Hi there! How would you like to use a gun which fires portals to solve a series of puzzles laid before you by an unseen but incredibly manipulative presence? Does it sound like fun? Of course it does. Does it sound like something you’ve played before? Absolutely — such is the curse of the Portal-alike. Anything with white walls, anything set in a test environment, anything that serves up room after room of physics-fiddling puzzles gets branded as such these days. Not undeservedly, I might add, but there is generally a point at which such games require a little more analysis than a lazy label like that might serve. The fact that I couldn’t begin this review without drawing attention to this probably says more about me than Smudged Cat’s latest venture, but allow me to continue…
Here’s a thing: The final puzzle in Gateways took me over four hours to solve. Four hours. Nothing in Portal ever made me wait that long for an answer. Nothing in Portal took me three play sessions and a notepad of scribbled instructions to beat. So here lies the point at which referring to Gateways as a Portal-alike becomes utterly redundant. We get the set-up, it’s been done, but it’s how you progress the idea that counts.
The game has you inhabiting the mind and soul of Ed, a scientist who wakes up memory-less inside his own sprawling laboratory. Things that look like monkeys with fish bowls on their heads are running amok (don’t ask). Countless corridors lead off in different directions and after a brief instructional interlude, you’re given the chance to roam free.
To begin with, things aren’t quite as tricky as you might expect. Your first gateway gun will allow you to cross the room in single step — in one side and out the other. It’s easy enough to get to grips with. Certain surfaces are available for portal-making, others are not. Your mission — aided by an incredibly clear and functional map screen — is simply to seek out puzzles and to solve them. By doing this you’ll gain permanent power-ups to help you along the way. More guns, in particular, are what you’re after.
As I said, it starts out simple, but once your gun collection begins to build up you might be forgiven for feeling a little weepy. Before too long you’ll gain the power to alter Ed’s size and to manipulate gravity and time. Independently, these guns are something of a handful, but when the game eventually requires you to use them all at once then you can really expect those cheeks to get wet.
The game presents a metroidvania style layout which means one thing in particular: certain areas won’t be accessible from the off. Thankfully, Gateways won’t leave you floundering for where to go next. Your main objective is highlighted at all times and any puzzles that you encounter are noted on the map. In addition to this is a smart little ploy. Throughout the game are spread funky little blobs (aka power orbs) which, once collected, act as currency. At each puzzle, you’ll find a help point and at each help point information can be bought. Not sure if something is solvable yet? Pay to find out. Pulling your hair out over a particular obstacle? Pay some more to have the game solve it for you. Gateways may grow into a mind-melting monster, but it doesn’t ever intend for you to stop having fun.
It’s a great relief to be able to cash in when something is floundering you, but it doesn’t ever feel like you’re cheating the system. Only a limited amount of orbs are available in the game and you’ll almost always want to save them in fear of bigger, harder puzzles. Besides, the relief at being able to progress is usually short-lived. High spirits become significantly lower when you realize exactly how foolish you were to miss that one little trick that would have carried you onwards.
Being stumped occasionally is good, but there are admittedly times when confusion isn’t the sole result of the puzzling. Your stupid hands, for one, might be cause for some strong words. Gateways requires a good deal of both mental and motor-based finesse and remembering what gun you’ve got equipped and which portal you fired out halfway across the map can lead to some irksome repetition and momentary delays. I’m not even sure the selection system could be streamlined — the complex nature of the game just dictates that some fumbling will occur.
Gateways provides PC gamers with a second hit from Smudged Cat Games in as many weeks. It’s another title to snap up without much thought, particularly in the DRM-free form of the current offering. It’s a ballsy move to create a game that compares so directly to a well-respected triple-A franchise, but enough is done here to distance itself from Valve’s past offerings. The pixel-art is beautifully implemented and the platforming solid. It’s a game that’s not afraid to flumox its players, whilst simultaneously respecting the need for fun and constant progression.
Hilariously, prior to writing this review, a quick glance at YouTube showed me a solution to the final puzzle, that thing for which I had strived so long and hard. The interesting thing? My method was entirely different to that of the developer. I watched the video several times; it didn’t seem easier, nor did it seem harder — it was just entirely different. And that, I think, highlights exactly what it is that makes Gateways such a wonderful experience for the individual player. That they can move forward, brains rattling from the strain, unsure as to whether they are going about things as the developer intended, but just knowing that their own initiative — their own inventiveness — is powering their path through the game.
Gateways is currently available to buy from Smudged Cat’s website for $10. It’s expected to make it’s way onto XBLIG later in the year.
[review pros="Inventive progression of the portal-shooting mechanic, help points allow for frustration-free play." cons="Controlling multiple guns can get confusing, a good deal of patience required for the final puzzle." score=84]