There’s nothing better than an easy to jump into platformer. While I prefer 3D platformers, the titles in this genre that tend to work the best with the least amount of startup time are small-scale 2D indies. One such game that easily falls into this category is the recently released INK by Zach Bell Games. This simple yet elegant color focused platformer invites you in quickly and then won’t allow you to leave until the game is finished. It’s almost perfectly balanced between challenging and casual to leave you with no regrets by the end of the adventure.
The graphics are what first drew me to this game. Pun not intended. Not because they were astoundingly good, but because they were simple yet exciting. The scale is extremely small. In fact if you choose windowed play (ALT+ENTER unlisted command), you only have the option of a 600 x 800 resolution. Yet it’s perfect for what INK is. The solid navy blue background works as a perfect canvas for the vibrant array of colors you will paint across the various invisible platforms, walls, and spikes you will encounter. In a very Splatoon inspired way, your small white square will smoothly slide, jump, fall, and ride from one escape portal to the next.
What I truly love about the graphics is that every interactive element other than enemies is a canvas to be painted. The various transparent surfaces, including instant death spikes, can be painted and repainted an unlimited number of times. This also makes for a great hidden objects mechanic. There are secret coins hidden throughout the game. Before you can collect them you must locate them through accidentally revealing them by getting ink on them.
The game is meant to be simple yet not undervalued. Even the menus, of which there are only 4, and the credits are done with very simple ink blots and block text that is actually quite pleasing to the eyes. The three enemies and three bosses you encounter are all simple geometric shapes. Some of which aren’t even filled in. Everything about the game is simple and it’s perfect in its simplicity. The ink is what you’re meant to dwell on and remember. Not the various other things that justify the ink’s presence. That’s really about all that needs to be said about the game’s appearance. It’s a simple looking game that fulfills your visual needs none the less.
As with everything else in INK, the gameplay is quite simple from a mechanical standpoint. All you can do is move and jump, double jump, or wall jump. You can play with a keyboard, but gamepads are king here. The controls handle like a dream. It’s smooth like paint and the often fast paced precision jumping and dodging just works easier with a controller. Your goal is to get to the exit portal in each stage. Most stages are just about getting there, but some require other tasks such as killing all the sponge enemies. As with any good platformer this requires nothing more than a jump on the head/top of the enemies. Other levels have keys that must be acquired to open certain areas. The three boss fights are very interesting and challenging puzzles that don’t change the overall feel of the gameplay.
For the first several levels the game will appear to be limited to the window because most levels will kill you for leaving the boundaries of the level in any direction. But later you will find out that this is not actually the case 100% of the time. Some levels extend in any of the 4 directions. While you have unlimited lives and aren’t timed, staying alive is a challenging and obviously required aspect of the game. Each level starts with a blank screen full of transparent objects. You color these objects by touching them or splattering paint on them. Splattering is done automatically whenever you double jump or die. When you die, which can only occur from moving out-of-bounds, touching spikes, touching enemies from the sides, or getting hit with a turret projectile, you respawn instantly where you started but all the previously dropped paint remains. Enemies and hidden coins also respawn upon death. In this way dying is actually necessary and helpful in many cases because it shows you platforms, many of which move, and areas to avoid. Sometimes you’ll even die intentionally in order to learn more about a level’s layout.
What I really like about the gameplay is that it’s constantly moving. From the time you load up the game to the end of the game you’re always in motion. The main menu goes straight to the level select without asking you other than the first time you load it up. There are no loading times. Levels flow into each other with no stoppage except for when you defeat bosses. No wasted moments. Even the stages themselves are active puzzles that are focused much more on doing than solving. Figuring out what to do it easy. It’s accomplishing those precision jumps that’s hard.
I found the game to be challenging in a very fair way. My only complaint was that the third enemy class, circular turrets, has homing projectiles which not only aim, but change course too drastically. These levels more than any other will cause you the most frustration because too often death is simply unavoidable because of impossible dodging scenarios. But overall the gameplay is extremely fun and not impossible. You can easily finish a first play through in under two hours if you care to. I finished mine in under three while constantly stopping to take notes and pictures. I don’t think the gameplay brings anything new to the table, but it’s extremely fun and runs perfectly.
There is no plot or writing to speak of other than the very simple and excellent tutorial which consists of the first four stages. I have to say that I was underwhelmed by the sound in INK. The effects were great. The volume levels couldn’t be controlled, but the effects chosen and the background sounds were perfect in every way. I love the ambient dripping and the shattering sound used when you kill enemies. The music on the other hand was nothing special. Just a couple very mellow tracks which weren’t necessarily wrong for the game, but they also didn’t impress me. There are also a lot of breaks in the music while playing. Sometimes it felt like the music was moving based on your speed, but I’m not sure if that’s actually true. I liked the credit music a bit more, but it only lasts for about 40 seconds.
Replay value is hit or miss here. There are no recorded stats other than the 16 achievements, most of which are either super easy or impossibly hard with a few collectible ones as well. I completed half of them in my first playthrough and that includes one of the collectible ones. It’s a game I really enjoyed playing once, but I can’t see myself ever taking the time to play it again. Sadly it’s only 75 stages that won’t even take you three hours to beat. For $5 I’ll admit that’s a little high. But in a very rare turn of events I still endorse the purchase of this game. Even though you’re essentially throwing away $2 as far as actual game time is concerned, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and I strongly recommend playing this game.
Some games are praised for their originality. Some games are praised for doing one thing really well like graphics or story. But I think the best games are the ones that regardless of how they compare to other games or how well they do any of the criteria usually addressed when critiquing games, provide the most satisfying/enjoyable experience.
INK by Zackbell Games is one such game. It’s a game that doesn’t do anything noticeably better by comparison to other games in the platforming genre yet it’s super gratifying to play, with the assumption that you get to the end and don’t wind up stuck for too long on the way. Nothing about it is bad by any means. But it would be a lie to say that the graphics, sound, music, replay value, or gameplay is better than most other games. The writing is nonexistent. And while yes the controls are butter, that’s not too grand of an achievement for such a small-scale game.
Yet after many hours over the course of several days I have no regrets about playing it. I loved it from start to finish and while I feel it’s a little pricey for the length, I gladly endorse it and recommend anyone who enjoys 2D platformers to try it. This is one of those rare titles where I have to give it a low critical score but would also say it’s a must or at least should play.
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