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30 December 2013 @ 04:15 pm
Game Review: Antichamber  
Capsule review: The beginning half an hour of Antichamber was one of the best puzzle games I have ever played, and then I got the first gun and it all went to shit.

Okay, that's a bit harsh. Maybe more like, "and it turned into Portal but not as good."

For background, Antichamber is kind of like Portal except with more non-Euclidean geometry and being inside an Escher painting. Making three lefts is not always the equivalent of making a right. Backtracking down a corridor does not always take you back to your starting point. You can fall down for a thousand meters and climb one flight of steps and arrive back at the floor where you fell from. That kind of thing. None of that was a problem, and indeed, it was actually really great. One of my favorite RPG scenarios ever is Night Floors by Dennis Detwiller, which has as its setting a house with similar properties, and based on the videos I saw of the game before I played it, I kept calling Antichamber "Night Floors: the Game." And that's not an inaccurate assessment, though Antichamber has fewer insane people in it.

In the beginning, you're just dumped into the world of Antichamber with no explanation and no understanding of what to do, and you have to learn how the world works as you go along. There are a lot of puzzles with incredibly simple solutions that require lateral or out-of-the-box thinking, helped along by signs with aphorisms like "The choice doesn't matter if the outcome is the same" or "Life is full of ups and downs" or "Raw persistence may be the only option other than giving up entirely." All of the signs have some relation to the puzzle they appear near, though it might not be the most obvious relation and may require some thought. Then, after passing through several trials and twisting your brain around itself, you find the first of the guns that let you manipulate the blocks you've seen here and there.

The problem with this is that now that you can move blocks around, block puzzles show up. That's bad enough, but the real problem is that there are multiple kinds of guns, each of which can manipulate blocks in different ways, and you need each gun to get the next color of gun. That's the classic Metroidvania formula, and usually I love Metroidvania games, but I don't think it works here.

The reason the first part of the game is so great is because you know that every single puzzle is solvable. You can bang your head against the wall for a while, but if you can't progress you know that it's just because you're approaching it the wrong way, or you're concentrating too much on the surface of the problem without looking at it from multiple angles, or because you haven't thought of some trick that's necessary to progress. You can go everywhere--you just need to think about it the right way.

But once you get the gun, you realize that's not actually true, and that some problems simply can't be solved without the advanced abilities of the later guns. The whole game becomes limited and a lot of it is just a tedious exercise in moving blocks from place to place. Sure, you still can't approach everything straight on, but more often it's just a question of where to move the blocks and how to get them through the fields that prevent you from transporting them with your gun than in interacting with the strangeness of the world.

The entrance room--the antechamber, if you will--does deserve some praise, though. When you start the game, you're in a black room with white lines, and several walls are blank. As you play the game, one wall fills in with the various pictures you find throughout the game, and the other wall is a map. Rooms that you have found all the exits from are distinguished from rooms that still have secrets, dead ends and exits to other areas of the map are marked, and you can teleport back to the entrance room at any time. It makes leaping around to go to different areas or resetting puzzles that you've screwed up much easier than any other Metroidvania or puzzle game I've played before, and while Antichamber's particular conceits make this an easier mechanic to integrate here than it would be in, say, Metroid, it'd be nice if they could find a way. One of the most aggravating and time-consuming parts of any Metroidvania is the running all over the place trying to find the place you need to use your newfound powers at.

It took me around five hours to beat, so half an hour of fantastic and the rest of an adequate puzzle game that honestly wasn't terrible, but the brillance of the opening made it look worse than it might be. I bought it at 75% off, and at that price it's certainly worth it. At the very least, play until you get the first gun, and if you find it tedious and boring, set it aside. You've finished the best part.
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