By John Walker on January 26th, 2010 at 3:43 pm.
An awful lot of indie games come our way. Some of them are great fun. Some of them are properly great. But what about the floaty spaceship platforming adventures of the worryingly named Bob Came In Pieces? Read on to find out wot I think.
Let’s get the name out of the way first of all, shall we. Yes, it sounds like the punchline to a gross ejaculation-based joke. Laugh it out. Right, good, we can get on.
This is lovely. Really lovely. It’s a floaty-spaceship platform game. That’s a genre now, I’ve decided. I think you’ll be hooked by the premise, so let’s get that explained right away:
Your character, Bob, has broken his spaceship. He needs it working again to be able to return to his home, and so must collected the broken pieces scattered across a variety of locations. So nothing crazily original so far – in fact it’s he same plot as the Nifflas latest, the gorgeous Saira. However, here the pieces you collect aren’t simply tokens. Nor indeed are they even something so simple as new augmentations to the little ship you fly around the levels. Instead they are component pieces, pipes of varying shapes and beds, thrusters, devices for towing or pushing items, that can be built onto your ship in any fashion you choose.
Bob’s ship has eight sockets around its circular shape, into which you can join the parts you’ve collected to create a vessel suited to the particular tasks facing you. It’s not a case of building the pre-determined correct shape, but rather improvising something that might just do the job. For instance, perhaps there’s a gap in a nearby wall, and on the other side a support beam holding up a large boulder. Should that rock fall, it will dislodge something essential for your continued journey. So find one of the very many ship-builder platforms (which also act as checkpoints), and build something that will help here. I’d go for a thruster on all four compass points, more powerful one underneath since we’ve got gravity here, and then I’d put a few pipes on the top left socket, 45 degree bend then a couple of straights, and the pusher beam on the end. Balance the other side of the ship with a few pipes just so it doesn’t tip over, then fly it to the gap, and aim the pusher through. Fire it (keys to do all this are assigned as you attach them to the ship) through the gap to push the support away, and let physics take their course. And that would be about the most simplistic example.
Soon you’re picking up crates to use as blocks in mechanisms, breaking ice walls to let wind blow through that propels an object to rotate a lever… It’s only in the last third of the game that things get properly challenging, but it’s never not satisfying on the way there. In fact, there’s so much pleasure in steadily progressing through such a rewarding game that you’ll not mind the lack of brain-taxing sequences.
The use of physics is similarly smart. Everything in the world obeys the obvious laws, and this is applied to many of the puzzles. The ship must be carefully controlled to keep in the right place, and will plummet the moment you stop firing rockets underneath. Arranging the thrusters, and indeed the varying powers of those thrusters, is a fine art – making sure you’ve got movement in all directions as well as enough strength in the right places to complete the necessary tasks. If you’re picking up heavy objects you’ll need all your strength from below, but perhaps also need to ram something from the right. A combination that would be useless when fighting your way down from some upward-blowing winds. Managing this is quick and fun, and adds so much to what would have already been a cute platformer.
I also rather enjoyed how unashamedly traditional the level settings were. You begin in green hills, go into underground caves (where fire is obviously a theme), enter a slippy slidey ice world (although of course since you fly there’s no tiresome slipping or sliding, and then enter a peculiar kingdom of overtly designed puzzles. And it’s all quite beautiful, 2D backgrounds with lovely detail.
Most of all, it’s a smart game. There’s brains here. The level design is frequently clever, sometimes presenting you with a daunting number of directions to head in, before quickly revealing the correct path. That’s not easy to do, so many games either leaving you lost, or looking like a corridor. Bob Came In Pieces keeps on hitting the balance. In fact, you’ll often discover that a convoluted path is not obligatory, but rather rewards you with further ship parts to let you build more complex arrangements, offering you the chance for more imaginative solutions.
The difficulty curve also reveals the intelligence behind the design. Anything new is introduced with a tool tip that concisely explains its use, or the nature of the challenge. For the first few levels it gently guides you, and then like the parent running behind the child on the bicycle, reveals that it hadn’t been balancing you for the last few minutes. By the final few levels things go all meta, Bob realising the peculiarity of his having explored areas containing the artificial edifice of puzzles, and from this point things get really tough. It becomes a playground for applying all the tricks and skills you’ve acquired over the previous few hours.
Finally, and I’ve briefly mentioned this, there’s the way it allows you to assign controls as you attach parts. It’s something that I think so many other games wouldn’t have gotten right. Plop a thruster onto your ship and it’ll ask you to pick the key that controls it. The obvious choice is the cursor keys here, but you could put them on WASD if that was your fancy. Or indeed anywhere. Then when adding other components like the pusher or puller (both fired as beams) the same. Here it becomes more tactical. Perhaps you want the puller always on when firing upward rockets, so assign it to the same key. Maybe you want to push and pull at the same time (an odd idea, but one puzzle in particular, trying to carry a crate up through some awkward levels in strong winds, you want it firing everything you can at once). But most of all, it means you’re never juggling controls imposed upon you. My own odd selection of F, Space and the arrow keys would perhaps be of little use to anyone else, but they were exactly where I wanted them. A tiny detail, but one that means the game is only more pleasurable to play.
It’s on GamersGate and Steam for only £4.87 at the moment, which is insanely cheap, or you can get it through the game’s own site here for £6. That’s a fantastic price for a lengthy and constantly lovely game. The music, the art, the gentle nature – it all creates a completely adorable experience. It’s a real treat.