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Shiftlings Review (PS4)

A strange, game show style puzzler game, Shiftlings places you (or you and a friend, either couch or online) in charge of two little aliens (Purple Plop and Green Goop), with the intent of moving from point to point, while dealing with their mildly cumbersome ability to swap size and mass. At any one given time, you can change their status with a push of a button: one character is large, round, and heavy, but unable to jump for anything, while the other is small, nimble, and quite a jumper, but cannot be used as a ballast or weight. The two characters are tied together via a tube, so finding your way through little cracks, up tall towers, or past difficult hazards requires quite a bit of brain work. 

Somewhere in here, there's a story. We have a snide host (whom my wife insists is Kelsey Grammar, but I personally think that's not what they were going for) who places our intrepid heroes in unfortunate situations for the amusement of the TV audience, playing out their little trip across a world as if he were an announcer for a professional sport. There's also a side bit involving a fizzy drink that causes one of the aliens to inflate into a giant bouncy ball, very heavy, but unable to jump himself, that creates the primary mechanic of the game. And again, because alien biology or something, this extra weight has the ability to shift back and forth between the two characters via a single press of a button. As the game gets more complex, you'll find yourself shifting mid-bounce or cannon fire in order to get across the levels. I had my significant other join me for this review, as it was touted as "better with two players." While I was amused at the story, I do agree that the intro does drag out a bit long for a two-player puzzler, and perhaps the story could have been told in snippets through the first few levels instead of dropping it all at the start. Taking a page from Portal, games like this can tell a story through a few voice overs that don't need cutscenes.

Shiftlings does shine brightest as a two-player game. When you have a partner who is into it, the two characters can move fluidly. Without good cooperation, though, it can turn into a frustrating affair. If there is a ten-step process to get up to a ledge, only to have one fall take you back to the beginning, grumbling will commence after the second flub-up. There is humor in both people having a button to shift the weight, as poor communication results in crazy back and forth shifts (complete with mini fart noises) as both people try to shift, then compensate for their teammate, etc. etc. One mechanic in particular makes it difficult to play with two people: the "fat alien" is springy, allowing the "small alien" to bounce on him like a trampoline. This means you have to move alien A as far right as you can, have alien B move, shuffling across a platform to get a bounce right. That, or both players move simultaneously, and pray you make it. This can prove tiresome for a team, but a lock button allows you to move them simultaneously in solo.

On a side note, I feel like the cola-caused shifting effect is a bit lost on me. The small, nimble alien is such a good jumper that the fat alien is a hinderance. He's there to pull the other up by falling off cliffs or to push big buttons, but that's about it. It's like if it weren't for the soda accident in the story, the characters could have made it through all the puzzles with little to no effort. Personally, I'd have made it an inherent ability between the two rather than a forced piece of humor. With the story being pushed at the beginning, for some reason it makes me care about this. I'd also have liked to see a way to slowly go between shifts, maybe put half the size in both aliens, so you could test out where you were going. A couple times, an inappropriate shift would put us in a position that we had to backtrack. 

So, while the game could use a bit of polish, and also not have worried about why we are in the position we are in so much, I still have to say it's quite enjoyable. The intro story bits and sass from the announcer are good fun, but the in-level lines that get repeated quite a few times may grate on you, particularly if you fail repeatedly. It's best played via couch co-op with a fellow puzzle nut. That way, you can get the hilarity of glancing over at convoluted faces, and point at the screen to show which way to go. Another puzzler will also have more patience with the levels if you find yourself back on the ground floor after one mess up. Playing solo is okay, but the two swap buttons (one for the size change, the other for the control of the opposite alien) can get confusing at first. The learning curve is set right, though: if you fail, you can tell where and why. The game doesn't leave you stumped, and it feels really good when you finally get to that exit portal. Extra challenges mid-level to pick up extra collectibles will add replay value and have you heading back to levels to try to catch 'em all. While quirky, it's definitely worth a look if you miss the days of couch co-op.

Final Rating: 3.5/5

A review copy of Shiftlings was provided by the developer.

 

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