Sunday, June 2, 2013

Game Review - Pid (XBLA, 2012)

Very rarely do we get to see a game that is objectively fantastic in just about every way but still somehow manages to be less than the sum of its parts.  Pid is one of those games.  Carefully and lovingly designed, Pid has all the pieces necessary for an incredible platformer, but the bits in between prevent it from being a truly amazing gaming experience.  Here’s why:

From the moment you first boot up the game, Pid’s unassuming presentation clearly indicates that it’s not going to beat you over the head with plot points or tutorials, as tends to be so common these days.  The simple title and menu screens set a very mellow and subtle vibe.  It’s quite refreshing, actually.

That vibe persists into the game itself.  Starting a new game gives you a brief, wordless introduction to the story, and then plops you down into the first gorgeous area.  The surreal art direction shows a beautifully detailed and somewhat stylized world.  The character models are a bit blocky, but that feature adds to their bizarre charm, and they’re supported by wonderful backgrounds that show miles of landscape.  The subtle ambient music provides an extra level of haunting beauty, as it always complements the visual style of an area and hints at an underlying sadness.

In short, Pid is a damn beautiful game.

And the story is similarly understated.  The protagonist, a boy named Kurt, is left in a strange world after he falls asleep on a bus, and all he wants is to hop on the next bus back home.  He soon discovers, however, that the busses haven’t been running – the first people he encounters have been waiting for years for the bus – so he embarks on a quest to find some way to get home.

The truly wonderful part of the story is the fact that it’s told almost exclusively through short dialogues with random characters you meet throughout the game.  There aren’t extensive cutscenes or painfully overt expositions; it’s all presented in a very organic way, which further emphasizes the game’s subtle beauty.  The plot itself isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s sufficiently interesting to make it enticing.

All these elements add up to a great passive experience for the player, but the gameplay makes it more than an interactive movie.

Pid’s basic premise is that Kurt gets ahold of an artifact that allows him to create beams of light on nearly any surface that will propel him away from that surface.  He can only have two of these beams active at a time, and they disappear after nine seconds, which severely limits their overall power.

Still, these beams add a wrinkle to the basic platforming formula that makes it feel like a totally unique game.  Indeed, instead of being a simple platformer, Pid plays a bit more like a puzzle game, as your destination may be clear, but the arrangement of beams that will get you there is not.  As a result of the beams’ timed lifespans, you’ll encounter a number of obstacles that require both clever planning and quick execution to proceed to the next room.

The difficulty ramps up pretty rapidly, with an increasing need for precise jumps and beam placement.  Fortunately, the game is pretty forgiving; if you die, you’ll respawn almost immediately at the nearest checkpoint (and checkpoints are plentiful).  A few boss fights provide decent spikes in difficulty, so it proves to be a rather challenging game overall (I died a little over 250 times in my first run through the game, according to an end-game tally of my overall stats).

Furthermore, the gameplay evolves a bit over time, with new mechanics appearing as you progress.  These mechanics take the form of new items and enemies, but they always manage to keep the gameplay from getting stale.

Pid is all-around an amazingly designed game.  So why isn’t it perfect?

The most obvious flaw is undoubtedly the overall length.  It took me about 6 hours to complete the game, which is a little on the short end, but there is a bit of an upside: the hard mode you unlock by completing the game is a different experience altogether (it is much harder with more enemies and dangerous obstacles everywhere), effectively doubling the content, so it’s really not bad.

Pid didn’t strike me in nearly the way I would have expected given the amazing basis on which the game is built.  I think it ultimately comes down to one simple fact: the areas don’t seem to go quite far enough before introducing a new mechanic.  Although it is quite tough, Pid always seemed to transition into a new area right when successfully completing the challenges was getting really rewarding.  It was almost like the game presents difficult scenarios but then cuts you off right before you get the exhilarating rush of overcoming a brutal challenge.  This flaw, like so many aspects of Pid, is subtle, but it had a really significant impact of my enjoyment.  To be fair, it was still good fun, but it isn’t nearly as awesome as it seems it should be.

Pid is a beautiful game, and it’s incredible on paper, but a relatively minor flaw holds it back from being the best game in recent memory.  It is fabulous for platforming fans, but it’s unlikely to convert anyone due to a small flaw that undermines the game’s otherwise compelling gameplay.

My Rating: 7/10 – good.

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