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.In total there are sixty different puzzle pieces, all of which can be acquired in the game's first five levels (levels 2 - 6). Once you've collected all of the pieces, assembled each world's jigsaw puzzle and read all of the books (which tell the story) you can move on to world 1. It's here that the story really takes off. Think of it like Portal, which is perhaps the closest comparison you can make. The first bunch of levels are all about teaching you how to play in this world, while the last bit is all of the story. And what a story it is. It's not enough that this is a phenomenal puzzle game from beginning to end, but it also has one of the most surprising endings I've ever seen in a video game. It's the kind of ending that will make you rethink what you just played. The kind of ending that will stick with you long after you've finished the 5 hour quest. It's an ending that is surprisingly mature; something that doesn't talk down to its audience. It's honest and heartfelt, but also the kind of thing you actually have to think about. It's so clever; in fact, that I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of gamers simply don't understand what's going on. Braid has the kind of ending I want to see more of.
Braid is the kind of experience that is about something. You may not know what at first, but by the time you've seen and done everything it's hard to not feel like you've really experienced something important. Braid is important, it's the kind of game that so better than we deserve. It's the difference between, say, Hancock and The Dark Knight, or even According to Jim and Arrested Development. This game may play on the same system that runs Guitar Hero and Scene It, but it's on a level all its own. Braid is a masterpiece.
It also seems aware of its place in the games industry. It's constantly making references to classic 8-bit games, including Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong and the like. It may look more grown up, but in its heart it's spending a lot of time playing homage to things we've grown up loving. Some of these things are completely out in the open, such as a dinosaur that suggests that the princess is in another castle. Some things are slightly more subtle (a Donkey Kong-inspired level named Jumpman springs to mind). Either way, the game plays out like a heartfelt love letter to the last thirty years of video games.
Of course, the it's not the originality of the puzzles, the mature storyline, the outstanding gameplay or even the funny classic video game references that people will initially notice. No, instead people will notice the stunning graphics. It's not often I get a chance to rave about the visuals in an Xbox Live Arcade title, but Braid is allowing me to do a lot of things I rarely get a chance to do. All it takes is one look at a picture and you'll realize that the game is sporting a hand-drawn look that sets it apart from everything else. The backgrounds, foregrounds, even the enemies (which include strange looking goomba creatures) all look like somebody just drew (or in the case of the backgrounds, painted) them. A lot of games have their own unique style that sets them apart, but Braid is one of the first games that looks so good that you could hang it on your wall and pass it off as fine art.
Oh, and did I mention that the music is also phenomenal? I'm not one to brag about game music, but Braid delivers a score that not only fits the mood perfectly, but is the type of thing I would want to listen to when not playing the game. And it shouldn’t surprise you that the game's music also plays a role in the game's outcome, though I will avoid spoiling that surprise for you. If Number None (who developed this amazing product) don't release a full soundtrack, then I'm going to be extremely disappointed. Not since Everyday Shooter have I been so impressed with the music from a small downloadable title.
Unfortunately there's a gigantic gorilla in the room that I can't ignore, no matter how many words I use to try and convince you that this is one of the greatest games of all time. The one big complaint is the price tag, which is a tad more expensive than we're used to paying for an Xbox Live Arcade title. The game comes in at $15, which isn't too bad for the amount of gameplay you get. Depending on how good you are at solving puzzles the game could take you anywhere from four hours all the way up to ten or more. I found myself going through it in around five hours, but that's just me. Outside of a Speed Run options (yet another throwback to game culture) the game doesn't have a lot of replay. Then again, how much replay did Assassin's Creed have? Or what about BioShock? These games were no more than ten hours long, yet they were four times the price. Braid may not have the amazing 3D polygonal graphics, but it does have enough gameplay to warrant the $15 asking price.
In the end this product is all about the puzzles. If you absolutely hate solving puzzles, don't care about a moving story and would rather just shoot Nazis in another World War II-themed first-person shooter, then Braid is probably not the game for you. However, if you're like me and like to try out new things then you will be treated to one of the best games of all time. Scratch that, Braid is easily one of the best games I have ever played. It's near perfect, which is exactly why you should stop reading this review and purchase some Microsoft Points. $15 may sound like a lot of money for an Xbox Live Arcade game, but I guarantee that this game will change how you feel about Microsoft's download service.