Braid is a mysterious beast indeed. Imagine if Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Hawking decided to get together over a few shandies and remake Super Mario World. Their booze-fuelled creation would probably end up something like this 2D platformer by independent developer Jonathan Blow. You play a guy called Tim, who’s on the trail of a missing princess. A princess who never seems to be where Tim looks for her. Sound familiar? Don’t worry, because Tim’s journey is as far removed from the moustachioed plumber’s jaunts as you could possibly imagine.
Although Braid is at first glance a platform game, the emphasis is massively on solving puzzles. Sure, there’s enemies to kill by bouncing on their heads, as well as bullets to dodge and chasms to leap over. However, despite the frantic nature of a couple of levels, the challenge is limited as you can’t actually be killed. To be more accurate, you have the power to reverse time at any point - even after death. So, if you mistime a jump and find yourself suddenly plummeting towards a lake of lava, you can simply hold down the shift key and try again. It’s an idea that’s been explored before in titles such as Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. Although reversing time allows you to erase mistakes and concentrate on the game’s many puzzles, you’ll find that it plays a much more vital role than that. In fact, you’ll need to manipulate time to solve the majority of the brain-scratchers Braid throws at you.
The game is split into a number of worlds (like Mario), and the aim of each world is to reach the exit (like Mario). However, there are also a number of jigsaw pieces scattered around the levels, which usually require some abstract thinking and complex time-fiddling to reach. The time mechanics take some getting used to, as different creatures and objects are affected in different ways, and the result is not always clear. For example, sometimes when you reverse time, enemy actions are also reversed - and sometimes they aren’t. There’s a fair amount of trial and error involved in working out exactly what will happen, which will likely cause the untimely death of a number of keyboards.
Time-bending gets even more complex the further you progress, as different mechanics are introduced. For example, in one world you’ll be controlling time and enemy movements simply by moving left and right. In another, you can create bubbles which slow down time for anything that passes nearby. These new challenges help to keep the game fresh, but also introduce a whole new heap of mental pain. Patience is definitely a virtue.
Thankfully, most of the puzzles optional - an excellent design decision from Blow. If a jigsaw piece is proving too hard to snag, you can leave it and come back to it at a later time through the level selection screen. In fact, you can pretty much ignore the pieces entirely and finish the game simply by walking to the right and defeating a couple of bosses. Completists with huge amounts of time and patience will want to try and grab every puzzle piece though, and there’s no denying that the satisfaction from finally cracking a ridiculously hard puzzle is immense.
The controls are as simple as they come - arrow keys to move, space to jump and a combination of shift with up and down to send time forwards and backwards. The visuals by comic artist David Hellman are simple but colourful and pleasing to the eye, and suit the game’s many themes. Sound also gets decent marks. There’s no speech and sound effects are minimalist, but Braid’s music fits the nature of the game perfectly. There’s a subtle melancholy to each song, and no noticeable looping when you’re playing around in a single level for a long time. Also, the sound rewinds as you’d expect when you throw time into reverse.
Braid tells its story through a series of books at the start of each world, which you can read or ignore if you like. Some of it can unfortunately be quite hard to digest. Entries such as “she never understood the impulses that drove him, never quite felt the intensity that, over time, chiselled lines into his face,” are doing no one any favours. It’s like a surreal Mills and Boon novel written by Alexandre Dumas. The story has been dissected and argued over on many, many games forums and I wouldn’t be surprised if some American professor comes out with a thesis on the imagery and double-meanings of the plot. For me, however, the story was almost entirely disconnected to the gameplay and in many ways irrelevant.
Despite the Mario references and platform-style controls and appearance, Braid couldn’t be a more different game. Although some of the puzzles will make you want to gouge your own eyeballs out with a potato peeler, the fact that you can skip them is a massive relief. Your first play through won’t take more than a handful of hours if you bypass the tricky parts. However, snagging every jigsaw piece will take even steely puzzle fans a lot longer. Braid is refreshingly original, undeniably imaginative, and madder than a sack full of squirrels.