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Review: Braid (PC)

Does the world need another 2D platformer?  Yes.

2009 04 17 - Braid PC Review Screenshot 2

When Braid was released last year on Xbox Live Arcade, the game was met with both critical and commercial success and propelled developer Jonathan Blow into celebrity status in the enthusiast press.  The game certainly deserves the attention it has received; Blow manages to inject originality into a stale genre nearly as old as the medium itself.

The game’s protagonist is Tim, a young man in search of a princess who has been captured by a monster. The story is revealed through text from books before each of Braid’s six worlds.  At first glance these books may not make sense, but careful examination can reveal hidden insights and metaphors that enhance the quality of the experience.  Everything leads thematically to the breathtaking and unforgettable ending that puts the entire game in a different, and disturbing, light.   The hand-drawn art style and hauntingly beautiful music only add to Braid’s lasting impact.

Anyone familiar with any 2D platformer in the past twenty years will be familiar with the basic game mechanics.  In addition to the standard running and jumping inherent to the genre, Tim has the ability of time manipulation that changes from world to world.  These abilities are used to great effect in some mind-bending puzzles that, when solved, provide one of 60 puzzle pieces that are used to unlock the final world.   The inclusion of these skills ensures the challenge of the game isn’t about timed jumps or tricky maneuvers since any mistake is instantly reversible and never permanent.

2009 04 17 - Braid PC Review Screenshot 3

In an interesting design choice, Braid does not feature a start-up menu.  At launch, the game sets the user in an impressive vista featuring a city at dusk.  No instructions are given to the player other than how to move.  This hands-off approach permeates the entire experience.  On one hand, this freedom to explore makes solving puzzles that much more rewarding.  However, this can lead to frustration as a few puzzles throughout the game require certain specialized strategies that will likely only be stumbled upon by pure luck and never used again.   The game is very clearly designed around the idea that any puzzle the user encounters can be solved with enough effort at that time.  There is one disappointing exception to this rule early on that feels more like a trick than a puzzle.

The PC port of Braid has both keyboard controls and native Xbox 360 controller support.  While the keyboard controls are functional, they remain stiff and a little imprecise; they’re more than usable with the Xbox 360 controller providing a superior experience.  Braid doesn’t have unreasonably high system requirements so even owners of  modest computers can expect good performance at the forced 1280×720 resolution.  The game comes with a readme.txt featuring several command line options for performance tweaking that really should be available through an in-game menu.  Additionally, the text file mentions a full-featured modding tool with Photoshop importation that will have documentation released in the near future.

Not everyone will like Braid, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  But anyone who fancies themselves a video game enthusiast or has aspirations to be a game developer or critic needs to play this game to completion. Braid isn’t a perfect game.  For all the praise given, it does suffer from having a few arcane puzzle solutions scattered throughout, some of the text is obtuse and pretentious, and the adventure only lasts a few hours.  However, Braid’s marriage of narrative and gameplay has the ability to impact the user and promote serious thinking about the game’s themes and nuances in a way that is rarely seen in video games.  It’s a worthy purchase on either PC or console.

Braid was released last year for 1200 Microsoft Points on Xbox Live Arcade and is now available for $14.99 on several PC digital distribution platforms, including Valve Software’s Steam and Stardock’s Impulse.

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