8 mins read
Review by Matt S.

Toodee and Topdee is one of those tiny little games that will largely escape your notice, but at some point or another, you’ll find yourself playing it and be glad that you did. This humble little game won’t win any great prizes nor make its creators millions of dollars, but there’s a strong creative soul behind it that makes it quite admirable.

The game is basically two types of gameplay rolled into one. The first is a 2D platformer in which you need to navigate a cute little pixel protagonist across a screen filled with traps, to reach a goal. The second is a top-down puzzler where you need to use a second protagonist to slide blocks around and navigate past obstacles, for example by bridging gaps in the playfield (remembering that the character can’t jump). What makes this game interesting is that those two types of gameplay are actually smushed into one, and you need to play both in combination to solve the puzzles. So for example, at one point, the 2D platformer character will be unable to reach a part of the level that they need to – most commonly to reach some kind of key. To solve the puzzle, you need to switch the gameplay to the top-down character, and manipulate the environment by pushing blocks around, which subsequently creates the platforms that the first character can jump on and now reach the previously inaccessible key.

These two gameplay systems don’t operate simultaneously, so when you are playing the 2D platformer section, the top-down play is frozen in time and vice versa. This allows the game to throw some puzzles at you that are timing-based. For example, you may need to take a leap of faith into empty space in the 2D platforming, before flipping the action over to the top-down gameplay (pausing the 2D platfoming) to take the platforms that the character was just standing on, and reposition them in the landing area so that once “un-paused” the 2D platforming hero dosen’t crash into spikes below them. At other times you’ll need to make sure that blocks falling from the weight of gravity are “paused” in the right place at the right time, and that you’re creating chain reactions with disappearing blocks and the like at the perfect moment so that neither of your characters is stuck. A level is only ticked off when both characters reach the end goal, and you’ll need to be quite creative with the narrow skillset available to you to achieve that.

The real challenge for puzzle game developers is making sure that the puzzles remain interesting throughout, and that’s never easy. A puzzle game needs to be constantly throwing new twists at the player, and making sure that the logical tests are varied enough, while still utilising the same basic mechanics throughout. The good news is that Toodee and Topdee does indeed have a good range of puzzles that ensure it feels fresh from start to finish. I found the variety in level design to be quite invigorating to play through once (especially the boss battles!), and more than a few times I found myself stumped at one, but “stumped” in the right way with a level was structured to be logically challenging without frustrating. Even when you’re looking at a level with no immediate sense of how to finish it, you’ll know that with a bit of trial-and-error and creative thought, you’ll get through it. To me, that is excellent puzzle design.

Unfortunately for the game’s longevity, once through each level was really enough for me. The biggest problem that Toodee and Topdee faces is that its scope is too narrow and limited for its own good. Once you have completed a level once and you have solved the puzzle, and there’s very little to come back to because once a puzzle has been solved it becomes trifling. There are no online leaderboards, there is no scoring system. It really is just a sequence of levels to play through. Now that’s not a problem in the sense that the developer clearly respects its player’s time and has made the conscious decision not to demand too much of them. I respect a developer that understands their game’s limits and doesn’t try to force players into arbitrary gameplay loops for the sake of “engagement.” However, it has to be said that this game will come across as being quite thin in just about every way. Outside of a couple dozen really nicely designed puzzles there’s only a really half-hearted effort at an “amusing” narrative, and I wasn’t really sold on the aesthetics or characterisation either.

The developers of Toodee and Topdee have done a lot right with the mechanics, and it feels good to play. In addition to some excellent difficulty settings that can help players through without feeling condescending, there’s also co-op, which turns the intensity of trying to manage two characters at once into a free-for-all yell-a-thon where you’re going to be barking orders back and forth to try and get the precision play timing down just right. Or, alternatively, it’s a good way for a parent to play a game with their child that doesn’t involve killing stuff (far too rare for this industry).

Toodee and Topdee could have been something truly essential if the developers had have funnelled the creative energy that they put into the puzzles and mechanics into some other areas of game design, too. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t have the personality, aesthetics or energy to stand toe-to-toe with the big guns. But the puzzles themselves show a confident understanding of good design and creativity. Ultimately that is the most important thing for a puzzle game, so hopefully, the developers get the chance to revisit what they’ve done here with a slightly broader vision. This team clearly has talent in spades.

– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb

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