Note: You can find our original review for the PC version of The Bridge here.
For some reason I equate a good indie puzzler with a bowl of Campbell’s Chunky Stew. The best are hearty and filling, warming your soul with the beef broth of triumph after solving a particularly mind-bending scenario. Whatever the gimmick may be – time bending, perspective shifting, shadow / light mechanics – whatever, serves as the meat, if the meat’s spoiled, no one’s eating anything. The graphical presentation are your veggies. Your potatoes, carrots, dumplings, onions, spices – it is here a good game becomes great, and a great game becomes timeless.
The XBLA port of The Bridge is pretty good stew. Of course, The Bridge isn’t stew at all if it weren’t for Jonathan Blow’s Braid – which if we were to carry this ‘stew’ metaphor on, was made with filet mignon, truffles, and $999.99 an ounce saffron. What I mean by this is that Braid was such a tour-de-force that any indie puzzle game, save Fez, would be hard pressed to escape its shadow even a half decade later.
In a world of noise, Braid was understated. In a medium where gamers demanded the ending of Mass Effect 3 changed, Braid was deliberately ambiguous. On a console where Oblivion’s massive, 3D open world was a calling card, Braid was just as lush using sprites and one less dimension – it had texture, meaning, tone, purpose. It existed to be more than fun, and it was deliberate in all of its choices. It was crafted, not manufactured. I guess what I’m saying is that Braid was one of the first games to be up its own ass, and be better for it.
While not quite as nose deep in its own rear, upon starting The Bridge you will get some Braid vibes. The Bridge does the indie puzzler thing of having a unique art style, in this case a penciled aesthetic that bares a resemblance to something M.C Escher and Robert Crumb would dream up. It also rocks the cryptic text and understated, atmospheric music, which were also prevalent in Braid.
Thankfully the gameplay is distinct. Playing like a mix between PS3 puzzler Echochrome (Speaking of M.C Escher), the music video for Hanson’s “Strange” (which features a giant rotating room), and yes, a bit of Braid, with light platforming and a rewind mechanic allowing you to backtrack before it all went wrong, it’s easy to pick up what The Bridge is putting down.
A given level requires you maneuvering your character to a door while avoiding boulders, manipulating reality, and collecting keys. Using your left and right triggers you’ll rotate this world on a 2D plane. Boulders, keys, and your character obey the law of gravity, but not physics. By rotating a level one direction, if you create something that looks like a bridge to another area, what was once a foreground pillar becomes a walkable platform. Rotate a level another way, and that boulder is suddenly sliding directly toward you.
Puzzles do a great job escalating, and of shaking things up. It’s possible you may find the perspective stuff mind-bending, or think that the levels where you need to avoid a boulder while making your way to a door, bothersome. Rarely are there two similar levels in a row, so you never find yourself dealing with a gimmick you’re not fond of for very long – though I tended to like them all. Gimmicks aside, the beauty of The Bridge is that there isn’t a lot of trial and error. Once you get a grasp on the foreground / background / world twisting concept, you’ll know how to approach a puzzle, and find yourself half-smirking with accomplishment upon the completion of one – you rarely luck into a solution. This is what I mean by puzzlers being like beef stew – the less luck involved, the more satisfying the concoction.
For $10 dollars, or ten times less than the price of a quality set of art pencils, or about the cost of four cans of Chunky Beef Stew, you have yourself a *great* supplementary game. Something you throw on when you’re tired of being a pirate, or thefting autos, or ghosting duties. It’s something to turn on in the presence of easily annoyed family members who will take note of the visuals and double take, marveling at the fact that video games are fully capable of being as beautiful as a painting when they’re not obsessed with wanton murder.
It’s funny, to non gamers, this game is a marvel. I’ve had three folks bring up how unique it looks. To gamers, it’s a fruit of the Braid tree. Weird. And it is here I find my torch to bare. Things can be similar and have different value. Lethal Weapon and Rush Hour are both buddy cop movies with mismatched cops taking on bad guys, but they each have their own particular flavor, to the point where I know many people who prefer Rush Hour over Lethal Weapon, despite the fact that there is no Rush Hour without Lethal Weapon. There is no Goodfellas without The Godfather, and Goodfellas is the far more entertaining flick.
It seems humanity’s endless need to associate and group together things has cost us the benefit of the doubt when it comes to media. I know editors of prominent, popular, gaming sites who refuse to believe that an art style and personality can transcend genre convention. That just because one style of game came *first*, that anything that comes after it is somehow less-than-special because it’s been done before. Which is a problem because honestly, while mechanics are important, aesthetic and personality and subtle innovation *make* a game. What is Mario but Pitfall with longer levels and different accoutrement ?
So yes The Bridge draws a lot from Braid in terms of tone, and overall texture – it’s subversive, understated, ambiguous, and a little pretentious. But if those elements create a worthwhile experience, is that so bad? Is it better to reinvent beef stew, or improve upon it with different spices and cooking methods? My point is that Braid is both a gift and a curse to The Bridge. The Bridge very likely doesn’t exist without Braid being a huge hit, but also must overcome every glance in its direction that ends with a talking eyeroll that says “Oh it’s just trying to be Braid”.
It’s a shame because if those very same eyes took a second to actually play it, they’d probably have a good time.
Youtube commenter TotalBiscuit made a point while giving impressions about this game a few months ago, that since Braid, seemingly the best way for an indie dev to get noticed, and to make some money, is to create a puzzler with a distinct feel, unique mechanics, and manageable price-point. If you can’t be the first beef stew, or the best beef stew, you can at least be a different kind of stew to someone who’s had their fill of the best, or wants to try something a little different, but not too dangerous. If you’re a puzzle hound, or just really liked Braid, definitely give The Bridge a shot.