The reopening of legendary video game publisher, Sierra, was met with much fanfare late last year. Now a part of Activision, Sierra's focus is on bringing high-quality downloadable indie titles to consoles. Their first release, Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions, was met with critical acclaim and proved to be a perfect jumping off point for the reinvigorated label. Their second release, and the subject of this review, is the Rock Pocket Games developed Shiftlings. Does this goofy puzzle-platformer have what it takes to keep the publisher's momentum going strong?
Shiftlings is presented as a popular reality TV show which follows two dim-witted alien janitors as they go from world to world in order to fix several machines that are on the fritz. The two aliens, which are attached by a tube, can change their size thanks to one of them drinking the fizziest cola in the universe, Black-Hola Cola. Since they are connected, one of the two aliens is always large and bouncy while the other is small and mobile. Of course, this mechanic is worked into the game's many puzzles.
Each level tasks the alien duo with fixing a machine before they can navigate to the exit portal. Every level contains a mix of difficult puzzle solving and platforming that will test the skill any gamer. The gameplay is kept simple, as the player can only walk, jump, and switch the size of the characters. Simple as it may be, Rock Pocket Games have expertly designed a game that uses these mechanics in unique, innovative ways throughout the entire campaign.
In solo play, players are tasked with controlling both of the aliens at once. This feels awkward and convoluted at first, and that feeling might not go away until several levels in. Players will have to switch between characters on the fly, which can make some platforming sections more difficult than they should be. For those who want to solve puzzles with a friend, online and local co-op play is an option. This allows each player to separately control one of the aliens, but they can't wander too far off as they are still connected to each other.
Shiftlings is a game more about exploration and puzzle solving than combat, but there are baddies that litter some of the levels. Most enemies can be defeated with a simple bop on the head when a fizzed-up alien jumps on top of them. However, there are other larger enemies that must be avoided at all costs.
Players don't have to worry about death too much in Shiftlings since they're allowed to replay a level as many times as it takes to succeed. That said, there are still many ways to die in the game, as machinery that is all too happy to crush you is constantly in operation and electrified zones are present. The other main way to die is if the tube connecting the two aliens gets snapped, which will lead to deflation.
Those looking for a casual game to play without expending much thought should stay away from Shiftlings, as this is one of the more difficult games we've played this year. Levels regularly stumped us and were only solved after stepping away and taking an extended break. As with any puzzle game, sometimes it's a fresh perspective that will make sense of a complex scenario.
Hidden in each of the game's 50 levels are three bottles of Black-Hola Cola. These bottles are often located in difficult to reach places that only the most determined of players can reach. While completionists will have a good time figuring out how to obtain these collectibles, the game doesn't provide much of an incentive to collect them.
Since it's presented as a TV show, there is a disembodied voice that provides commentary during gameplay, and his quips often range from helpful to unfunny. Some of the jokes will induce a laugh, but sadly the vast majority will leave players rolling their eyes. Ultimately, it is worth keeping the commentary on, since it might just provide the help you need to get you out of a bothersome puzzle.
The music found within Shiftlings is quite excellent. The joyful soundtrack is always upbeat and is a nice counter to any feeling of dismay that might be felt from being stuck on a puzzle. Graphically, the game is quite nice to look at, with a simple foreground that allows the player to focus on puzzles. A lot of work has gone into the backgrounds as they often portray outlandish scenes that are a joy to watch.
Shiftlings is a game that will frustrate many people, but ultimately it's one that's worth playing through. Due to the focus being on just a few simple mechanics, puzzles that at first seem impossible can often have a simple solution. These moments of brilliance are what keep Shiftlings a compelling experience and one that continues to test your wit until the very end. Rock Pocket Games have created a memorable puzzle game that is a solid fit for the new Sierra, even if its control scheme might take some time to get used to.