Ego Protocol, by developer Static Dreams, is an interesting take on an old premise. You must rearrange the environment in order to lead a robot to safety, with little direct control of the latter. Apparently, developer Static Dreams won some awards with Ego, which in some ways is not surprising.
On the surface, Static Dreams has combined two of the most overused and despised game design tropes: The sliding tile puzzle and the escort quest. This impression is not exactly softened by bland graphics and animation. But while it would be pithy to dismiss the game as runoff from Resident Evil 4 mixed with Newgrounds escapees, it would be a disservice to solid design.
The games’ “levels”, as it were, are a series of square rooms that can be moved and rearranged like a typical sliding tile puzzle. Your robot walks gormlessly ahead, turning around simply walking the other way whenever he hits a wall, but you can move the corridors and even the objectives around so your mentally challenged robot can reach them. The important wrinkle is that you can’t move a room which the robot is currently standing in, preventing the game from becoming Elevator Operator Simulator 2016.
The other variation that Ego adds is rooms with hazards like pits, turrets, and enemies, where the player actually gets a single contextual button input which can command your robot to jump, wait in place, or shoot respectively. They can add some more complexity to the levels, such as needing to collect a weapon before passing certain rooms, but others like the “turret” rooms where you must evade a predictable bullet periodically fired from the ceiling add very little depth to the game other than forcing a few annoying waits or deaths by impatience.
Despite these bugbears, it is clear that some real thought was put into the design of the game. The mechanics are drip fed to you; you start just swapping two rooms at a time, but as time goes one you gain the complete rubix-cube range of motion and the real fun begins. That kind of intentional pacing shows that the developers were truly thoughtful in their design. What’s more, the level design is impressive, demanding creativity from the player even with a fairly small set of mechanics. If one wanted to go for speed and collectible items, it would demand quite a bit of skill, since a high level of optimization is possible with the mechanics. In this respect, the game has achieved the coveted “Easy to Learn, Hard to Master”.
The only real problems with the game are technical. The controls clearly had a touchscreen in mind, the screen flickers when the keyboard is used, the game simply does not look very good. Signs of a lazy mobile port. Not intolerable problems, but sufficient to diminish one’s impression of the game. Especially when the control issues interfere with what could be precise gameplay.
Ego Protocol was a real surprise. A thoughtfully designed puzzle game with quite a few original ideas. That makes the brutal technical difficulties game faces (on PC) even more of a shame. Worth a look if you really want a different puzzle game, or perhaps on mobile, but on PC it is a hard sell.
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