It would be easy to label puzzle/platformer game Gateways as a Portal clone from first impressions. The two-gate travel gun available to your character at the start works on pretty much the same principle as the gun from the Valve mega-hit. Developer Smudged Cat Games doesn’t stop there though, and introduces new abilities and challenging puzzles at a steady pace. Just as you’ve mastered one type of gun, a new one appears to make you rethink how you’re going to get from one area to the next. Although the game’s puzzles can occasionally get difficult, the overall package certainly lives up to the high quality standards associated with the library of this veteran XBLIG developer.
By now much of the gaming world has experienced all of the wonder that the Portal series has brought to the industry. Developer David Johnson of Smudged Cat Games takes inspiration from those fun physics-based puzzles and quite literally turns them on their heads. SPOILER ALERT: Taking on the role of a scientist stuck trying to escape his own lab, players unlock additional guns that allow them to change their character’s size, repeatedly travel back and forth between time, and change the orientation of the game world. The first and last of those guns are fairly intuitive once experimented with a couple of times. On the flip side, the time travel gun really takes some getting used to. The same people who skip through EULAs and never read the fine print are the ones that are going to run into trouble. With all of its nuances, time travel in Gateways is not the easiest concept to wrap one’s mind around. It took me reading the multi-page help menu explanation before it finally clicked. The application of this one gun alone probably make it worthy of its own game. When combined with the abilities of the other guns, there’s really an amazing amount of reality-bending power at the player’s disposal.
The game is structured in a Metroidvania style, with new powers and abilities helping the player open previously impassable doors. One of the niceties in Gateways is that shortcuts can be opened up within the lab that allow the player to quickly travel back to the earlier areas almost in a hub-like design. At times though, it’s easy to feel lost if you don’t know about the existence of the overworld map. I’d played through a good portion of the game before realizing it was there, which would have saved me a lot of time. Having that map at my disposal definitely changed my overall opinion of the game. Backtracking can get a little tedious, especially if you have to repeatedly perform the same series of death-defying feats to reach a particular room. But as long as players use the map to get a general feel for where to go next, they should easily avoid some of the headaches I ran into.
The difficulty of the puzzles later on can get a bit frustrating. Smudged Cat even released an update that allows players to select a ‘Normal’ mode to tone things down a bit. I never got to the point where I threw down the controller in disgust, but there were times where I certainly recognized that saving the game, walking away, and coming back with a fresh mind was the way to go. One of the smart design choices was to only allow a single gun to be used in solving the first 90% or so of the puzzles. Otherwise, it would’ve been far too daunting a task to figure out which guns to whip out and in what order. However, late in the game the rules change such that you’re going to need to use multiple guns in sequence to solve getting through some of the doors. Most of these really tough puzzles can be solved with patience and determination, but even I had to eventually throw in the towel and either search for a solution online or purchase the answer using orbs collected in-game. Difficulty is always a subjective quality to judge, but I honestly feel like Smudged Cat was trying a bit too hard to boggle our minds. As a reviewer, it was a bit stressful trying to hurry towards a solution, but gamers taking on the challenge at a more casual pace will likely appreciate the pacing and challenge more. Overall I felt like the quality of the puzzles is not only great for an indie game, but puts it right on par with the best to be found in the entire video game industry. With only a few exceptions, they’re that good and that fun and certainly elicit that ‘a-ha!’ moment when solved.
Gateways is not all about the puzzles. There is a light amount of platforming, but a good portion of it takes place in between unlocking doors to new areas, rather than being central to the puzzles themselves. There are, of course, exceptions particularly when dodging one’s own clones in a time-travel solution or when changing the orientation of the lab. I thought this aspect of the game was very well done, especially with the feel of jumping. The right flightiness of jumping is not something that every XBLIG manages to nail, but the developer was successful here.
As with all of the other Smudged Cat titles I’ve played, there’s a high level of refinement in the presentation. Yes, the visual quality is, for better or worse, decidedly retro. However, the music is atmospheric, the menu system intuitive, and the help very… helpful. I mentioned before that there’s a great series of instructions in the help system for how each of the guns work, and I would consider it a must-read. The visual effects produced by opening the different gateways provide that same wonder first experienced with Portal. Though lower-res, I think it is even more awe-inspiring here when you can see clones of yourself running around in different stages of time traveling. It’s easy to tell from the way the whole package is put together that Smudged Cat has been down this road before and learned a thing or two about how to assemble a finished product. That’s something that’s usually lacking on the XBLIG service.
Gateways not a perfect game, but it really raises the bar for what puzzle games on XBLIG should aim for. I lost count of how many times I thought to myself “What a wonderfully crafted puzzle, you tricky bastard.” A lot of people are going to draw the obvious comparisons between Gateways and Portal including me in this very article. In its own indie way Gateways goes on to do so much more. Perhaps the best praise I can heap upon this title is to say that it wouldn’t surprise me to start seeing Gateways-inspired titles start to pop up in the near future. Despite some gripes about the difficulty, I can say with full confidence that I consider it a polished gem, and I believe most players will agree.
Note: This review was conducted using version 1.11 of the game.
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