Shift Happens is the latest in the seemingly never-ending parade of 2D puzzle platformers that make up such a huge chunk of the indie-space on console right now. It’s a tough market, because while finely crafted, emotional experiences like Inside will find themselves garnering attention when game of the year awards are being handed out in December, with so many games of this ilk on the market, it takes something truly special to stand out. Unfortunately for Shift Happens, it seems destined to wind up forgotten about in a few hours, let alone by December, because while there is plenty to like about the game, some crippling flaws hold it back.
Shift Happens tells the story of a pair of blue and orange blob-people-things called Plom and Bismo. Something goes awry in the factory in which they work, and now they’ve got to escape by solving puzzles together, aided by the unique ability to shift their weight between each other as required. While at the beginning of the game the weight shifting mechanic seems to be little more than making whichever of the two blob people you’re controlling taller or shorter to fit under things when the situation warrants it, as the game goes on you’ll find that there are in fact some clever uses of the skill. The design of the game in the first world bears more than a passing resemblance to the sterile, clinical laboratories of fellow puzzle game Portal, and while Shift Happens doesn’t have any of the smart writing or characterisation that the game possessed, it does give you the same self-satisfied smile when you solve a troublesome puzzle and feel really smart just for a few seconds.
There are some very clever puzzles in Shift Happens. As the game progresses you travel to different worlds and are taught about new skills that you’ll need to solve future conundrums. As the list of skills you’ve got at your disposal grows, so too does the complexity of the puzzles in front of you, leading to some genuine head-scratchers later in the game. Played with another person this can be a great deal of fun as you’ll have to rely on switching weight from one player to the other, sometimes in mid-air, pushing and pulling blocks, climbing, and not-drowning, all with a level of co-ordination and planning that makes for a fun and occasionally amusing experience when it all goes wrong. That experience, however, does not translate well to the single player version of the game.
Playing Shift Happens in single player is such a joyless affair that the game would, frankly, be better if they’d shipped it without the option to play it on your own at all. The game is much the same, except you’re given a button to switch between the two characters at will, essentially taking on the role of both players. Mechanically, the game becomes slightly more complicated since some of the puzzles require direct interaction between the two blob-people, but it’s the chaotic, anarchic atmosphere that is occasionally so infectious when playing with another person that is the most noticeable loss when playing alone.
I understand the temptation to give the player more options, and to not want to write off the massive chunk of gamers who exclusively play single player games from your potential demographic, but the single player experience is so massively inferior to the co-operative one that it does Shift Happens a disservice simply by being an option. There are people who might, conceivably, pick up this game for the single player mode, and they’d likely wind up incredibly disappointed by the game they played.
As a game for one, Shift Happens is a frustrating affair with awkward controls and little of the sense of chaos that really shines in the co-op mode. As a co-op game, Shift Happens comes fairly heartily recommended. Talking puzzles through, and being the one to work out what it is you need to do to progress is a lot of fun, and similarly, the trial and error gameplay and frequent – mercifully unpunished – deaths you’ll suffer make for a surprisingly amusing time. There’s a lot to be enjoyed here, and while the occasionally finicky controls and some questionable hit detection now and again would ordinarily be an issue – and for the single player game, they really are – they only add to the charm of the experience while playing with another person. If you’ve got a buddy willing to spend some time exercising their grey matter with you, then Shift Happens is an enjoyable way to spend a few hours.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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