With indie games, it’s often difficult to hook the player. Unlike games from the giant publishers and development studios, indie games don’t have an epic story or cutting-edge graphics to fall back on. Instead, sometimes it’s a quirky art style or a bold soundtrack employed to lure people in. Other times, it’s a game mechanic like the diving bird in Tiny Wings or slicing a rope in Cut the Rope. In the case of Antipole from Saturnine Games, it’s the bending of gravity itself. While the stage-based platforming structure may borrow from many better-known games, it’s the variations on the physics-defying theme that set this title apart.
The game consists of twenty stages broken up into four sections, and you must safely guide your nameless character from the beginning to the end of each stage. While the goal is straightforward, your means of getting there isn’t. Although you can run and jump, there are tall walls, spiked pits, acid pools, and a variety of enemies that stand in the way. You have a weapon at your disposal at all times to take out enemies, but your best tool is one that alters the physics of your surroundings.
Very early on your character acquires a gravity-bending device that reverses the gravitational pull in a sizable circle around him. Anything caught within that circle, including your character, will be pulled in the opposite direction of the current gravitational orientation. Lest you abuse this power too much, there’s a finite energy meter that limits how long you can use the device. Standing still on solid ground will recharge that meter. You’re also judged on how quickly you make it through each level making the game feel a bit like Splosion Man, but the game mechanics are unique enough to make the journey to the goal an experience that stands on its own.
The situations in which you must use the anti-gravity device begin rather benign – you must simply elevate yourself up and over a tall wall. One of the aspects of good design that the game nails is a steady, but constant, increase in the difficulty of the puzzles and environments. Quickly you’ll come across spiked pits that require you to time your jumps and your use of the device to bridge the gaps or walk along the ceiling. Acid pools won’t stay grounded to the floor like spikes – your gravity device affects it too – and one touch of it is enough to outright kill you. There are other puzzles that are more cerebral. Sometimes you’ll have to get a box or key from one location to another in order to open a gate. It’s difficult enough to safely navigate your own player, but these kinds of challenges up the ante by forcing you to take into account both yourself and the box in getting over and under obstacles. There are even instances where you have to move an enemy from platform to platform without causing its death in order to unlock certain gates. The variety of the puzzles is one of the most polished aspects of this game, and there were only one or two instances towards the end of the game where I found it frustratingly difficult to progress.
If twenty levels isn’t enough of a challenge for you, there are a couple of added features to extend your time playing the game. There’s a challenge mode that presents you with a set of short stages each of which has a difficult puzzle that really calls back to all of the skill you acquired playing through the main mode. In the main game, every stage contains three green coins in hard-to-reach places. For every six coins you collect, a new challenge mode stage will open up. Personally I found that some of the later puzzles were painfully difficult to complete, but the hardcore completionists out there will probably enjoy the experience. Antipole also offers an award system for accomplishing certain goals. It’s the work put into systems like that that screams to Microsoft to allow indie developers to include Xbox Achievements in their games.
When it came time to actually start playing Antipole, I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of presentation. The first thing that struck me was the music which just felt like it was of a higher quality than what’s typically found in the majority of Xbox indie titles. I audibly laughed when I checked the credits and saw it was composed by Zack Parrish who also handled the same responsibilities on Cute Things Dying Violently, a game which I loved and adored earlier this summer. While the menu system was pretty bland in terms of appearance, it was also fully fleshed out and easily navigable. I’m guessing it was a design choice to give the main character and environments an old-school look, but a higher-res style would’ve really made this game pop.
One of the first things I noticed about the game was the price point – five bucks for the Xbox version. That’s more than a little bit higher than your typical true indie game on the platform, so it had some work to do in terms of validating the cost. It would’ve been very easy for the developers to simply reuse the featured gravity-altering device in repetitive ways and try to cash in on what could’ve been a gimmick. Instead, Antipole blends a little bit of platforming with a varied puzzle structure in a fun and rewarding way. It really makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something when you finally figure out the trick to progressing past a difficult area. While you might not be blown away by certain aspects of the presentation, the core mechanics are used in such clever ways that I don’t think you’ll mind one bit. For the non Xbox-crowd, Antipole is also available on PC and on DSiWare.
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