(Reviewed on PS4)
Entwined is one of the few games that has been simultaneously unveiled and released at the same time. Announced as part of Sony’s E3 2014 press conference,the game, made by a small team of graduate developers known as Pixel Opus, was shown off on the big screens onstage, and, in a surprising and very pleasant move, was revealed to be immediately downloadable for the PS4. Sony fans had a way of getting a piece of the E3 action right here, right now.
This was a pretty exciting and inspired move on the part of Pixel Opus and Sony. Entwined being available to download that evening (very early morning for us Brits actually) was a welcome contrast to the announcements made for other upcoming games, which for the most part,are still a long way off in terms of the development cycle. Having stayed up ’till the wee small hours to watch the Sony press conference, this was a nice little morsel of E3 goodness to get into my greedy mitts and start playing in an effort to feel like I too was in LA fawning over the demo booths, and lollygagging around with the rest of the world’s gaming press.
I liked the look of the simplistic style and vibrant vibe (good alliteration there if I do say so myself) of the game, so before hitting the sack that night I hopped over to the PlayStation Store, flung the contents of my Sony wallet at Entwined to get the download going, ready to tackle it later. Here are the findings from said wallet-flinging for you to examine in written form.
Which came first, the Fish or the Bird?
Entwined is an on-rails racer of sorts, where you control two characters simultaneously, an orange fish, and a blue bird. The character designs are bright and colourful with intricate parts and very origami-like style and presentation. The game’s story, about two souls – said fish and bird – in love but “forever apart, always together” is apparently based on an ancient Chinese myth, and you can see the influence of it in almost all aspects of the design. The result is an interesting portmanteau of ancient Japanese and Chinese cultures, which is pleasantly unusual.
The main gameplay on offer here is simple, yet quite absorbing. Each of the analogue control sticks on the Dual Shock 4 controls one of the characters. The left stick controls the fish, the right stick controls the bird. Each character can only move on their half of the screen; the bird can only move around on the right half, and the fish on the left. Using both sticks simultaneously, the player has to move the two characters, as they continually move forward, through colour-coded shapes that appear in each level, whilst collecting orb-like…well, orbs, on the way.
The game is, overall, incredibly emotive. It feels engaging and enthralling throughout the nine levels, or lifetimes, as the game likes to call them. However, before I go into more detail on the emotive aspects of the game, these simple controls quickly became one of the game’s biggest annoyances for me personally, so I thought it would be best to expound first and foremost on the issue of the controls pretty early on as it is THE main mechanic of the game.
Sore thumbs and sore losers
You are told in the ‘how to play’ section that you are supposed to hold the analogue control sticks on the Dual Shock 4 by lightly resting the edges of your thumbs on the outer edges of each stick, as opposed to normally firmly planting the pad of your thumb over the centre. Okay I thought to myself, not a problem. This at first does feel like a good tip, as you can move the characters around much quicker and with less effort. However, while this gives you a slight advantage to rolling the fish and bird around the screen at faster speeds, I found that the trade off you get by lightly resting on the edges of the sticks is both imprecise and uncomfortable after only short periods of play. Having your thumbs poised lightly on the outer edges of the sticks can quickly become quite a strain for your hands, even for a lifelong gamer like me, who has probably spent more time wrestling with gamepads than I’ve had hot dinners…no wait that’s probably a lie, forgive me. Playing for anything longer than about 20-30 minutes can feel like agony on your thumbs, so I advise players who don’t want to take a trip down the carpal tunnel of love with their stinging, distended digits in tow to play in short and sweet sessions.
As a result, it can be hard to settle in and get into the game’s evocative mood, when your thumbs are practically screaming at you to stop – I personally would have liked to have played through the whole of story mode in a single evening, but I found I had to stop and take a break after each level or two. As someone who can (and will, don’t tempt me) spend days sitting around in nothing but my pants, wallowing in my lack of personal hygiene and filth whilst playing games till the wee small hours, the process of taking breaks from playing a game was quite a change from my usual modus operandi.
Time for a minor but relevant detour; Entwined isn’t the first game to use both sticks as a means of controlling two separate characters in, excuse the paradox here, a multiplayer singleplayer game. Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons, a fantastic game by Starbreeze Studios, tasks the player with controlling the two (yup, you guessed it) brothers by assigning each brother one half of the controller, in a similar fashion to Entwined. The older brother is controlled using the left stick and performs actions using left trigger, whilst the younger brother is controlled with the right stick and performs actions using the right trigger. What was utterly genius about Brothers was the fact that the designers recognised and accounted for the fact that players would have a leading/stronger gaming thumb than the other – typically the left, which normally controls a character’s movement in games. This was perfectly mirrored in that game’s story and mechanics by having the older brother’s control on the left, and the younger on the right; the result of this configuration was that players would let the older, more mature brother lead the way without consciously thinking about it as it would be their stronger thumb controlling the left stick, and have the younger brother (being controlled by the weaker thumb) follow. Without going into spoilers, this paid off HUGELY in the story, with an incredibly powerful delivery that arose directly because of the game’s asymmetrical control scheme.
Unlike Brothers though, the controls in Entwined just feel downright awkward at times – I was always stronger with my left stick, AKA the fish, but even after sinking several hours into the game’s story and challenge modes, my right stick controlling the bird never really improved. I would routinely perform agile quick movements through difficult patterns of shapes with my left stick, and continually cock-up even the most basic of manoeuvres with the right.
The controls in Brothers took into account the imbalance of your thumbs’ preferences, habits and strengths and used those tendencies to craft a well-thought out control system. In contrast, during its most difficult sections, Entwined insists that you have equal strength and dexterity with both of your main gaming digits – something I don’t have, and something I’m sure most gamers won’t have either. Pixel Opus might well have designed it this way intentionally, perhaps suggesting through player’s asymmetrical and unequal control over the bird and the fish, a metaphor of sorts along the lines of the asymmetrical distribution of a couple’s love for one another. But if so, it’s not very apparent or particularly conducive to the style of an on-rails racer.
Story mode sees you play through nine lifetimes, each one themed around a different element and emotion. The environments are abstract and relaxing in their simplistic yet elegant beauty, and whilst there are few chances to properly take in the background visuals whilst playing, when you do, everything looks suitably impressive. The lighting and particle effects amongst other such graphical wizardry really bring what would otherwise be dull endless tunnels to life.
The mood and feel of each section is varied too; I expected most of the levels to feel sad and lonely due to the longing Romeo and Juliet style love story angle of the two characters, but there’s a full gamut of moods and feelings that run throughout all nine lifetimes. Often you’ll find yourself just drifting off (in a good absorbed way, not a tired sleepy way) and just drinking in the mood of a level without consciously thinking about it, and these are some of the best bits of the game. When you find yourself lost in a zen-like sense of flow, the game excels, whilst also taking your thoughts away from your aching thumbs.
At times, the game delivers some truly exhilarating moments to experience – a testament to the game’s simplistic visuals and design. When you’ve passed through enough coloured shapes and orbs in a lifetime, you are prompted to press L1 + R1 to start the eponymous entwining process between the fish and the bird. Cue flashing lights, a dramatic increase in speed and thumping drums and music – the game shifts up a gear, and you now have to navigate through the final sequences, with each successful motion threading the two characters closer together with intertwining strands of colour and light.
These sections feel extremely powerful; with my headphones turned up loud and my eyes glued to the screen, the overpoweringly emotional sensations these entwining sections would stir in me would often send the hairs on the back of my neck standing up and have me break out in goosebumps – in only a good way of course. The sensation of going faster and faster, and with the rousing music swelling around you and in your ears, it feels absolutely electrifying. Think the trippy ending sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, only with more fun and exhilaration rather than ominous alien obelisks and giant foetal space babies. Powerful stuff indeed for a simple on-rails tunnel racer.
Once you’ve completed the entwining, you find yourself controlling a big majestic green dragon, which, upon closer inspection, you can see is made up of the component parts of the fish and bird in a cool Lego/Meccano sort of way. The sections with the combined dragon are really emotive – I found myself feeling peaceful and relaxed, yet with bittersweet undertones of melancholia upon completing each lifetime. In contrast to the intense build-up of the entwining sections, here you can peacefully glide around a picturesque scene as you collect more orbs to start the next lifetime. It’s often quite nice to just spend some time quietly drifting about and taking in all the scenery; simply being able to drift around the open world sections as the dragon felt surprisingly special and stirring. The controls are slightly different for the dragon, requiring both sticks to turn and manoeuvre it around in the sky, but it feels effortless and smooth, and it’s certainly a good opportunity to let your aching thumbs rest for a while. You can swoop and soar around to your heart’s content before making a beautiful sky trail to the next lifetime.
Pulling off the required shapes and patterns in the on-rails sections is incredibly satisfying as they come towards you, when everything is going well control wise. The game’s sound design is tailored to the style of each level which is a nice touch; passing through a water drop shape on the water themed lifetime makes a nice drip effect, whilst passing through a squiggly cloud-like shape in the air lifetime makes a satisfying yet appropriate squeaky pop. Each sound effect and note is suitably co-ordinated to the onscreen visuals rapidly hurtling towards you.
Speaking of sound design, the musical score is rousing and dynamic – it responds to how you’re playing à la Rockband/Guitar Hero style, with more layers and timbres joining in when you make progress, and dropping out when you make mistakes. It feels lively and emotive, both overwhelming and symphonically massive, yet knowing when to take a backseat and provide moody and simplistically introspective pads and tones. Like I mentioned earlier, particularly impressive soundscapes come into play during the entwining sections; as a bass guitar player, hearing the low powerful bass tones lock in with loud drums that appear dramatically from the ambient aural landscapes as the speed increases made me grin from ear to ear at times. Nothing musically ever gets in the way of the gameplay experience; it’s there to enhance the gameplay experience. The music itself, the overall effect of it on you as you play, combined with its execution and responsiveness to the player’s actions is nothing short of fantastic, and contributed massively to my personal emotional connection to the game.
The overall story told is emotional and stirring whilst remaining abstract and minimal. The fact that the game gets you to run through a wide palette of varying tender emotions whilst playing, just through gameplay and without a single line of dialogue is very impressive. Whilst there’s not much here that particularly stands out as exceptional storytelling in itself, the moments you’ll experience while travelling through the nine lifetimes are memorable and evocative; you’ll remember the moods, spaces and thoughts that your mind drifted off into whilst playing rather than any major specific events themselves…except, perhaps, you might remember a couple of unpleasant things of course…
Swimming with the fishes
Why such a pessimistic subtitle and change in direction I hear you ask? Well, the major downside that I found to the story mode is the odd pacing and structure of it. Specifically, the game can quickly spike in difficulty in places, in sudden unexpected and startling points for a game with such a simplistic premise. It makes for a disjointed feeling experience, where you don’t feel a sense of progression or accomplishment at getting further, usually just an overwhelming sense of relief after major roadblocks of frustration.
The difficulty can spike arbitrarily, and not on a nice steady upward linear incline. Rather than starting off easy and gradually increasing the challenge as the player progresses through each of the nine lifetimes, the difficulty can suddenly shoot up in certain sections, and then fizzle out whimperingly in the places where the game feels as though it’s building up to a natural cumulative climax of sorts. Sections either feel controller-destroyingly frustrating or almost too easy, with no happy medium in between, and what’s more, they come in the wrong order, leading to a somewhat unsatisfying experience.
Maybe this is what they were going for with the story mode, to break up the difficult sections in an unusual or different way…or maybe I just suck at Entwined. I’m not sure. I found that I would breeze through some of the later sections of the game with nary a mistake from my colourful duo, whereas I consistently hit some serious roadblocks very early on in the early lifetimes. I soared through some stages which upon first glance, looked like they would give me a sudden apoplectic fit due to the number of shapes bombarding the screen at once with their sheer visual complexity and speed, whilst struggling immensely and repeatedly with what looked like easy and overly-simplistic groupings of shapes in the very early levels. A gradual ramping up of the complexity in each lifetime would have been more to my liking, with more of a concerted gameplay challenge coming at the denouement of the game rather than within the first few tentative steps of the journey.
Having said that, there’s no penalty for missing the shapes in story mode, so thankfully there’s no way to lose and there’s no lengthy reloads to go back to a checkpoint, the game just keeps on rolling. However, because of this, you can quickly end up in a demoralising loop of frustration after a while of repeatedly missing upcoming shapes. Every time you miss a shape, you lose a small chunk of the progression bars at the top of the screen (orange and blue for the fish and bird respectively), which means that continued mistakes will send you backward – both in terms of game progression and mental state. This means that on difficult sections, you can feel your will to keep playing drain almost as quickly as the progression bars slowly dwindle back down to the start.
The core problem I found when playing Entwined was that the game asks you to pull off movements with the two sticks that feel either too fast or too precise for you to pull off with both sticks going at once. I know this sounds like a tedious or perhaps mistaken point for a gamer to argue about, but I would find myself repeatedly struggling to pull off the manoeuvres necessary to get through the shapes the game thrust towards me, with the speed and level of accuracy that it demanded. Factor into this the fact that the controls feel distended and awkward on your precious thumbs after only a relatively short period of time and this can quickly convince you that you’ve fallen into some Dante-esque coloured circle of hell, albeit with blue and orange obstacles flying at you instead of, presumably, flesh-eating demons. Your thumbs get tired from gripping onto the edges for dear life, so your precision to navigate through the next obstacles diminishes. You grit your teeth in frustration, and grip on tighter to the sticks, only for them to further ache in disappointment after yet another dropped shape which sets you back even further.
This might be again just a personal preference thing; for me, I find the Xbox One controller, with it’s higher offset left stick far more comfortable to use than the Dual Shock 4. The Xbox One controller makes playing for hours at a time feel very comfortable and easy on your hands, and as I’m more familiar with the Xbox consoles, this unsurprisingly feels most naturally to me. The central low down placement of the left and right sticks, positioned right next to each other on the Dual Shock 4 is often quite an uncomfortable playing position for someone like me who has more of an Xbox playing heritage; I feel that holding my thumbs consistently on the edge of the sticks in this position for extended periods just didn’t agree with me (or my tendons) if I wanted to play for longer than about 20 minutes.
If I were not such a black-hearted achievement/trophy hunting scumbag, I would have quickly lost the will to get past lifetime three, which for me, quickly became the bain of my existence whilst playing this game. Each lifetime has it’s own visual style or traits to set them apart. In my case, which I’m sure others have found out playing Entwined for themselves too, that the levels where I got stuck repeatedly, such as that pesky rock/earth themed fouth lifetime, were ones where I had to make short sharp jerky motions with the sticks to reach jagged pairs of shapes set at sharp angles away from each other, as opposed to lifetimes that required smooth controlled motions.
To this day, that fourth lifetime continues to give me grief each time I’ve gone back to replay it, and it becomes an irritating roadblock to my enjoyment of what is overall a very relaxing and enjoyable gameplay experience. I could cope with the longer twisting curving tunnels sections of repeated shapes where regular small minute adjustments were required for extended periods of time, which are in theory harder to pull off as there’s more shapes to pass through, whereas I never got the hang of those which required single rapid angular movements, usually from one extreme of the screen to another. The speed at which you are required to spin your thumbs around the edges of the sticks feels near impossible at times to successfully pull off.
Other more minor things that got to me were that on some levels, it can be extremely hard to see past one or two shapes in advance of your current position. Obviously, this is what makes the game challenging to some extent, but it can get to the point that there’s so many layers of shapes going on it can be extremely hard to see what you need to do or where you’ve gone wrong. Whether you get through them or not feels more down to fluky panicked jerks on the control sticks rather than your skill/responsiveness at navigating through the hordes of shapes flying at you during the difficult sections.
However, to play devil’s advocate with myself here (try it sometime, it’s pretty good fun), as I got more acclimatised to the game, my thoughts on the difficulty fluctuated somewhat. Having spent a decent chunk of time with the game, playing through the story mode several times, I’m a bit more forgiving of the problems I had in comparison to my initial frustrated impressions.
I’m writing this review bearing in mind that a large part of what could be considered difficult or frustrating for me will undoubtedly differ from player to player, and therefore may not apply to your own experience. As the majority of my gripes with Entwined are rooted in the control system and with analogue sticks of the PS4, and my inability to move said analogue sticks at the required speeds without whinging and moaning about getting cramped up thumbs, I’m perhaps going too far off into the realms of dogmatic rambling, somewhat close to diligent verbal self-flagellation rather than critical reviewing. Like I say, this could all be total poppycock as it were when you play, and you might not have any such issues, you supple thumb warrior you.
As the game is extremely visual based by nature, and simple and clean in the design of its user interface, I can see that including on-screen prompts and tutorials would somewhat clash with the game’s desire to be taken as an experience or journey first and foremost. In addition, despite how frustrating it can be when you are faced with a tricky section that you just can’t seem to get past, the game doesn’t stop or force you to start over, you can just keep on going, which does help to keep the experience feeling seamless and smooth even though you might be consistently struggling.
However, to best draw a line under this ugly clump of paragraphs pontificating on the game’s controls and my thumbs, I have to say that those were my only real negatives to say about the game. On that note, it’s time to talk about the challenge mode, a rather snazzy dessert to finish off with.
A new challenger approaches
To recap then, your first playthrough of Entwined will have some great moments in it that manage to be both genuinely touching and heartfelt. However, in terms of replayability, there’s not an awful lot to go back for in story mode. I could imagine going back to play through the mode again at a later date to experience all the nice ways it draws you into its simple but elegant world, but whilst the experience is still fresh in your mind, there’s not much there to tempt you to go back for another playthrough. Once you’ve played through it once that’s probably going to be enough for most casual players. What now you ask? Well, that’s where challenge mode comes in.
Challenge mode operates almost identically to story mode, but with a few key changes. First of all, it’s now an endless runner, with no powering up and morphing into dragons and all that stuff. I can see that you’re losing interest now that I’ve said there’s no dragons involved, but bear with me! What you get instead is a satisfying gradual difficulty gradient, a three strikes and you’re out system and highscores; this triumvirate of features don’t sound the most exciting things I have to say, but they make the game so much more fun to play. Trust me.
Challenge mode is the perfect thing to fire up and have a quick 10-minute blast through a few levels. It has that great Tetris style compulsive itch to it; just one more time, one more go, and this time I’ll beat the highscore. The gradual difficulty curve the game offers in these challenge mode levels feels both welcome and enjoyable; it’s well-paced and never feels overwhelming – unlike in the story game. The speed you need to make your controller inputs and the complexity of the shapes is gradually increased in a nice smooth curve, meaning that there’s no sudden spikes in speed or difficulty, and when you do mess up it’ll feel like an error on your own part. You blame yourself for making silly mistakes; whereas you mess up in story mode, you curse and get angry with the game and not your performance.
The series of shapes here is always a linear progression, unlike in story mode, which is partially linear, partially a series of loops. What you lose in unpredictability, challenge mode makes up for it in difficulty, albeit a well-structured difficulty that feels satisfying and addictive. Miss a shape or sequence three times and you have to start the level again from the beginning. Failure here is instructive though, and as I saw my highscores climb, I could visibly track the progress I was making, which felt incredibly rewarding. The ability to learn from your mistakes makes it feel much more worthwhile to play. Scores are calculated by how long you can remain navigating the course for, before you miss your allotted three mistakes and crash and burn in a glorious mound of brightly coloured feathers and scales.
There’s variety in the difficulty as well, which makes it feel more refreshing. The impressive lighting effects will sometimes flare up along the tunnel you’re continually moving down, which can make it harder to see exactly where the shapes racing up to meet you are, but at the same time it doesn’t feel particularly unfair or cheap. The challenge levels will also often lull you into a false sense of security; delivering you a series of easy shapes repeatedly on the left side of the screen for example, thereby focusing your attention wholly to the left of the screen only to catch you out by quickly sending you shapes on the right side of the screen in rapid succession.
Setting highscores in a stage will unlock the next level (out of a total of five, each one named after an element and each being more difficult than the one before) and trophies are up for grabs for those most dextrous-thumbed of gamers who can unlock all the levels and set a marathon-like 300 seconds on a map of their choosing.
‘Forever Apart, Always Together’
Each time I’ve sat down to play Entwined, I’ve come away feeling quite emotional and deep in a sort of sadness that resonates with the game’s melancholic tone. For such a simple game, I would be utterly entranced while playing it, often finding that I had slipped into a deep meditative flow-like trance with its simplistic but satisfying gameplay. I’ve found that the more I’ve played Entwined, the fonder I’ve become of it. However, the main controls and gameplay mechanics can lead to fair bit of frustration which can pull you out of the relaxing atmosphere.
Like the mantra of the game itself, ‘forever apart, always together’, my feelings about the game are both simultaneously fractured and cohesive. While I try to keep my grievances with the controls and inputs ‘forever apart’ from the things that the game accomplishes well, sooner or later, due to aching thumbs and inaccuracy of control, I’m briskly reminded that these flaws will be ‘always together’ with the potent emotive elements that the game gets right. Although the story mode contains the majority of the emotional denouements, which are undoubtedly the game’s strongest points, playing the challenge mode quickly became my favourite way to play Entwined as it feels much more fun with considered difficulty challenges, rather than the cheap almost lackadaisically executed hurdles on offer in story mode.
As a result, there’s this unfortunate compromise; what you’re left with is a choice between emotive atmosphere and frustrating gameplay, or simple arcade fun with little depth at its core to entice all but the most determined of players to come back to. Entwined is an enjoyable and emotive experience, albeit one that you won’t be likely to replay once you’ve played through it all and seen all there is to see.