Apparently it’s true what they say about first impressions. In this case the impression was so strong that it carried me all the way from beginning to end.

What can I say? This game just walks in with an affectionate smile and sits down with you like your ol’ grandpa telling you a bedtime story. It spins its tale with such poise and charm that before you know it you’re completely engrossed.

Good thing they hook you with such a strong start, because they’re really going to try your patience before the story’s over.

Don’t get too comfortable

First and foremost, let me warn you: this is not an easy game.

No, seriously. Behind the good-natured smile, it means business. Grandpa may look like a harmless old man, but don’t forget he was also in The War. He killed a dozen guys with his Ka-Bar defending a hill and took a bayonet to the spleen, and he’s not going to stand for any crap from you. So you’d better buckle down and listen.

They teach you a whole bunch of mechanics, and they expect you to pay attention and learn them. The deaths start piling up almost immediately (they keep a running tally) and it only gets worse. By the time the credits rolled I had died 1893 times.

You can start to see why

A healthy challenge is one thing, but there’s a downright mean-spirited edge to the level design here. It’s the kind of difficulty that’s constantly looking for ways to trip you up rather than push you to excel, and as the game goes on it feels more and more like a test full of trick questions.

They know exactly what you’re going to do in each section–they taught you, after all–and they use that knowledge to sabotage your every move. If you master the movement to the point that you can navigate the environments fluidly, you discover that things are timed perfectly to destroy you. So instead you’re always pulling up, slowing down, checking yourself, because you know there has to be some trap lying in wait. Meanwhile there are all sorts of devices that force you to keep moving, so it’s like you’re being pulled in two directions all the time. It can make for stressful, jerky platforming that relies on rote memorization through trial and error as much as anything.

Oh, and by the way, if you’re like me and prone to motion sickness, good luck. The central platforming mechanic involves walking on walls and ceilings, which means that the camera is constantly flipping around. You kind of get used to it eventually, but even then it can be pretty bad. I tried switching to my laptop for a while instead of a big monitor, which seemed to help.

Stop the ride, I want to get off

Anyway, that all seems awfully strange in a game that puts on such a warm and welcoming face. At first glance you’d think this would be the sort of thing you could give to your parents, or somebody new to video games in order to woo them over to the medium. Don’t do it! God, I can just picture throwing a total novice into this #%@&*$! buzzsaw. They’d walk away with a thousand yard stare and never pick up a controller again.

To some extent I think the difficulty is actually part of the joke. The game has that darkly ironic British sense of humor, where horrible things are framed in a matter-of-fact way. The world is in a pretty bad state here, and all of the electrocutions, incinerations, vivisections, beatings, crushings, dismemberments, devourments and other assorted deaths inflicted upon you are implicitly contrasted with the mild-mannered, dutiful, ever-regenerating little robot hero.

*record scratch* You’re probably wondering how I got here…

It’s so over the top that it creates a sort of comic absurdity. Still, meta-joke or not you’re the one who has to run this sadistic gauntlet; and it’s not only the platforming/metroidvania elements, either. (You read that right: it turns into a metroidvania about halfway through; backtracking can be a nightmare.)

They’ve come up with I don’t even know how many minigames. If you can imagine it, it’s probably in here, and you probably have to perform it in order to progress. There’s a point near the end, for example, when all you want to do is get on with the story, but instead they force you to stop and learn this new game with a horrible swimming mechanic, and it just makes you want to tear your hair out.

I really wanted to play Polybius, though

You could keep going and nitpick this game to death if you wanted, but to do so is to miss the forest for the trees; because you also realize along the way that despite all of that stuff, your first impression–the one I talked about way back at the beginning–was 100% correct.

Genius often comes with its own brand of flaws and eccentricities. That’s the price you pay; and this game, whatever else you want to say about it, is a brilliant accomplishment.

Just because I could

This game positively radiates the joy of its own creation. It’s impossible not to notice how much fun they’re having in every scene. Imagine stepping into the house of some half-crazed inventor, with stacks of diagrams piled high in the corners and wild creations lining every shelf, each one embodying a flash of inspiration. You can’t fake that. A tour de force of this magnitude has to come from a genuine place.

The authors have a tremendous flair for visual storytelling and a seemingly inexhaustable supply of ideas. It’s like a Moby Dick among video game stories, complete with the weird 100-page digression on whaling, so I guess our passive little robot is the Ishmael. The narrative approach creates a similar sort of relationship with the player. All of the events and characters come to you first-person, filtered through his innocent, blank-slate perspective and related in a deadpan voice that sounds like a GPS recalculating your directions.

One theme after another rears it head: video games, family, duty, video games, self-discovery, free will, and of course video games, all wrapped in humor and allusions and wonderful music. It’s a story about life, really, and like life all of these moving parts don’t always fit together seamlessly; but they do so much so well that it succeeds through sheer mass and audacity.

Into the west

For every moment of teeth-clenching aggravation, there’s a moment of laughter or warmth or heartfelt sorrow, an unexpected thrill or discovery to counterbalance, and there’s a cast of characters that you’ll remember long after you’ve moved on to other games, which says a lot these days.

Like I said, it may not be for everybody, but if you’re someone who really loves and connects on some level with this medium of video games, it will remind you why you started playing them in the first place.

Developer: Paul Helman, Sean Scapelhorn

Publisher: 505 games

Purchased on: Steam

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