Monday, November 12, 2012
Review: Sugar Cube: Bittersweet Factory (PC)
Walking into Sugar Cube, I expected nothing short of a game utilizing a solitary gimmick in a handful of stages throughout numerously repetitive worlds. Sugar Cube dangerously walked the edge of that category as it used a game mechanic useful only to frustrate gamers, but in the end it thankfully helped set this game aside as a pioneer of its own genre within the greater realm of platformers.
The first thing you'll notice when booting up this game is its almost disgustingly cute facade with the protagonist being an anthropomorphic sugar cube. Bright blues, pinks and yellows paint the following stages, but it appears that Turtle Cream Games hid a deeper meaning behind this mask of "kawaii-ness". Your character starts out in a cookie factory on a conveyer belt ready to be turned into a succulent cookie, but after spotting a somewhat conveniently placed exit, The Sugar Cube takes to his feet, dons overalls with a hidden happy face in the middle of it and is off to find life beyond these factories. I say factories in plural because these make up the five worlds of the game. In order they are: Cookie Factory, Chocolate Factory, Candy Factory, Gum Factory, and Cola Factory. As you can guess, they're all sweet. They each contain seventeen levels plus a "boss level" which never feels quite like a boss level should.
Let's take a step back and dig right into the only real thing setting this title apart from anything else you have probably played before. It uses a tile-flipping ability which is triggered by an aura surrounding your character. That's actually simplifying it a bit because each stage is made up entirely out of small tiles. Think of it as if you had drawn some 2D platforming stage on graph paper. Each of those small squares can be flipped just by walking into it or by jumping past it revealing either a flipped square or a hidden platform or switch. Each factory introduces something entirely new to the equation whether it be sticky walls in the Gum Factory or cola bubbles to jump on in the Cola Factory levels. There are also several power-ups to pick up in selected stages which includes an "aura shifter" that shifts your aura either one more set of tiles to your left or right, or above or below your character. At its core, these additions are only useful to help you progress through a level instead of being something you can dispense collectables into (which this game has none) or build towards.
The real reason why I'm hesitant to score this game much higher than it truly deserves is the merciless trial-and-error design on which this game is developed around. Remember those levels in Super Meat Boy which forced you to memorize a pattern to gain any sort of progress in a level? Sugar Cube takes this concept and runs it into the ground mostly for the worse. What amplifies this defect is the fact that none of the levels carry any form of consistency. You breeze through four straight levels before spending a good twenty or more minutes on those infamous "memory" levels which force you to flip tiles continuously as you begin to think of better things to do with your time. Some people might actually prefer this style of gameplay, but that's the problem because you're essentially limiting the appeal of your game to a niche as opposed to a much wider audience. Each factory ends with a boss presumably to stop you from escaping (the story doesn't definitively cover this aspect of the game), but you really don't do much to the enemy itself. In fact, you can't actually hurt the random baddies you encounter as a pretty disappointing help tip pops up indicating that you aren't "Mario" reminding you that perhaps this might not be the game for you. To get around these big bosses, you're forced to work through a regular level with the key features of each factory (such as cola bubbles, etc.) heavily incorporated into the design while also dodging the bosses whenever possible. The bosses aren't much however, as they either move to the left, move to the right or jump.
While the above really sets back this title from being a stand-out in the ever-growing library of indie games, it uses its art-style to really hammer into your retinas a fanciful world with catchy tunes, bright patterns and otherwise slightly disturbing backgrounds. It took me until I got halfway into the Chocolate Factory to realize that the backgrounds to these levels contain some weird faces or distortions which create a fascinating contrast between your character and the levels around you. Each first stage introduces short cut-scenes (about thirty seconds or so) to give some explanation as to why you're visiting these factories, but they can sometimes be a bit too eccentric to fully appreciate with some harshly translated dialogue to try and guide you along. But perhaps it is this bizarre charm that makes me love this game in the end, because while it surely won't end up winning any "game of the year" awards, it's just so damn hard to hate this darling which Turtle Cream put their hearts into.
There are two jewels to collect in selected levels in each factory which, upon full completion, rewards you with a special ending as opposed to the regular ending you'd normally get. These jewels aren't that difficult to collect, so after a full run with a normal ending (it took me about three hours), it's fairly painless to go back through and pick out these specific stages to once more defeat the final boss and watch the special ending. These jewels also go towards achievements which are twenty in total whether through Steam or through the game itself and it's easy to one-hundred percent the game if you devote at least a day from start to finish. After either ending, the game turns it up to eleven on the "delightful scale" and puts on an incredibly well-done credits reel featuring a pleasant tune called The Sweet Song. It actually made me feel that my trials and tribulations were worth enduring, so big kudos to the developers on spending some time on something most companies overlook.
Sugar Cube: Bittersweet Factory makes for a compelling enough platformer with a double-edged mechanic to power through ninety total levels with. It might not be a game for everyone, but it isn't a complete waste of time either. It has just enough promise to help see you through from the beginning cut-scene to one of two final endings as well as a superb credits reel. It is currently available through Steam or via direct download available through the Turtle Cream official website for about $5 USD on its current sale or $7 USD for its normal price-tag. I conclude this review with the song that will now be stuck in my head for weeks to come: The Sweet Song.