It seems like just yesterday that Alfred Lam’s puzzler LogiGun lunged into the world, flaunting its cerebral bravado and taunting players with punishing, but rewarding, challenges. And now a contestant for the difficulty-crown approaches, found in the seemingly harmless two-dimensional puzzle-platformer Gateways, created by Smudged Cat Games of The Adventures of Shuggy fame. The emphasis being heavily upon ‘seemingly’.
The player takes on the role of Ed, a scientist, who awakens in his laboratory to find the area in ruin, with various areas sealed off and empowered creatures running amok. The colourful visuals and rich backgrounds hark back to the 16-bit era and, along with the catchy B-movie audio and Shuggy posters, help to create an environment with a tongue-in-cheek atmosphere. This is no more evident than when the player encounters their first foe. Both the cartoonish enemy design and classic jump-on-their-heads mechanic are completely juxtaposed by the shower of viscera that greets the player after defeating them. It’s startling, and serves to reinforce the attitude that this is a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
If the first thirty minutes of play was to be taken as a benchmark for the whole product, then not taking itself seriously would be almost be a criticism. The plot starts as standard fare, the enemies initially show miniscule amounts of variation and the central mechanics appear to have been borrowed from other games; the persistent world with its inventory based progression seem to be pure Metroidvania, and the titular Gateways mechanic and switch pressing puzzle design appear to be lifted from Valve’s Portal series. But, fortunately, this is not the case. David Johnston at Smudged Cat Games has proven with the critically acclaimed Shuggy that he knows game design and, as the rest of the game goes on to prove, Gateways is very much its own breed.
Happily, given the genre, the puzzles and inventory are the games strengths. There are various tools at the player’s disposal that serve to manipulate the environment which get progressively more complex and satisfying. The first gateway gun which creates interconnecting portals may have been seen before but has been adapted perfectly for the 2D perspective. Other guns include the resizer which makes the player larger or smaller and the rotator which flips the environment and allows traversal of otherwise impassable surfaces.
The spatial challenges involve plenty of head-scratching and plotting, but it’s when the game throws temporality into the equation that the difficulty ramps up tremendously. Having dealt with time travel before in 2010’s Timeslip, Smudged Cat introduces a whole new layer in puzzle depth. By using the time gun, players can interact with past versions of themselves (not physically as this creates a paradox) to solve otherwise impossible puzzles. For some players, the ensuing difficulty will be off-putting and it is certainly a jarring spike given the slow curve that comes beforehand. Thankfully, there is a hint system at hand. By spending five of the five hundred orbs scattered around the world the game will inform the player if they are sufficiently equipped to complete a task. By spending an additional forty, the game will solve the puzzle for the player, showing them how to do so in the process.
With collectibles and power-ups abound, it isn’t simply puzzle solving that’s the prime motivator in Gateways. Those seeking 100% completion have a hefty challenge ahead of them and the package is certainly great value for money. Given the laboratory setting, it’s appropriate that Gateways feels like an experiment into the spatial-puzzler. And the results suggest, firmly, that this is a step in the right direction.