I think I’ve become a little wary of puzzle platformers. Too much block pushing busywork, not enough intriguing dilemmas (great cars, I hear) to solve. So I looked at Life Goes On’s [official site] expanded re-release with a sceptical eye (the other eye was watching a passing bee). And then immediately fell for it. Coo, this is a rather splendid little game, where death is very much your aim.
Every puzzle platformer has to have its hook, and this does not deviate from the Rule. And that hook is perhaps a little too often these days based on single-player-co-op, where you have multiple instances of your own character solve puzzles. But Life Goes On manages to find an original bit of meat left on that bone, and it’s a lovely one. You have to die, rather a lot, in order to progress.
What you immediately realise is, oh, right, I have to die to get across these spikes. You play one of an infinite source of named knights, whose corpses are left behind after a death. Spawn a new knight and the old one stays in the level, hopefully in such a way that aids progression: perhaps their dead body wedges down a button that turns off some fire jets, or maybe impaling them on some spikes offers a platform for you to grip and safely climb higher than they could have reached.
This quickly spirals into delightful medleys of morbidity, as you lob characters into their grisly demise to further your path. Chuck him onto that spike, have her climb up him and then impale herself above, climb over the pair of them and splat yourself into a spikey conveyor belt before rapidly respawning to hold down the switch that turns off the fire so their corpse isn’t burned up on its way to the pad you need it to land on. That sort of thing.
Each level gives you a target number of knights, and a target time, but not meeting either doesn’t impede progress – you just carry on to the next unlocked level, but with a cloud of repugnant shame hanging over your head. Go back to it later. Although saying that, often these limits are perhaps a little over-generous, with it possible to complete one puzzle suggesting eight knights with only two. That matters little, but it would have been nice to have more care taken, perhaps a number that gives you an idea of how much more refined and clever you could have been. However, for those wishing a much tougher challenge, each level also contains an odd little monster to try to be eaten by as a bonus, which fits the replay bill nicely.
Being post-Trine, it of course is a 2D view of a 3D world, lit with bright colours blooming over bleak rocks and structures. This is also a Rule. Although it certainly doesn’t boast Trine’s beauty, and the characters are a little scratchy, but it looks nice enough. It’s also very simple in terms of controls – despite giving you various weapons (and hats) as rewards for completing levels to certain standards, you don’t ever use them. Instead you’ve just got jump, which is all you need. That means it works nicely on either keyboard or controller, although the pause menu is a touch buggy with the latter.
There’s a good pile of puzzles in this expanded version of a perhaps ignored puzzle game from two years back. And it really doesn’t deserve to be ignored. While I think it leans a little bit towards being too simple, at the same time it manages to avoid creating levels that are clutter and fiddle, which far too many games in this genre fall into. Rather than staring at the screen and calculating a route, such games end up forcing you into trial and error as you attempt to manage far too many mechanics at once – not so here, or at least not in the first half of its 50 or so levels.
While it still feels a little scrappy, with rudimentary menus and very simplistic backgrounds, the key element here is its brains, and there it shines. I’ve laughed out loud a few times, not at gags its delivered, but at the ridiculous pleasure of discovering the solution to my next move is to fire a knight out of a cannon into a wall, and the ferocious splatting death that follows. It’s very silly, perhaps a little too easy in its build up, but tremendous fun. And at a fiver on Steam, that’s not bad going.
Life Goes On: Done To Death is out now for Windows, Mac and Linux.