We somehow overlooked Recoil Games' charming gravity-troubling puzzle-platformer Rochard when it boinged onto Steam last November, but a few recommendations belatedly made their way to my curious ear recently. So I looked it up, and in turn I had a good time. Here's why.
After the peculiar miseries of Duke Nukem Forever, telling me that Duke voice actor John St John handles vocal duties for the title character was a good way to put me off it entirely, but I reminded myself that DNF's failings weren't St John's fault and soldiered on. He's actually on refreshingly laid-back form as John Rochard, lending the overweight space-engineer a homespun, ego-free charm. Rochard isn't a character for the ages, but he's a reliably likeable presence. Plus I love that he's a fattie with a 'tache, in a welcome change from the usual musclebound male-model space heroes.
Oh, no. I now empathising more with chubby middle-aged men than with toned 20-somethings. It's happened. I am lost.
Anyway, let's move on from my existential crisis and talk about what Rochard does. As the handyman on an industrial spaceship, he fixes stuff up and moves rubbish around with the help of a personal gravity gun. It's unavoidably similar to Half-Life 2's iconic weapon, but uses a big bendy beam to move things around, rather than essentially gluing them to the front of the gun. The side-on game focuses more on puzzles than on action, although guns and enemies are involved.
It's more fun to bash a foe over the head with a crate than it is to shoot them, but regardless the action is generally as laid-back as the the performances and the slightly Team Fortressy art style. Rarely frustrating, and generally entails coolly shooting down occasional turrets and easily-killed thugs as you sail between puzzles. Rochard's very much about having a pleasant time rather than a hard or even especially challenging time, but it stops short of being too easy. I felt oddly comforted by the balance it found: relaxing while still involving a touch of brain-power.
Rochard's other major ability is to temporarily deactivate gravity, which enables him to make Neil Armstrong jumps and pick up heavier crates with his gun. Hold down shift (or tap Capslock to toggle), the screen tints blue and he's free to take giant leaps for mankind, or at least for his fellow crew-mates, currently wounded and hiding out from the invading thugs. I tend to have activated whenever I can anyway, as there's something wonderfully indulgent about the slow-motion sailing it transforms Rochard's movement into.
Puzzles tend to involve a mixture of crate-stacking, finding ways around coloured energy gates that block either organic or synthetic objects and occasionally dealing with inverted gravity that sticks you to the ceiling and entails mastering reversed controls. It's not massively varied, but it's always pleasant and offers just enough leeway that you can often bodge your way through or at least feel you've had an aha! moment rather than followed an all-too-obvious path.
The necessary mechanics - grabbing and throwing crates, finding and relocating fuses, zero-ging to make longer leaps, letting a shot or two off at a thug's bald head as you sail gracefully over it - quickly become natural, and satisfying. I hit a few spots where I died in exactly the same place multiple times, but generally I made steady, satisfying progress.
Letting Rochard down somewhat is some wobbly voicework from his supporting cast and an unengaging story. That doesn't ultimately matter though: this is a game about relaxed puzzle-solving, mastering ever-so-slightly cartoonish physics and enjoying spending time in Rochard's good-natured, wide-bellied company.
Rochard is admittedly a collection of familiar ideas and mechanics, but all bolted together into something that's... well, this is an awful, bland word in so many ways, and I strive to never use it in my writing, but... nice. Rochard is a very nice game. There, I said it. Rochard is nice, okay? And by that I mean nice like a nice, satisfyingly cake or friendly dog that bounds up to say hello, not an inoffensive pair of curtains or someone slightly boring but who never has a bad word to say about anyone.
Sure, it's light fare almost to the point of being throwaway, but I enjoyed spending time in Rochard's gravity-bending world, and I do encourage you to do the same.