This puzzle game looked minimalistic at first glance: less involved than the fanciful Lilly Looking Through, but also less alluring than the M.C. Escher-esque Bridge I was so turned on to this past month. When the opportunity to play Paperbound came up, I had expectations on the low end of moderate. Maybe that’s why I was so pleasantly surprised. This indie game from developer Dan Holbert of Dissident Logic took second place at Seattle’s 2014 Indie Gamer Competition, and, after getting sucked in to play for a weekend, I could see why. Even in the pre-alpha stage of development, I was impressed at how into this game I got. Not slated for release until Fall of 2014, even in pre-alpha, I really took to Paperbound.
If The Nightmare Before Christmas and any Stick Man game had a baby, their lovechild would be the stuff of Paperbound. This beautiful and artfully imagined puzzle game, with levels of increasing difficulty and freewheeling terrain, is one of the most unique and hard-to-put down games I’ve ever played; it was easy to learn, but a little more difficult to master. A 2D action/puzzle platformer, this game is action-centric and something of a brainteaser as you try to move from level to level.
Dissident Logic describes the storyline thusly: “Paperbound is a game about a stick man who grows up confined to his sheet of paper. He becomes restless and wants to venture forth into the unknown, so he jumps into different storybooks to see what lies within. His family misses him and fears for his safety, but he feels compelled to journey onward and see what exists and what is possible.”
Character artist Mike Smith has helped Dan Holbert to design Eddie, the 2D stick form. The backdrops were delightfully rendered, with creepy skull-mountain landscapes or torn parchment hills and valleys serving as the arena in which Eddie (at this point, that’s what I’m calling him) fought to explore new worlds. Jose Emroca Flores is the artist behind other art in the game—the Lunatic Rabbit, for example, who mistakes Eddie as a walking carrot and attacks him doggedly. I mention the artwork because, just as the big draw for The Wolf Among Us was a sort of comic book, Sin City vibe, Paperbound’s real draw, for me, was the artwork.
In Paperbound, walls are ceilings and ceilings are floors. Bizarre freeform surfaces (rolls of script or parchment, rounded or square-edged boxes, jagged horned structures or faces) that reorient gravity to the surface Eddie is standing on create a 360-degree environment that is unique to anything I’ve played to date. It started out in level one looking vaguely to me like an endless runner, Robot Unicorn Attack from Adult Swim Games, but progressed quickly to a complex and mind-bending arena that challenged me with simple tasks presented in an unconventional way.
Rules of the game are simple: don’t touch the blood-lava, or you die. Don’t let crazed, roid-rage rabbits touch you, or you die. Jump across the grimacing demon heads and don’t touch or—what else?—you die. And—in multiplayer mode—jump from object to object and kill your opponent with your weaponry or—you guessed it—you die. A cool element to Paperbound that I really appreciated was the checkpoints: if you meet your end by a certain point in any of the single player levels, Eddie revives near that point. It isn’t clear while you’re playing just where that spot is, but perhaps developers will add a checkpoint indicator to help players mark progress. Maybe not. Either way, I liked not having to restart from the beginning of any given level.
The game starts out simply enough, as any more rudimentary stick man game might: Eddie, bearing a resemblance to a cut-out, paper figure (not really a crude stick figure of a man) runs and jumps to arrive at the end of the map. The first map is simple—dark brown surfaces with this dismal grey backdrop. The backgrounds appeared very multidimensional and had depth, and lent to the theory that Eddie still had a ways to go.
A fun, fantastic element to Paperbound was its falling particles. I liked to imagine small letters or words coming down on Eddie —in keeping with the story line—although these particles were simply little raindrop-like…well, particles is a great word for them. These fall in every level, and they interact with objects on the map, including—comically—Eddie’s head; the particles rest there momentarily, but slip off and fall to whatever object he happens to be standing on. Gradients or slopes collect particles, and when Eddie runs across a curve or slides down a slope (thereby reorienting the screen), these particles come raining down to the new base of the screen. I’m not entirely sure what purpose these particles serve, outside of maintaining the notion that gravity is continually relative to Sticky, but if you love them (or if you hate them) you can adjust the frequency with which these fall under settings. Their color changes per level.
With the change of levels, blood splatters against the backdrop seem to become more frequent, which I suppose signifies Eddie’s trials and tribulations in this paperbound world in which he is attempting domination. You travel through levels by means of a portal, a purplish hued door that bears a sugar skull. Once the skull doors begin to appear (after level 2), its clear your object is to reach these in each level. At this point in single-player mode, what determines which way is “up” is the appearance of the sugar skull portal, which must be reached by navigating through a maze of pivot-able angles. These start out simply enough, but, eventually become something of a brain-teaser to manipulate.
Eventually, adversaries are introduced—such as Lunatic Rabbit, who we touched on briefly. There was also another character I encountered, who was as of yet fleshed out and simply appeared as a prototype stick man (unlike Eddie, this figure was truly a stick man, so I’m sure he’s going to be some hellion, badass concept upon the release of the game). Eddie gains weaponry along the way, and he is expected to fight off his attackers using these weapons. It’s all pretty much as you would expect, but the reorientation of the screen gives this familiar challenge a new spin that took me a few tries to master.
At this point in my gameplay, I started to encounter glitches, so I stopped playing a few levels beyond this. There was a key, for example, that I had to accumulate. Once I intercepted the key, Eddie seemed to get stuck in some hidden groove of the terrain and couldn’t run, walk or attack his way out, and I had to quit several times to retry from the checkpoint. After my second retry, the key no longer appeared. Once adversaries began to appear, they reacted inconsistently to Eddie’s presence, and my weapon didn’t seem to be consistently operating, so I halted my adventure here.
I was impressed at the musical score (credited to Matias Castro and Andrew Riley), which really added a light-hearted, fanciful nature to some of the more delightfully macabre elements of Paperbound’s design. When there appeared to be watery pools of blood and demon claws or manically gaping devil heads as obstacles, the soundtrack to the game balanced the ghoulish with the playful. The opening music sounded like it could have just as easily played over a Disney film while a group of wide-eyed kids investigated a box of magical relics. The music varies just enough from “story” to “story” (or level to level), and becomes more sinister and mischievous in maps with monster pates and behorned demons, ominous in levels with more obstacles. It becomes dark and foreboding, then it moves to triumphant, upbeat fight music, and then transitions to a great soundtrack for creeping along and sneaking. What I’m saying is, in a game that only had the one gimmick (gravity orientation), the graphics and audio kept me feeling this game had a budget on par with a bigger game developer.
Overall, Paperbound kept me playing. At $14.99, even after I tired of the single player mode, there was multiplayer to keep me coming back. I’d love to see what else Dissident Logic does to flesh out the Paperbound storyline, and to build on to what they already have—a well-orchestrated cinematic would have tied everything together nicely for me. The game was no more and no less than what it claimed to be, and for that, I appreciate a fresh spin on a game I’ve been playing online for years. Honestly, it’s about time.