme, and the game is made to look like an old silent movie. The story here is clearly not the focus, and if someone is playing it for the narrative value they probably also chew on gum for its nutritional content. Still, while the story might be more Kelly Rowland to the gameplay's Beyonce, what is there does the job admirably and at the very least it isn't tumbling down stairs and getting in the way. It is only a couple of screens before each level, but the rhyme itself is pretty clever and funny. The lines will at least elicit a smile, and the game has such a distinct style that while the story is extremely minimal it is still memorable and unique. The whole package, from the story to the visuals and even the music, is very stylized and quite memorable and even though it has far less content than most games it still does a much better job than most at establishing a unique voice.
The game itself is primarily focused on several abilities based on time manipulation that you use to collect all the pies around the level. While using time manipulation to get pie seems like a waste of a power and it would be like if Superman only used his super speed to place whoopee cushions under the seat of people who denied him a bank loan. Regardless of the questionable use of his powers, the time based manipulation leads to some interesting puzzles. The most frequently used of your powers is your ability to make clones, where you can record whatever action you just performed and loop it to either assist you in getting some out of reach pies or help you in collecting them all within a certain time limit. While it is fairly straightforward in concept, the puzzles are at times genuinely challenging. There are some that require some actual thought, so figuring them out is far more rewarding than the simple puzzles you encounter in most games.
While it is technically a puzzle platformer, I think a better phrase would be a precision puzzler, and I don't care if that is a thing or not because it totally should be. A lot of puzzles require a certain amount of precision to the jumps or placement of your clones, and puzzle solving requires a bit more finesse than some might be used to. The puzzles as a whole are fairly well designed, integrating the gameplay and time manipulation mechanics quite well. The necessity for precision on some of the timed levels also introduces the appropriate amount of difficulty. The game is not so easy that you'll just breeze through every level, but it also isn't so difficult it leaves you stuck even after some thought. Games like this need to be careful to be entertaining without being frustrating, and Winterbottom walks this line fairly well, even if it teeters off the line and falls into the soft cushy pillows of simplicity at times.
The reason for the five separate areas is that each one introduces a new time manipulation mechanic that most of the puzzles are based around. Interjecting new ideas in each area really keeps the game from becoming monotonous as you are forced to think about gameplay in a new way. While one level forces you to make recordings from one specific spot, another one might make it so you cannot touch your previous clones. Introducing new ideas like this not only prevents the game from becoming stale, but it also prevents the puzzles from becoming too predictable, because once you think you've mastered a certain element of gameplay, the game slaps you down for your hubris and forces you to go about things a different way. There are also a bunch of bonus levels that you can try to optimize high scores for time and the number of clones used, giving you a bit more to do once you complete the story mode.
While everything sounds great so far, the disappointing truth is that the game feels more like a demo than a full adventure. All of the levels are quite short, and not many should take more than a couple of minutes to complete. The whole thing can probably be completed in less than a day, and at times the loading scenes preceding the levels can last as long as the levels themselves. There are some nice puzzles along the way to be sure, but too many stages can be figured out within second of looking at the layout. Puzzles that give you that "A-ha!" feeling of satisfaction that comes along with figuring out something difficult or opening a particularly tight pickle jar are in the minority, and most of the puzzles I figured out on my first try. And even though the game is really short, it still feels like it runs out of things to throw at you at times, where three or four levels per area feel like recycled concepts from a stage you already completed.
The game also has a wonky difficulty curve that looks like it was drawn out by someone on an airplane in turbulence that was forced to go sit on the wing. Since each area has a new gameplay element, it means that there are some basic introductory levels in each area, and not all of the gameplay additions are as complex as others. So, you're left with this weird scenario where a couple of levels in the second area are actually more taxing than ones you'll face all the way at the end of the game. The difficulty of the bonus areas is also a bit of a disappointment, and the target time they set for you to beat always seems much lower than it should be. I ended up clearing the target time on almost all of the stages within a couple of tries and then never going back as I lacked the incentive.
With the reduced price tag, The Misadventures of P.B. WInterbottom is worth checking out, as there is a lot to like here. Still, it feels like a bit of a disappointment considering the initial potential. There is memorable music and graphics, interesting gameplay ideas, and a completely charming story and presentation, but it feels it never got implemented as well as it should have. If this game were a pie that P.B. was chasing, it would be a glorious pie a foot in radius, emitting sweet scents to draw everyone near. But once he took a bit in he'd find it mostly crust, with the actual filling concentrated in two or three segments that while baked well left him wanting a bit more.
Chocolate Cake (THE GOOD):
+Presentation is very well done; helps the game stand out
+Time based gameplay mechanics work fairly well
+Puzzle design pretty strong, even if some feel redundant
+Silent movie based story is charming and memorable despite being short
+Introduction of new powers each area keeps the game from getting to redundant
Carrot Cake (THE BAD):
-Very short; can most likely be finished in one sitting
-Not as many difficult or mentally taxing puzzles as one might hope
-Difficulty curve feels off; a lot of levels in the earlier areas are more challenging than most later on
-Bonus levels, while nice, feel a bit tacked on and tend to be quite straightforward
-Load times can be a bit obnoxious at time
Fruit Cake (THE UGLY): This game was brought to us by The Odd Gentlemen, which is officially the creepiest name for a game company I've ever hear. It makes it sound like they all sit around, pulling quarters out of the ears of children and then asking if they'd like to see the inside of their Ford Expedition because somebody left some candy back there. Last time something was brought to me by an odd gentleman, it was a potato with a straw through it, so at least this one worked out slightly better.
THE VERDICT: 6.75/10.00
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom (US, 02/17/10)
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