A few weeks ago I was posting about Amphora because it had dropped a delightful trailer on the YouTube landscape, albeit a baffling one involving exploding space jars and Aesop's Fables. It was released yesterday afternoon so I've been playing it through and investigating what actually happens.
Firstly, it's definitely not about exploding people and animals. It is instead, as suspected, a lyrical puzzler and love story. The controls are simple. Left click to pick up an object, mouse wheel to rotate, right click and hold to draw a line which can be used to hold those objects in place and right click once to get rid of a chosen line. You can only perform actions within a certain radius of a magic amphora.
Each puzzle is a different scene from a girl's life, starting with your delivery of a doll to soothe her in her cot and gradually progressing through her life. The puzzles start off simple – move object A to position A - and then gradually add complexity in the form of those lines and in the need to manipulate them.
Well, I say that the game adds complexity. It does in that the early puzzles are straightforward and usually require a single action, while the later puzzles take a little more time and a variety of actions to solve, but it felt like the difficulty curve had hiccups.
The most difficult puzzle for me was a sheep jumping scene where the girl was trying to get to sleep and you needed to guide these leaping lambs safely to her bedside without a massive crow pecking them to death. There are a couple of different ways to solve it and, having since watched the developer play through the game, my solution was not the intended one.
Having seen Moondrop's solution I'm wondering whether the game would have benefitted from an extra scene or two prior to that point to explain a couple of the ideas used to complete it more neatly. My own method was kind of a hatchet job in comparison and felt very much out of keeping with the visual simplicity and brevity of the levels. That happened a couple of times, actually and was pretty jarring.
For contrast, there's a firework scene which was a real pleasure to solve as it managed to give you the basic information but left you to work out how to chain that together. Similarly so with a cooking pot vignette later on. But largely the scenes go back to being pretty straightforward. There was one exception on my playthrough where I got stuck maybe three quarters of the way through the game but, having looked at the developer's playthrough, I was doing the right thing, it's just that one of my lines was clipping the scenery in a weird way.
But none of this is what you'll notice first about the game.
What you'll notice first is the art style – somewhere between stained-glass and shadow puppet theatre – which the developers use to tell their story of love and war in a beautiful and succinct fashion. The characters and animals themselves have that articulated paper doll feel to their movements and there's a delightful earnestness and simplicity reminiscent of bedtime storybooks.
I think that's simultaneously it's strongest and weakest point. There's a lovely and simply-told story with a very strong visual identity that sets it apart from other games, however it has the sensation of "animated short film interrupted by puzzles", particularly towards the end of the game. The scenes take slightly too long to solve to avoid interrupting the flow of the narrative but often don't involve the player in a complex enough way to avoid feeling like action for the sake of it. With that in mind I found a second playthrough once I knew all of the solutions far more pleasant, because it simply flowed better – a very odd sensation given it's a puzzle game.
Amphora is out now