Two dimensional puzzle platformers are everywhere. From the seed of “move left and right and figure some stuff out” grows one of the sturdiest and most relied-upon trees in the world of independent games. Google search for a list of indie games and I’ll bet one of the top hits remain a “puzzle platformer” for at least another ten years. When I searched a moment ago, I saw Braid, Limbo, Fez, Spelunky, and The Swapper – all of which are widely-adored independent games with that same basic seed. Besides the obvious fact of the the genre’s popularity within the indie games scene, the fundamental mechanics of your classic platformer allow for virtually infinite creative directions for a developer. Looking at the list above, few would say those games are more similar than they are different. A wealth of great games will always be sitting on the clouds, just waiting for a bright-eyed game dev to figure out the perfect new way to throw a twist on this staple.
This preamble is simply an attempt to frame my thoughts and avoid saying things that are obvious things about the genre when talking about Nicklas (Nifflas) Nygren’s new game Uurnog – an indie puzzle platformer.
After a brief run through a tutorial area, you’re dropped into the Save Room. This room earns its name in two regards. The first is that it’s the place you return to when you die or quit, much in the classic notion of a save room. The second is that everything in the room remains the exact way you left it. This becomes crucial as you work towards the objective displayed prominently within this room. You must find and collect 15 “items” from the wild world and place them on a pedestal. This Save Room also has several doors which spit you out into new areas. Having played the developer’s previous puzzle platformer series, Knytt, I am used to the free form nature of the levels. Nothing beyond the first 10 minutes of the game tells you explicitly where to go next. It doesn’t take long to realize that keeping track of where you’re going and where you’ve been is something that you’ll have to take seriously, or risk getting lost in the sprawling world of Uurnog.
And given all the places to go and things to see in this world, you may find yourself getting lost quite happily. The places, people, objects, and enemies are overwhelmingly charming and warm-spirited, but surprisingly thoughtful and self-reflexive. The NPCs are an interesting example of this. They often act exactly as you might imagine a human player would, though much of the time they simply do what NPCs do. They keep a shop, they walk around town, they have short conversations with each other… But they also go absolutely crazy. I’ve seen the bomb shop owner pick up a bomb from her inventory and blow herself to smithereens, panicking like she forgot which button to press to throw it. I’ve seen two townsfolk hopping around quite happily, only to jump into a death pit one after the other. I’ve had random strangers jumping on my head for no apparent reason, seriously impeding my progress and annoying the hell out of me. There is something so lifelike about the way these little people behave. It makes me wonder how much of this behavior was meticulously designed compared to how much is utterly random.
I also find myself seeing more meaning than there may actually be in the way the game approaches death. It seems to do so in a serious but nonchalant way. There are spooky skulls and grim graveyards on one hand and these hilariously suicidal NPCs on the other. There are some doors that can only be opened by killing something on a sort of sacrificial altar, which is a really grim thing to imagine in such an overtly playful and cheery game. Other sparks of seriousness come from the loose distinctions between item, NPC, and enemy. If I don’t eat anything with a face, this is a land where food is scarce. Many of the items in this game are as full of bizarre, random personalities as the shopkeeper and city-dweller NPCs. Blue blocks are afraid of green blocks. Red blocks are constantly trying to get closer to you, like scared little children. Some blocks will talk to each other in oddly human-sounding voices. The point is, I notice some interesting barrier bending going on in Uurnog. It makes me question the way I use these item-creatures as mere tools, at least a little bit. But that’s not to say I suddenly felt overwhelmingly guilty for throwing the friendly little blue squares into a pot of death. I mean… This does seem to be a game where no one really cares if they live or die. Still, there is something special about games that manage to touch on weighty subjects while staying pleasantly light.
As light as its tone may be, Uurnog is tough as nails. There is a pretty steep learning curve going in, which makes it slow-going rounding up all the items you need. Gradually the game introduced me to new situations, which got me to utilize little tricks that I didn’t even realize I could do. Each new thing I learned about certain items or mechanics boosted my chances of using those little tricks elsewhere.
You’re also able to take the difficult edge of the game by taking advantage of the game’s inventory system, which is a clever combination of your working inventory (four item slots) and your storage inventory (whatever you can fit inside the Save Room.) Anything you can pick up is something that can be brought back and stored in your save house. This is a double-edged sword in many ways, because I found myself drastically overestimating the amount of stuff I needed to store away. I’d often wind up burying many important items under a mountain of gems, monsters, pointless blocks, and bombs. You can also give yourself a bit of a buffer by stashing some gems in your Save Room so you can buy some of the helpful items available at the many shops in town. This is useful since you lose all your money when you die – and death is quite common. Eventually, if you’re persistent and/or clever enough (the game rewards both,) you’ll find yourself turning in that last item triumphantly.
Uurnog is everything I’ve come to expect from Nifflas. Though it’s not as much of an epic as his previous big puzzle platformer, Knytt Underground, it’s still chock-full of good vibes and silliness. I experienced about a dozen amazing, happily unplanned moments that made me burst out laughing, often in exhausted frustration as all my careful plans unraveled hilariously before me. The complicated and ridiculous behavior of NPCs, the liveliness of the ‘items,’ and the amazing algorithmic music all add a distinctive characteristic to the game, which somehow embodies the goofiness and thoughtfulness of the other Nifflas games I’ve sat down with. There is a predominant air of whimsy in Uurnog, but it’s not without the occasional gust of weirdly serious wind. A perfect addition to the ‘puzzle platformer’ genre.
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