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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Review: Gateways (PC)

Now available on Steam
I am not a huge fan of the label “clone”. While I don't view the word as anything more than the comparison of two very similar pieces of entertainment, to a lot of people the word “clone” usually comes attached with the idea that the secondary product is worse or cheaper than its earlier counterpart. This association, to me, is unfair and it also breeds the concept that being original is better than being good. In all honesty, I would rather take an extremely high-quality and entertaining clone of a Super Mario Bros. game rather than an original platformer that fails at being compelling or fun.

Unfortunately, I see Gateways as falling under the aforementioned association, even though it doesn't deserve it and arguably shouldn't even be considered a clone. At face value, it's a two-dimensional Portal clone, but digging deeper will reveal that despite one similar mechanic, it's the antithesis of Portal. Rather, Gateways clearly focuses on using the potential of its game mechanics, instead of presenting ideas wrapped in very shiny plastic.

The story starts with lone inventor Ed, who wakes up in his lab to find all of the doors locked and all of his equipment scattered about. After several leaning-on-the-fourth-wall jokes ensue, the goal becomes for the player to guide Ed through his lab, collect all of his gateway guns, and solve puzzles until the exit door is opened.

Ed, Ed and, err... Ed
 Yes, Gateways involves solving puzzles and using what can only be described as a gun that shoots portals that the player can traverse through, but the association with Valve's Portal is immediately shot down once the player realizes that it's actually a Metroidvania-styled puzzle game. For those unaware, the term “Metroidvania” refers to somewhat open-world games, in which getting more equipment unlocks new areas to explore and thus more equipment that can be found in order to open up more areas. While Gateways doesn't go all-out with the Metroidvania design philosophy (the game is still fairly contained), this aspect does lead to a slew of extra puzzles and gives the game a more organic flow than if it were to have been an entirely linear experience.

The reason why Gateways has its name is because the main gameplay mechanic is about placing gateways with a variety of different gateway guns. The standard gateway gun is the gun that everybody compares to the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, but there are three other gateway guns that bring interesting twists to the gameplay. The resizing gateway gun creates two different gateways that change the players size upon entering them, the rotation gateway gun changes the gravity of Ed based on the rotation of the exit portal and the time gateway gun creates gateways to the past so that there can be more than one copy of Ed running around. While the second two gateway guns are great additions, the time gateway gun is both a blessing and a curse, as it's extremely fun to use, but allows the later puzzles to become mind-bendingly complicated.

Speaking of the puzzles, they are well-crafted here. Not only do the puzzles challenge the player, but they challenge the player's knowledge and understanding of the tools at their disposal. The puzzles slowly escalate from simple one-gateway affairs to ludicrous multi-gateway puzzles that absolutely boggle the mind. While the game does effectively hit all of the ranges of difficulty for its array of puzzles, it curves upwards exponentially during the game's final challenges. Thankfully, the game allows players who are not puzzle-savvy to buy the solution of an individual puzzle for the hefty sum of 40 floating orbs. Thankfully, these orbs are found pretty much everywhere in the laboratory, so it isn't like the player will be searching for any extended amount of time trying to find the last of a set of 40 orbs.

Mind bendin' 
However, Gateways does contain some flaws, despite having good mechanics and a great structure. Along with not remembering a single piece of the select few music tracks, the okay graphics only serve the purpose of giving visually accurate representations to objects and not much else. There are also enemies strewn around the facility, but there's only one template for the enemies. They also follow predetermined paths and serve no purpose other than to annoy players, and block a few pathways here and there. Admittedly, the enemies give more personality to the near non-existent personality of the laboratory, but they can only add so much. 

Another more common problem that occurred throughout the game relating to the actual mechanics was how the time gateway worked. The central mechanic of the gateway is that more than one copy of Ed can be running around at a single time doing different things. However, there is one caveat: if Ed and an Ed clone touch, all of the Ed clones in the current time loop disappear and the time loop is ended. The harder puzzles make avoiding clones a serious problem, especially when those puzzles are limited to very tight spaces. The game does actually use this limitation in its puzzles, but again the sub-problem of not having enough space to properly maneuver outweighs the puzzles where the failures equate to being unable to time Ed's movements.

Puzzle games should focus on making challenging and entertaining puzzles, and this is something that Gateways nails more than 90 percent of the time. While it might be on the short side (Steam says my playtime is around four hours), the price justifies the sheer quality of the majority of the puzzles presented. I myself would argue that Gateways works much better as a game than Valve's collection-of-ideas presented in Portal, which may be a compliment, a criticism, or both depending on your preferred tastes.

Review: Gateways (PC)
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