Those who have tapped their way through the psychedelic 2011 mobile game Whale Trail might have already tarnished its developer, London design agency Ustwo, with all the odious associations of professional hipsters.
Like with that polemical subculture, Whale Trail is morbidly charismatic from afar yet reveals itself to be fairly shallow once engaged with. It is a mellowed-out version of Flappy Bird that, no matter how many balloons it brings to the party, is fairly monotone.
Not bad for a debut, of course, but not exactly a sign that Ustwo was blessed with the exceptional craftsmanship required to build Monument Valley; a masterful puzzle title that brings soulful, traditional video game values to mobile.
Monument Valley may be as straightforward and intuitive as other major Android and iOS games it's competing with, but it also manages to be remarkably inventive, with a thread of narrative that becomes even poignant in parts, whilst also offering a profound sense of discovery, all held together by lavish, minimalist(ish) visuals.
Players are plonked onto a floating Escher-like island presented in isometric view. The goal for the game's protagonist, Ida, is to reach a part of the island that is conventionally inaccessible. It is through twisting perspectives and reshaping parts of the island that players can guide Ida to the exit door. The video below offers a full explanation.
There are clear comparisons to make with the PS3/PSP perspective-bending puzzle title EchoChrome, and the dimension-shifting platformer Fez, but neither of those acclaimed games explain and unfurl themselves as flawlessly as Ustwo has managed.
Monument Valley was undoubtedly an immense headache to design, especially considering it builds its rules around the ambiguities of perspective, so credit must go to the design team at Ustwo for making it as uncomplicated as this kind of game can possibly get.
Across the three hours it takes to finish ten levels, rarely does Monument Valley come across as undecipherable or frustrating. Instead, players are dared to test the nature of perspective, at an exceptionally measured pace, as the game gradually adds in more ways to break the laws of physics.
"Players are dared to test the nature of perspective"
The result creates an outstanding sense of discovery and wonderment; stepping along directions not usually considered and experimenting on the boundaries of possibility.
There is one inherent flaw here; players can only think so far before they hit a human limit, and thus, Monument Valley can only go too far deep into its puzzles before the nuts start coming loose. Sadly, later levels sometimes spur trial-and-error more than creative thinking - just trying to plot a route on some of the more devilish puzzles is akin to multiplying 79 by 33. Most brains won't want to try that hard.
Yet, for the majority of the time, Monument Valley welcomes adventurers as much as theoretical physicists. It challenges players to understand a world that resembles our own less and less, and as a reward offers amazing abstract architecture to marvel at and a Companion Cube like character that is hard to not fall in love with.
Monument Valley is completely unique yet achieves what all conventional adventure games strive for; a mystical, bewildering adventure into the beautiful unknown.
- Charming characters
- Gorgeous, dreamlike visuals
- Sometimes ingenious puzzles
- Exceptionally crafted difficulty curve
- Complexity reaches a natural limit