Tiny And Big is currently available on Good Old Games, GamersGate and Steam. A ten buck indie project that's been in development for a couple of years, how does its sandbox mechanics stand up to being in a full game? I've sliced, roped and rocketed my way through the game, and if you don't let me tell you Wot I Think I'll chop you in half and push you off a cliff.
I absolutely adore this game, at the same time as so frequently screaming at it how bloody stupid it is. Even if you ignore its obsession with underpants (which is reason alone to buy it), and the absolutely wonderful art style, and the collection of obscure and interesting music found throughout, and even the way Batman-esque onomatopoeic cartoon words so perfectly spring up for all actions, just the game's three core ideas make this something splendid.
You have a rope, a laser cutter, and rockets. With these, at least half of the world you encounter can be chopped up, dragged around, and blasted away. The sheer scale of what you can pull down and wreck is extraordinary, letting you slice buildings in half and watching the top half slide slowly off the bottom in what I believe is known as an "Underworld".
Should something not fall nicely, just attach your grapply-rope to it and give it a tug. Or rearrange slices of rock you've carved to make bridges across gaps. And is that huge section of wall in your way? Fire a clamping rocket at it, and then blast it off into the sky. The massive freedom this offers is incredible, and the decision to not slowly offer you these skills but give them to you straight away is magnificent. And then the game gets in the way. Oh Tiny And Big, how could you?! How could you take one of the best game concepts in a hundredty-million years, and then arse it up so often?
A rather brilliant tutorial is played out on a spoof of a Gameboy, where you learn the mechanics in a light-green on green screen, which emphasises that all skills learned in computer games translate immediately to the real world. Then off into that world you go, in a wonderful, open level that lets you experiment with your new tools, and climb your way to a distant goal. Just perfect. For the first hour I was filled with glee, such a brilliant idea so well executed.
And then comes the first gauntlet sequence in which you're being attacked by Big, your brother (you're Tiny), who is wearing a pair of magic pants on his head. Inherited from your grandfather, these undies grant the wearer the ability to levitate vast numbers of boulders, even buildings, to destructive ends. And so it is you're running along the floating levels of slab and concrete while Big chucks rocks at you. And oh, that's not much fun. Gone is the freedom and the experimentation, replaced with dodging attacks from far off screen, while avoiding slipping off the edges in what starts to reveal itself as a pretty glitchy engine. Fall, or get hit, and it's back to the last checkpoint, and good sodding grief, for how much longer are developers going to vandalise their games by getting this wrong?
As is troublingly predictable, the checkpointing is abysmal, spread far too far apart for the amount you can do in a small space, failing to remember collectables you've previously gone out of your way to pick up, and even on the wrong side of cutscenes. But that's not the larger issue here. This just isn't a game that suits checkpoints at all.
For the gauntlet sequences, sure, quicksaving could 'cheat' your way through (as if allowing the player the choice to do that is so abhorrent), but it's in the general exploration and scenery chopping sequences - the game's massive highlight and remarkable strength - that it reveals itself as just so bloody stupid.
So say you're in a scene where there's a temple to climb. Here the freedom is amazing, offering you ways to cannily chop a route straight to the top, or letting you experiment with scenery-rearranging to find hidden extras, and it's all just so wonderful. The power you have with those tools, and the freedom the game gives you to dissect its setting, is amazing. Right up until the utterly shitty slippy-slidey failure to have your character recognise edges means you fall into an abyss. Or a rock falls on you from above with no warning. Or the game glitches and a rock you walk past apparently kills you because it wobbled a millimetre. Or you just mess up and have something fall on you. At which point, no matter how much you've done, how far you've explored around, what bonuses you've discovered, and what architectural violence you've committed, it's all instantly reset and you're back at the entrance.
Dying is so, so easy, whether thanks to the game's failings or yours, that it beggars belief that there's no way to preserve your fun. So many solutions are so obvious, from quicksaves to a health bar that means every tap isn't instant death, to a character that grabs edges when he glides over them. Anything, to preserve what this game is so amazing at offering, and so damned fun to do.
The sense of accomplishment that comes with toppling a vast tower of rock, and then slicing it to create a smooth slope to climb on top, and dragging it over a gap to reach a distant goal, is immense. It's why Tiny And Big remains such a fantastic thing to play with, despite its spleen-aching stupidity. And while, for some godforsaken reason it never stops thinking it's a good idea to have your fun be interrupted by Big endlessly chucking boulders at you throughout so much of the game, it offers enough of this explore/experiment to keep interest up. That's interest that needs to be maintained during the few gauntlet sections, that remove most of the charm. Oh - I'm chopping thrown rocks in half again, am I? Oh good, because that's clearly what we should go back to rather than more carving up vast buildings. It's hard to imagine who fed back to whom that this was the way to go.
It's a pretty short game, maybe four hours, but only £7/$10ish, and just restarting and chopping down vast towers of rock in the opening level is making me happy. If this could only have truly been a sandbox game it would certainly be something utterly extraordinary. As it is, in quite confined levels, it too often forgets its own strengths and inhibits you as you play. And worse, so punishingly kills you and takes away your fun progress. Doing it the second time is never nearly so entertaining. Yet it's utterly beautiful, often very funny, and so bursting with charm. So damned close.