For a game about time-travel and changing history, it’s appropriate that Braid seems to come from some alternate timeline in which Super Mario Bros. was a collaborative effort between Vincent van Gogh and H. G. Wells.
At its core, Braid is a platformer. You play as Tim, a dapper gent in a sport coat and tie who travels through bright, colorful levels while jumping on the heads of enemies, avoiding carnivorous plants that pop out of green pipes, and trying to save The Princess, who is always in another castle.
Does any of this sound familiar yet?
What distinguishes Tim from a certain plumber, however, is his ability to stop, speed up, and rewind the flow of time. If you’ve played Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, you’ll be pretty familiar with how the system works in Braid. Yet Braid’s time manipulation is more versatile and is the focus of gameplay instead of just a way around death, (although it’s used that way too.) It’s easy to learn and dead simple in practice, but you’ll find yourself pulling off increasingly complicated strategies as the game progresses.
And by “progressing,” I don’t mean just getting through the levels, which are distributed between six different “worlds.” (I really wasn’t kidding about the Mario references.) Surviving a level isn’t that impressive when your time-warping ability means you can’t die. The real point of the game is to collect puzzle pieces scattered throughout each world, which all have their own specific themes. There’s no lava level or ice level here, though. Instead, you’ll find a playroom/ancient ruins level, or a swamp/furniture level. If that doesn’t make sense to you, you’ve got the right idea. Braid’s eye-popping graphics defy definition, looking almost like an oil painting, but not quite, and the level design looks like the absinthe-induced hallucinations of Shigeru Miyamoto.
There’s method to the madness, though, as the art design of each world ties in to the deeper themes contained within. Worlds possess titles like “Time and Forgiveness,” or “Time and Place,” and there’s a story corresponding to each one. In the first room of each world, you’ll find a number of books on pedestals. Walking in front of them will reveal the story piece by piece in the form of floating text, a seemingly unimaginative device which nevertheless works, as it fits perfectly into the game world. The puzzle pieces you collect must also be assembled into a series of paintings, one per world, that reveal more of Tim’s history.
Noting that the game revolved around collection, I expected it to use the time-honored design choice of making the player return to earlier levels with the skills acquired later. Amazingly, I was wrong. Although Tim does get more powers later, they can only be used in the world in which he gets them; not in earlier worlds, and not even in later ones. The result: any time you see a puzzle piece, it’s possible to reach it, no questions asked.
Well, except for, “How the hell am I supposed to get there?”
Yet, if you spend just a little while thinking about any of the game’s puzzles and try different strategies, eventually solutions will just click. While the game’s fiendish difficulty can be frustrating, each puzzle has an elegant solution. If your strategy involves lightning-fast reflexes and a series of precise jumps, you’re probably doing it wrong. In the end, when you finally figure out a stumper and hear that satisfying chime that says you’ve collected a puzzle piece, Braid provides a level of satisfaction that I haven’t encountered since Portal. I think that’s one of the highest compliments you could pay a game.
Besides all the puzzle pieces, the game also has eight twinkling stars hidden throughout its levels, and when I say they’re hard to find, I mean hard. However, while most of these stars require awareness and dexterity, a couple are just a pain. One in particular requires only that you wait for two hours in one level. Find something else to occupy your time while waiting; I wrote this review. Still, besides bragging rights, the stars don’t seem to give you anything. There’s not even an achievement for finding them, so only die-hard completionists need bother.
Special praise must also be given to Braid’s soundtrack, which incorporates everything from pastoral violins and harps to more ominous cellos and tinkling, distorted lullabies. It fits the visual atmosphere of the game perfectly, and while the song for one level might seem to be repeated much later, close attention often reveals some distortion, creating a darker environment. It’s a testament to the quality and subtlety of Braid’s score that I had the game running in the next room for two hours while writing this, yet never got tired of the music.
I’ve held off on explaining what Braid is actually about because it’s an exercise in futility. Still, I imagine I should make some kind of effort. More than a simple rescue-the-princess story, Braid is a game about separate realities, (or are they all the same one?) in which the laws of time and space work differently, and how each relates to various aspects of Tim’s mind while he searches for a metaphorical “princess,” in reality being an ultimate dream he possesses. At least, I think that’s right.
While sounding unbelievably pretentious when I say it, the masterful writing behind the game makes it a complicated but fascinating tale, which all leads up to possibly the most brilliant final level I’ve ever seen in a game. Ever. It’s emotional, it’s exciting, it’s even disturbing, depending on how you look at it. More than just being a “twist” ending, it will turn your entire interpretation of the game on its ear. That final moment of realization is indescribable, really. You simply have to experience it.
Braid can be purchased on the Xbox LIVE Marketplace for 1,200 Microsoft Points ($15). Yes, that’s higher than usual, as most Marketplace originals go for 800 points ($10). Still, it’s worth it; although Braid is relatively short, (I finished it in about six hours,) it’s incredibly polished and awe-inspiring even when compared to many triple-A releases.
It seems cliché at this point, but to anyone arguing in favor of games as a narrative medium or as art: you owe it to yourself to play Braid. For fans of platformers or puzzle games, this should be a no-brainer. For everyone else: play it anyway. It really is that good.