Reviewed on PC
The puzzle platformer is one of the most excessively bloated genres out there. With so many classics like Portal 2, Limbo, Thomas was Alone and Fez, it’s hard to create a game in this sub-genre that truly stands out. It’s not made easier by the fact that indies know this is a relatively easy genre to make affordable-but-good games in either. Creating a large scale FPS or 4X strategy game takes colossal resources but a simple but well executed 2D platformer? Not so much. Norwegian indie developer Moondrop Games have decided they are up for the task and have come up with their latest title, Degrees of Separation.
Degrees of Separation is made unique by its introduction of season-based puzzles, using both summer and winter as the grounds for all of its puzzles. The screen is split in half based on which one of the two playable characters is on either side: Ember, the girl who is surrounded by summer and Rime, the boy who is surrounded by winter. The majority of puzzles are based on positioning these two in such a way that you are able to reach areas otherwise not possible. For example, using Ember to raise a platform out of the water and then moving Rime to a position where he can freeze that platform in place. Ember can then jump off the rope that pulled the platform up, jump on the platform and collect a shiny looking scarf.
Yep, scarfs. Surrounded by a beautiful tale narrated by 2B’s Kira Buckland, Degrees of Separation more or less comes down to being a collectathon. Each level has an array of puzzles within it which you must complete to collect the aforementioned magical scarfs. Getting a certain amount of scarfs lets you open doors to later levels, much like stars, or moons do in Mario games. This a pretty old-school progression model that I’m sure many will feel nostalgia towards. There’s certainly no doubting it works as well as ever.
The puzzles work pretty well but can get damn confusing at times. It’s easy enough when you just have to put a character in one spot and move around with the other one but harder puzzles demand more. Moving Ember and Rime around within limited time gaps whilst switching to control both is not easy. I wouldn’t go as far to call it clunky but it’s very apparent Degrees of Separation was designed for co-op play. Certain puzzles felt frustrating to complete single-player as I didn’t have enough control do complete them cleanly. The A.I hardly helps either as I found myself waiting quite a while at times for them to figure out how to reach me after using the ‘call ally’ feature. I’d end up just getting fed up and manually controlling them which, when you just want to get to the next puzzle, can get tedious really quick.
It likely holds up far better in a co-op environment but due to Degrees of Separation’s lack of online options, you are still somewhat limited. Couch co-op games are a dying breed and there’s no doubt this could offer some life to the genre, but that way of playing is not for me. The majority of my friends live hundreds of miles away and without that online support, this game offers too little play options. Thankfully, Moondrop has confirmed on Steam that they are working on a patch right now to amend this issue. I have no idea how long it’ll be but the fact this was posted on the game’s release date at least suggests the devs have their priorities straight.
Visually speaking, Degrees of Separation is something special. I think it’s fair to say that summer and winter tend to produce some of gaming’s best-looking natural environments. Ice and snow make for some epic visual potential and the glaring sun of summer begs for some overdramatic lens flare. Here we see the best of this with the split between characters dividing the line between summer and winter. One of the nicest features of the visuals is that they don’t interfere with gameplay at all. I’ve played a fair few gorgeous games of late where the developers put so much focus on making their game shiny. This results in them not actually considering how that could negatively affect the clarity of what’s happening. There’s no such issue here. In fact, I’d say the differences between Ember and Rime’s worlds are so well defined that puzzles are extremely clear.
It might be easy to understand a puzzle but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to complete it easily. Degrees of Separation’s platforming is pretty weak and very floaty. Had they have gone for a Limbo approach where the movement isn’t all that important this wouldn’t have mattered much. However, this isn’t the case. You are often pitted with challenges that require pixel-perfect character placement or jumps within a small timeframe. The movement isn’t tight enough for this to be satisfying and it resulted in me failing puzzles more because of execution than theory. It’s very frustrating to understand what you’ve got to do but not being able to do it due to the presence of questionable platforming mechanics.
This isn’t a huge deal but it’s worth noting that the menus are a little awkward to navigate through. Rather than going for a standard top to bottom list, they’ve decided to squeeze everything in left to right. There’s also not much to the settings menu outside of graphical quality, resolution and V-sync options but given the fact this is a simple 2D platformer, this can easily be overlooked.
Degrees of Separation is a good puzzle platformer that just needs some work overtime. If we assume online co-op is coming soon, then there aren’t actually all that many major flaws with its gameplay to fret over. The A.I is irritating and platforming feels far too loose but these negatives are far outweighed by its positives. Gorgeous visuals, very strong co-op potential, seemingly passionate developers and a powerful moving narrative offer plenty for you to enjoy. It definitely fulfills its potential as a game for either close friends or couples looking for a cute and relaxing co-op game to play together. After all, I doubt it’s a coincidence this released on Valentine’s Day. It can still be fun on your own but you’re going to be getting a second-rate experience compared to others.