In a genre so oversaturated with titles that it’s easy to disregard entirely, it takes a lot for a puzzle-platformer to be genuinely memorable. With the Switch’s influx of indie games across the last year, we have had our fair share of total shovelware – games which really aren’t worth the time of day. Though there are a few which rise above the rest, like the Mighty Switch Force! series and Shovel Knight which blew away critics and players alike with original stories, mechanics and controls.
Pixel Reign’s Robbie Swifthand and the Orb of Mysteries falls neatly into the latter category. It has everything a player could want from a platformer and more: a steady but constant difficulty curve, quirky characters, gameplay with depth and a moody soundtrack. Marketed as a ‘hardcore 2D platformer’ with ‘mind intriguing psychology based level design’, Robbie Swifthand is an example of how straightforward controls can still play host to seriously complex and tricky puzzles. Each level gives players a simple goal: find the orb, throw it at the large glowy thing, and get to the exit. However, in a not-so-shocking turn of events, there is everything from endless pits to hidden spike traps to giant spinning buzzsaws in the way of said goal.
As is typical with the genre, the game is split into ‘worlds’ – sets of levels which split up the gameplay. This is also one way the player is introduced to new mechanics: the higher crouch jump at the start of world 1, and the Doom-esque double jump as you start world 2. The game’s core gameplay is familiar but has enough variety and originality to set it apart from your average indie platformer. There is more of a strategy and puzzle emphasis in Robbie Swifthand, as opposed to the more speed-oriented nature of some games. It is a platformer which rewards patience and planning as well as raw mechanical ability, making for an experience more akin to Portal than Mario.
Story-wise, Robbie Swifthand drip-feeds the player some narrative about Robbie’s current predicament and past through a mix of antagonist, and ally, dialogue. Robbie’s main companion, a lost spirit, is thoroughly charming and provides some much-needed light comedy in between the blood pressure-elevating difficulty of the game. Some strange meta-narratives (in the form of the spirit finding a computer) leads to weird commentary about the primacy of the cat video on Youtube, or the existence of Amazon. Quality-wise, the dialogue itself is sometimes stilted, but gets more right than wrong.
Halfway between retro-style sounds and modern orchestral scores, the game’s music is exactly what you would hope for in a puzzle platformer. Hopping through levels with a mood-setting, but understated, soundtrack allows players to think about their next move. The music and background visuals work stunningly together to give the game an appropriate air of mystery to accompany the story. In standard puzzle levels, the music is ambient and slow; when Robbie is chased by a large spinning saw blade, it picks up— the sound acting in of itself as a clue to the player. While it’s not particularly memorable or earth-shattering, there really is no faulting Robbie Swifthand’s soundtrack.
Small design details, like the music, are really where the game shines. Be it the out-of-breath animation Robbie does when he has just been running, the eye-tracking he does towards threats in front of him, or the mischievous expression on his face when he picks up a coin– the quality of animation really should be applauded. In smaller-scale games, it must be easy to prioritise functionality, but Pixel Reign has not been scared to push the boat out and give its main character a splash more life than the average platformer protagonist. All of this comes together to help tell the story of a thief trapped in a mysterious ancient temple.
‘Hardcore’ games such as this require the player to have total control over their actions and their fate. In its design, Robbie Swifthand does this perfectly by ensuring that player deaths are avoidable with planning and skill. This design philosophy creates the compelling “one more try” feeling which spurs the player to continue. Without total control, the game ceases to be about the quality of the player or the problem-solving. The developers of Robbie Swifthand grant the player this, on the most part, with the ability to look ahead of Robbie with the right thumbstick, and the overall responsive controls. Other quality of life improvements to the genre are made in the form of death markers – represented by ghost Robbies – which help with the troubleshooting of a level. These do, however, sometimes impede your ability to see a trap though.
The gradual introduction of controls and mechanics mean that there is, at a maximum, one or two new concepts to counter in a given level. A smarter player than I, who lacks the foresight to not jump on that obvious spike trap or be butchered by that giant spinning blade of death, can pull off a run with very few deaths using patience and skill. There is also significant differences between the three difficulty levels – allowing for a good amount of replayability beyond just redoing levels to find all the bonus coins. The highest difficulty makes even the tutorial an intensity which should keep platformer veterans occupied for a good amount of time. A death counter, instead of lives, is used in conjunction with this difficulty-focused game, which works well. It shows that you don’t need a Game Over screen to make a game hard. Robbie Swifthand, then, finds its theme and sticks to it.
However, the quality of the Robbie Swifthand port to Switch mars the overall experience for the player. The game’s framerate dips frequently, which is even worse in the console’s docked mode, meaning the aforementioned key component of hardcore platforming design does not always play out. Inconsistency in framerate is both visually unappealing and inconvenient. When the game works well, it looks great, but this just works to make the drops more infuriating and noticeable. It’s a genuine shame that its moody yet colourful art style can’t be fully appreciated due to the low power of Nintendo’s console. While still certainly playable, it’s such a shame that the Switch version just doesn’t live up to the original on PC.
Visuals are not the only problem with this edition of Robbie Swifthand. As has been mentioned above, the game has responsive and intuitive controls for the most part – with a few exceptions. Upon booting up the game for the first time, I found that the default button for selecting an option on the menu is B – as opposed to A, on nearly every other Switch title. A very minor gripe, to be sure, but this demonstrates a potential lack of understanding of the platform. The game’s controls are also not rebindable, which is frankly unacceptable and negatively sets it apart from other modern titles.
The game’s menus also hold other strange quirks. ‘Music’ and ‘Sound’ menus are inaccessible and seem to be defunct leftovers from the original version on PC, and the save game screen reads ‘Press <THROW> to erase a profile’ – without explaining what button that actually is. There is also the rather eyeroll-inducing and 2012-esque ‘Ragequit’ option in levels which replaces a standard ‘quit’ button. Such issues are, of course, rather nit-picky and show a lack of polish as opposed to fundamental issues with the game itself.
Overall, then, Robbie Swifthand and the Orb of Mysteries is fun, original and just downright charming. Consistency in its theme is also a plus. But the Switch version is by no means the best way to experience such a unique game. If you want to get the most out of it – stick to PC.
REVIEW CODE: A FREE Nintendo Switch code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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