February 15th, 2012 | By Charles Battersby
Back in 1991, the game Lemmings created a whole new genre of puzzle game. Players were given the chore of shepherding a group of suicidal critters through levels crammed with all sorts of hazards. Unable to directly control the movements of these helpless morons, players did have the power to affect how the lemmings interacted with their environment. By instructing them to do the right thing at the right moment, the doomed creatures would (mostly) arrive safely at their destination. Spirits by Spaces of Play has players using a streamlined form of the same gameplay to help disembodied spirits reach their goal in the afterlife. Perhaps this is the video game community’s chance to atone for all those lemmings they killed back in the 90s?
Lemmings and its many clones like Mario March of the Minis usually have a sense of humor or silliness about their ill-fated subjects. It’s fun to watch cartoon animals or silly little robots die! With Spirits, the art design and music add a more serious tone to the game. This time players are watching over armless, big-eyed spirits who wander through a cold, grim world filled with deadly spikes. They’re weak, soft and nearly insubstantial. These ghosts are easily blown around by the relentless winds of the world and their only hope for salvation is that the player might help them reach a swirling, glowing light at the end of each level.
With a strong emotional bond attached to their little friends, players have to also come to grips with the fact that some of them just aren’t going to make it. Each of the spirits has the power to transform into some useful shape like a bridge or a cloud that will gently blow their fellows in whatever direction the player chooses. Once transformed, that’s it for that particular spirit. There is a finite number of spirits per level and, in order to progress to the next level, players need to get a certain number of them safely to the end. This means that not only must they be protected from the environment, but also means that players must treat every life as precious and not go turning them all into bridges unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Spirits tries to simplify the Lemmings formula as much as possible. Each spirit only has four abilities: Grow into a bridge, become a cloud and Blow, Dig for a short distance, or block the wind. The Player can choose the direction that the spirits will blow, dig or grow, but that’s the limit of player control. Most levels will even impose further limitations, such as only allowing the Blow ability.
The art is hand-drawn and gorgeous. The spirits themselves are pathos-inducing and their world is a very bleak place. The orchestral score also serves to evoke emotion while also giving the player cues as to what’s happening on screen. Rather than rely on just sound effects, Spirits changes the tone of the music to let players know when they’re on the right track.
Spirits began life as a mobile game, but this Mac edition is more than just releasing the same game on a new platform. Rather it has some upgrades, by far not the least of which are graphical enhancements that look very clean when played on a full-sized monitor. It also has a fast-forward feature so that once players have solved the level, they won’t have to wait around for the spirits to slowly make their way to the end. It also has some social media features for gamers who enjoy pestering their Twitter followers with their game progress.
Its roots as a mobile game also show in that it’s clearly designed for short play sessions. Most missions can be played through in a minute or so. There are 42 of them altogether and there is a great deal of replayability because each mission has optional objectives. Casual gamers can just breeze through the levels solving the basic requirements, but players who like a mental challenge also can aim for a “Perfect” completion. These sometime require the player to navigate the level with more spirits alive at the end, but there are also Plants scattered around the levels. Getting a spirit to touch one of these plants will cause it to bloom and each level will have a certain number of plants needed for completion. To get the perfect score, players will need to reach all of the plants on a level while still getting a specific number of spirits through to the end. It’s quite a challenge to reach the perfect mark after the first couple of levels.
Spirits takes a classic game and updates it by adding in a more serious tone, then sliming down the game mechanics to a more elegant form. The result is an engaging, challenging game that is genuinely suitable for casual and hardcore gamers alike.
Spirits is out now for iOS on the App Store and will be available on the Mac Store from February 15th onwards at an introductory price of 7.99 (5.99 €) for the first two weeks. The regular price will be USD
9.99 (7.99 €), the game requires OSX 10.6 or later.
More information on Spirits can be found on the game’s official website.