There are the kinds of games that you know are great the moment you first start playing them. Not just because they look good or have an amazing production value, but rather because of how they make you feel. Braid is that kind of game, a small Xbox Live Arcade title that could have been nothing more than just a brilliant homage to classic 8-bit platformers. But it's more than that; it's one of the most compelling, intelligent and exciting games I've played in a long, long time. Braid is easily one of the best games of the year, a stunning achievement that everybody should own.
If you just go by the photos then you might think that this is nothing more than a funky version of Super Mario Bros. played on the Xbox Live Arcade. But you would be wrong, there's so much more going on in the game. In fact, Braid only looks an old school 2D platformer; instead it's actually an ingenious puzzle game that will require you to use parts of your brain you didn't even know existed. The controls, graphics and gameplay are all as simple as can be, but that's only because the puzzles themselves are real brain busters.
Braid tells the story of Tim, a well-dressed guy who resembles a shorter version of Alex P. Keaton (from Family Ties). Over the course of the game's six levels (and epilogue) you learn that Tim is on an adventure to save the princess, a noble task that many a platform hero has attempted in the past thirty years or so. While his quest may not be very original, the way he goes about doing it is completely brand new.
One thing that sets Tim apart from all of those other platformer super heroes (besides the suit and tie) is the fact that he only has one life to live. This isn't like Super Mario where our favorite Italian plumber has dozens of lives and the ability to earn 1ups. When you die, you die. But don't worry, because Tim has one other ability that sets him apart from all of those other video game characters - he can reverse time. That means that any time you get into trouble you can stop time and rewind it as far back as you need to, all the way back to the beginning of the stage, if need be.
As you might have guessed, a lot the puzzles Tim has to solve involve him using this time shifting ability. The game establishes the rules right from the beginning, such as making you aware that some items cannot be rewound and that jumping on enemies will act like a springboard. To make sure you have these basics down the game starts you out with extremely easy puzzles. For example, one early puzzle has you jumping down into a pit to grab a key. The trick is that the key is one of those "magic" items that is not affected by your reverse ability, so you are able to reverse time with the key still in your hand. Figure this out and you're off to getting a puzzle piece. It's that simple.
Obviously not every puzzle is that simple, but that gives you a good idea of the kinds of things you'll run into early on in Braid. However, don't get too comfortable with your abilities. You see, each one of the six levels actually has its own unique gimmick; something that is thrown in to change the way you solve that set of levels. For example, in one level you will be able to use your shadow to help solve puzzles, while in another level you can drop down a ring that creates a barrier that slows everything down. Perhaps my favorite twist comes in the fourth stage, where you seem to be connected to everything around you in the level. If you take a step forward time takes one step forward. Take a step backward and time takes a step backwards. Stand still and, well, everything just stands still. And just when you feel like you've grasped this level's twist, the game throws something at you that will make you rethink how you solve the puzzles.
No matter how many twists the game throws at you, the basic gameplay is always right there ready to help you solve the puzzles. What makes this game great is that it's always playing on the conventions that it sets up, so you'll constantly be surprised at how the game sets up its puzzles and always seems to be one or two steps ahead of you. These days it's rare for me to be blown away by a puzzle or a gameplay twist, yet I found myself constantly shocked and delighted by what I was seeing. In some ways it took me back to a time when I was first coming to grips with what video games could do, a time when I was just a young kid playing 2D platformers on my NES.
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