Taking place between these two biological communities then, the character’s search for his own identity becomes particularly poignant. It’s a search for identity through opposites – if I am not that, then what am I. What makes you, you? Aside from the cellular make up of your physical body.
The puzzle platformer has been around since the dawn of video games. The simplicity in its gameplay and graphical requirements makes it a prime starting point for many developers and artists. With Ecotone however, French developers Sundae Factory have taken the simplicity of the puzzle platformer and shattered it.
Set against a biological backdrop of cartoonish macabre, Ecotone sees players take on three different worlds, each with fifteen levels to their name. In level one there’s no jump function. It’s a jarring feeling, and one that instantly sinks you as a fresh faced player ready to enjoy the latest indie title to take Early Access by storm. The jump function is put into play a few levels later however, after you’ve taken on a number of different mechanics to get there. Every level is different, and every few levels the entire game is shaken up. Using evolving gameplay mechanics ties in nicely with the overall biological concept of the game, however in terms of fun factor it makes for a dynamically engaging experience. One second you’re mastering the laws of time and gravity itself, and the next you’re in the middle of a frantic race to the finish. Every level brings a new challenge, a variety that somewhat redeems the game’s cruel difficulty.
Intricacy is at the heart of gameplay here, sometimes to its detriment. The game very heavily leans on the necessity for precision and timing, something that proves incredibly frustrating when combined with the slow pace of your character. However when you actually get it right, it works – it’s not unplayable, it just needs some serious patience, willingness to learn, and time. This difficulty however yields little gratification on completion of a level, you’re done with that mechanic now and you have to learn something completely new. While you don’t get the chance to pat yourself on the back as much, it definitely keeps what could be a very repetitive gameplay experience (in your repeated tries to actually complete a level) fresh. Part of the force driving you to persevere through such difficulty is the reward of finding out what comes next, what you’ll face in the next chapter of your story.
And it’s a story that feels both incredibly distant and strikingly personal. The varying mechanics give the impression that you’re learning along with your small shadowy character, his search for identity becomes yours. Each level is based on its opening sentence – a plot point and hint for completing the puzzle it prefaces. It’s the kind of storyline that connects with the player through something other than direct narrative, it’s a collection of memories and experiences that are related to the player, and in return the player relates to. The end result is a fairly delicately constructed narrative that seems to have a lot more behind it than is apparent on first inspection.
A cellular, biological theme pervades the artistic style of Ecotone. With the game’s name referring to a transitional space between two biological communities, often housing unexpected, exotic forms of these communities from breeding, it’s surprising how ethereal the style feels. Abstraction hides in floating cells, shadowy corners, and bizarre monsters, and comes to life in the more stylised, darker points of the game. In terms of play however, the environments are clear and gratifying to play against.
It’s this relationship to this transitional space that my own game theory comes into play. The abstraction in storytelling, and poetic style of the general experience creates a stark contrast to this scientific backdrop of cells and microorganisms. It’s a jarring contrast when you sit down and think about it. Taking place between these two biological communities then, the character’s search for his own identity becomes particularly poignant. It’s a search for identity through opposites – if I am not that, then what am I. What makes you, you? Aside from the cellular make up of your physical body.
Ecotone does offer controller support, however I got by much easier with a mouse and keyboard considering the need for precision and intricacy. Overall, Ecotone offers a fresh look at the puzzle platformer, no longer must we be constricted by our mechanics instead why not just throw a bunch of them into different levels and please everyone. It’s a theory that works, and works brilliantly. Combine that with a fascinating storyline and background concept and you’ve got a thoroughly enchanting title. Though there were times of frustration in certain movements, and the over-reliance on precision to get anywhere, it’s easy to spend a lot of time here and enjoy it.
Ecotone is available on Steam for $8.99 on PC and Mac.