Samsara is a kicky, inventive platformer from Auckland game studio Marker Games that harks back to the not-so-long-ago likes of Limbo and Braid. Adam Goodall reviews.
On the top of the screen is a tropical beach. There’s a crab hiding in one corner and on the horizon a city skyline catches the last of the sun. In the middle of the sky a living island hovers, a single green eye framed in a jagged wood-and-rock body.
On the bottom of the screen: this scene, reversed. The sky down there is pitch black, the trees stripped of coconuts. The floating island’s eye is now a deep, threatening red.
Both dimensions are dominated by little towers of stone blocks, a scaffold reflected, but also not, in the pool of the other world. There’s a lost boy in each one, both far from home. I have four staircases I can use, little puzzle pieces that I can slot into these stone frames and make paths with, walkways to help these boys get back to where they came from. The staircases differ in size and shape and material. I have no idea how to use any of them.
After 15 minutes and lots of dead little boys, each one sacrificed so I can work out their paths and the gaps in my many plans, I work it out. Whenever Zee walks on the twisted black vines, they disintegrate; anything stacked on the vines will drop when they disintegrate, making a bridge that both boys can use. I stack two sets of stone stairs on the vines and hit X. I feel untouchable.
Samsara, developed by Auckland studio Marker Games, is all about that thrill, the electric shock that hits when your hypothesis is right and your formula works. And your formulas better work if you’re going to keep these lost boys alive. One of the young lads, Zee, has chased a squirrel into a mysterious portal and gotten trapped in an Upside Down-style nightmare dimension. The other is Zee’s mirror image, a shadow boy torn from Zee’s body by the dark dimension’s ubiquitous, suffocating vines. You’re cast as their protector: get them across each level to the portal meant for them, bring them back together and break them out of this hellscape.
You do this by building little chains of platforms and triggers, paths to each portal that they can run across without dying. All of these puzzles, 72 in total, are short, small, focused. Each level is made up of two compact, Duplo-sized grids and you’re usually given between three and five platforms to use in that space. The challenge is in where you put your platforms and how the world acts on them. Gravity pulls them down and tips them over; vines wither away or spring to life depending on which boy gets close.
There’s also this quirk: every staircase and box you put down in the dark dimension is reflected in Zee’s home dimension. Each platform is made out of wood, stone or gold, and these materials respond differently to gravity in each world. For example, a wood staircase will always fall to the ground, no matter what dimension it’s in, but a gold staircase that falls to the ground in the dark dimension will fall up in Zee’s home dimension. Because each dimension, each grid is set up different, you have to find a solution that creates a safe path home for both boys. So, for example: (Stone staircase x 2) + dying vine = a floating stairway that falls into place in both dimensions.
Most of the puzzles are ultimately pretty simple. Kids might find the later levels a challenge – and honestly, between the simple iOS-style puzzle interface and the cute designs, they’d probably eat this up – but you, an adult with adult responsibilities, aren’t gonna need a walkthrough. There’s a real satisfaction, though, in setting up your answer, hitting the X button and watching everything fall into place. Each puzzle only has one solution and seeing your solution become the solution, getting it, is a rush no matter how many times it happens. It’s like getting an exam back and seeing all the ticks. It’s a five-minute delivery system for feeling like a genius.
I can’t shake this sense of deja vu, though. It’s not that Samsara is an inferior copy of anything in particular; it’s emphatically not. But its storybook characters, all big heads and gangly limbs, call back to Coraline and Psychonauts and Braid. The sudden, macabre death animations (and the gallows-humour achievements that come with them) echo Limbo and its imitators. Samsara is such a faithful visual homage to the puzzle-platformers of ten years ago that it feels like it could’ve been made then, like something that would’ve blown up on Xbox Live Arcade during the height of the indie boom.
So I come back to this feeling that I’d done this all before. Samsara’s small and charming and, were it released on iPad or Android or Switch, it would be a great mobile experience. Its bite-sized puzzles and its small hub worlds, divided into eight levels each, are perfect for short bus rides. But it’s not. Between that, its functional storytelling and its heavily quoted aesthetic, Samsara feels slight, too slight, like a palette-cleanser in between more ambitious games. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It just doesn’t do enough to take up space in your mind, to stick around like all those other games. The electric shock just doesn’t last as long as you’d like.
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