The Acid Test

Written by Andrew Moynihan on Tue, Feb 12, 2013 3:40 PM
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Article forward - This review was written by Jirair, a friend, and is submitted with his blessing. Another point of note is that we contain a very small spoiler alert within the review.

If madness is flawed genius then Antichamber is a madman's game. A journey into a bizarre realm of unnatural geometries, stark colours and displaced sounds. Abstracted, it is a first person puzzle game, replete with gimmick 'gun' and puzzle filled chambers separated by locked doors. But the reality of Antichamber is not so simple, it is a strange realm where space warps in unexpected ways. Passageways shift behind you, stairs grow beneath your feet and corners turn into impossible locations. The first steps when solving one of its puzzles are usually to find a door and then to find its lock.

That sense of the surreal pervades every part of the game. Its spaces are bold cubes of burning white and inky black, daubed by an acid neon rainbow so bright as to be almost painful. In contrast its soundscape is soft and naturalistic; spending much of its time reassuring you that you are walking on soft grass or strolling in breakers of a sandy beach. Drawings that would be at home in a newspaper cartoon sit along side scratchy staring eyed glyphs and the most direct communication in the whole game comes in the form of short fortune cookie style lines of text found in signs on the walls.

Even the flow of the game is unusual; this is no linear romp, its chambers form something of a maze connecting and looping across each other to such an extent that the game is left with a very freeform exploration element. Antichamber isn't afraid to lead the player astray. Leaving you to wander into, and wonder at; puzzles you don't yet have the tools to solve, or dead end rooms, and even at one point [Spoiler Alert] faking its own ending just to prevent the player becoming complacent.

Antichamber may not obey the same physical laws as found in a sane mind, but it does have laws of its own and it's from discovery and application of the strange rules of this neon realm that most of the puzzles derive. The game is at its most enjoyable when it presents nothing more than navigating its unearthly spaces as its challenge.

But exploration is interspersed with more cerebral puzzles involving today's version of the apparently mandatory physics 'gun'. This one places little blocks in the environment and acquires an expanding repertoire of tricks as your travel uncovers upgrades. The quest for new tricks to solve harder problems is a neat way to drive the game, and the gun does supply some of the more sophisticated puzzles in the game; but it is such a nuisance to use. The gun is always dogged by imprecise targeting and inexplicable responses. Perhaps it's wrong to complain of something behaving in an unexpected fashion in a game who's theme is challenging our most basic assumptions about its environment, but it's frustrating to know exactly what the solution is yet be unable to convince the game to cooperate.

Its not a talkative puzzle game in the way something like portal is. The signs that litter the map reserve themselves to words of encouragement and occasional riddles, and virtually all of the puzzles explain themselves through simple colour driven visual clues. The game shows some of its cleverest design when just silently laying out is puzzles and rules. A little trial and observation will get you all the way through Antichamber.

The game's greatest success is that this unnatural world never becomes unpleasant. Its strangeness remains more intriguing than off-putting. Its strange bright rooms can easily become alien and unwelcoming, but the comforting sound track and those out of place little signs help provide a very human sense of scale to the world.

And that's Antichamber, bold game design choices, an arresting aesthetic, built round a solid set of puzzles; but it never quite comes together. There are some brilliant moments, where you make some sudden discovery and out pours a whole new puzzle for you to solve and new rule set to play with. Just as often though you find yourself flailing about with no clear objective, unsure where to look for the next challenge through which you can progress. It isn't so much the games lack of hand holding or direction which is a problem but rather its love of traps and dead ends, often you will find yourself stuck, with no choice but to hit Esc and head back to the black hub room which maps your travels in the maze.

It's those dead ends that form my least favourite part of the game; the secret rooms. Now, don't get me wrong, Easter Eggs are a grand tradition, but it is rather galling to complete some of the tougher puzzles in the game and be rewarded with a space in which the designer grandstands his own cleverness, or worse: breaks the illusions of his reality warping work. It's cold comfort that the game is completely seamless and loading screen free when you are driven back to the map having wasted fifteen minutes.

At the start of the review I described Antichamber as flawed and I wasn't just talking about it occasionally stumbling over its own ambitions. The game does have two rather crippling problems.

I encountered one reproducible Crash To Desktop that prevented me from reaching a secret room, and while a fix is in the works, that one puzzle is currently impossible without a strong CPU far above the games listed specs.

The second issue is that the game simply isn't finished yet. I'll tolerate the door labelled 'Under Construction' as the designer showing plans for future support, or maybe even just toying with the player's mind again. But to spend 10 minutes wrangling with a fiendishly difficult problem only to discover afterwards that it wasn't a puzzle at all, but rather an incomplete chamber with no solution...is rather frustrating. All the more so because it came as the anticlimax to a really rather enjoyable set of preceding chambers.

So I can't really recommend Antichamber freely in its current state. Leaving its failings aside it's never going to be a game for everyone. If you really want to know what would happen if you distilled a tab of LSD into a computer game, then its worth overlooking the flaws. Otherwise, there are better ways to get your puzzle and exploration fix.

Pros

  • Unique Realm to Explore
  • Multiple Solutions

Cons

  • Simply Unfinished
  • Wobbly Tone and Pacing
Score

5

Decent

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17:18 Feb-12-2013

A really engaging review.
The score felt a little tough though on what seems to be a unique indie title maybe pushed out early in search for some completion cash, which seems to be the norm these days. While this approach of pushing out incomplete games is certainly not acceptable by publishing giants who charge top dollar, I think it is fair to grant a wee bit of leniency for a half price title that delivers a unqiue game experience which was produced on a shoestring.
I read a 5 as average. Nothing really going on to make you shout about it but also not a total offence to your wallet.
Well now I need to play the game myself to see what I think
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18:07 Feb-12-2013

Yeah I always tend to check the price tag before giving my final verdict :)

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18:45 Feb-19-2013

"Well now I need to play the game myself to see what I think" → Same goes for me, Felix!
@Symphona: puzzles in a book always had a solution till so far, so aside the fact you've shown your writing skills, 'you' disappointed me ;/

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