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The End Has Begun: Impressions

A matter of life and death

Preloaded's latest game for Channel 4, The End, is out today. It's a game about death, big questions, and in turn, life. It's also a platform game. And a board game. That's a strange combination. Does it work? Well, I've been having a play.

As a concept, yes sirree it does. As a platform game, it's a little bit wobbly.

The platforming is smart enough. Your main goal is to collect a key from a level, which lets you unlock one of two doors at the end. Yes or No, in answer to a large, reaching question. Do you think people should have the right to decide how they die? Is it possible to be happy simply living in the moment? You choose your answer, which is plotted on a graph against other thinkers and writers (and your friends via Facebook if you so take part) and this tells you... something about yourself.

But there's a lot more going on. To begin there's a rather fun character creator, with a surprising amount of variety, and the excellent potential for creating a character with brains hanging out of a hole in his or her head. Get started and you have the choice of playing in the Body, Mind or Spirit World, each of which has six levels, and thus six questions to answer. Finish all those and you can enter a door marked The End.

The levels themselves have a fair amount to do, too. You can plough through the physics puzzles and platforming to reach the key and the doors at your own pace, or try to complete a level in the countdown timer's limit. (Although I'm fairly certain it's impossible in at least some of the levels.) Then there's also stars to collect in each, which will require further exploration and solving trickier challenges, which certainly gives you a reason to go back.

Ah, and there's also the game's gimmick. You can affix shadows in place and use them as platforms, sending your own shadow off to run along them. Then you can leap into your shadow's position once you're done.

Once a level's completed, that's not it either. You go on to play one of three strange beast creatures in a puzzle game that's surprisingly decent. You and he have hexagonal pieces with numbers of them. They're laid in a grid, and if the matching side of your piece has a higher number than his, then his piece flips to be your colour. The one with the most pieces when the grid is filled wins. As you progress you win bonus skills that let you manipulate the tiles in your favour, which eventually builds up in a game that's engaging and requires a decent amount of thought. It's wildly out of place in the game - I have absolutely no idea how or why it was ever thought relevant to everything else - but it matters none as it's quite a lot of fun.

The issue I've found is the platforming. It's functional, and it certainly doesn't make the game not worth playing. It just doesn't flow quite right. Your movement feels unnatural, slightly staccato, which makes timing jumps awkward and often annoying. Movement in the air mid-jump is by far the worst aspect, making judging the keyboard stabs to reach a platform often seemingly unfair. Then oftentimes it just messes up entirely, meaning you fall when you should grip a ledge, or fail because of an unexplained mechanic. For instance, at one point you're standing on a moving block, and madly the camera becomes fixed to the block's movement, not yours. This means if you jump somewhere perfectly safe, or even stand still near the edge of the screen, if the block moves too far away then you die. Huh? When did that rule suddenly get introduced?

The shadow gimmick is also messy. It's poorly introduced, and not well taught. It has to be the right sort of shadow, apparently, and while walking through light makes the platforms disappear, they also seem to disappear at other times too and I'm not sure why.

But as an idea, it's really interesting. It's a game designed to provoke thoughts about the nature of existence, death, belief and science. With no agenda, it instead puts various perspectives and asks questions, with information about the various aspects appearing in a neatly designed website immediately below the game's window.

It's aimed at teenagers, but I'm not sure there's any reason it wouldn't be of interest to people older. In fact, I'd be a little surprised if a physics platformer was exactly what the target audience is after, but then I'm and old, old man, out of touch with the young people of today.

The art is simply fantastic. From a newcomer (says the press release) called Luke Pearson, there are hints of Craig Thomspon, Chris Ware, and... and... someone else I can't put my finger on, which is driving me mad.

Completely free, and playable now, it's definitely worth taking a look.

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