Whether first-person or third, adventure gamers are used to traditional perspectives, but some of the most devious puzzling can be accomplished by turning those perspectives on their heads – in some cases rather literally. Such is the case with Where is My Heart? and Back to Bed, the two latest puzzle-platformers in our ongoing cross-genre series. From navigating fragmented environments to walking on walls in a Dali-esque, surrealist world, there's much to enjoy here for puzzle-lovers who embrace a little sweat-inducing tension in their brain-bending challenges.
Where is My Heart?
Terms like “side-scroller” and “platformer” tend to conjure very specific images in gamers’ minds, priming us with learned expectations for how a title will look and play. It’s easy to take these terms for granted because the challenge is usually in the gameplay itself, whether solving puzzles, avoiding traps, or shooting enemies. But what if the challenge also (or even primarily) comes from an attempt to break those preconceived notions of how a game’s levels or environment are “supposed” to be displayed onscreen?
Enter Danish developer Die Gute Fabrik and Where is my Heart?, a very conventional, if stylish, 2D platforming experience freshened up with a very clever twist—not on the genre itself, but in how it is presented. Each level has been chopped up into a multitude of small rectangular tiles, and then shuffled around, and the disorienting results are similar to a jigsaw puzzle with its pieces out of place. This deceptively simple change in perspective forces you to come to grips with the spatial relationship between each frame, essentially piecing the level together mentally in order to understand how to guide the protagonists across the fractured landscape.
Topping even the quirky, attractive aesthetics, the main attraction here is all about how altering the presentation can create a challenge in what would otherwise be typical (and, for most players, fairly easy) platforming gameplay. Indeed, all the components of an old-school platformer are to be found in Where is my Heart?, such as deathtraps that require precise timing in order to dodge, blocks that are activated with a head-bump, and collectable objects scattered around the level. I think I can safely say that gamers put off by platforming games in general, or those who lack quick reflexes, will find no respite here, though the opportunity to experience something that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been done before, could make it worth a look even by those who would otherwise be uninterested.
Each of the game’s twenty-six discrete levels (three additional levels are unlockable on PC after the credits roll) displays gorgeous, near-psychedelic visuals. The colors are especially unusual and bright, owing to the pastel hues, and the crisp pixel art could best be described as “cute.” Although forest is the predominate backdrop early on, later environments include such features as burbling blue waterfalls, twinkling stars, and creepy caves. Vegetation even reacts to your actions, such as small mushrooms that shrink into the earth when passing by them, only to pop back up a moment later, and fields of grass that bend as the characters walk through them. Nighttime environments are a special treat, the color palette taking on vivid neon hues that are a delight to behold. In many ways it’s a shame that the visuals are obfuscated throughout much of the game, even if it is necessary to accommodate the fragmented presentation that makes up the bulk of the “puzzle” part of the puzzle-platforming.
Sound effects are excellent, too, and fit in with the whimsical, dreamlike atmosphere. Bird calls echo through the forest, the sound of water trickles down walls, and even the gentle tap of a character’s feet hitting the ground after a jump imbue each level with life. The music is another well-designed feature, though the surreal, downtempo melodies of the chip-tune soundtrack tended to annoy me at times. However, it works very well with the aesthetic of the game, so whether one likes it primarily comes down to taste rather than technical execution. Luckily, the music tends to fade in and out depending on the events taking place onscreen, rather than being an ever-present distraction.
The game begins much like any other platformer, introducing a family of monsters named Grey (the father), Orange (the mother), and Brown (their son). The premise involves the trio searching for the Heart Tree, a large anthropomorphic tree that, as a result of a tragic mistake by the monsters, floats away at the end of the first level, leaving a fractured world in his wake. I initially had high hopes for Where is my Heart?’s story, particularly because the trailers I had seen suggested unsettling, almost sinister tones beneath its cotton-candy exterior, and the colorful environment in which the game is set seems ripe for bizarre happenings. However, other than the overarching “Find the Heart Tree” objective to provide rudimentary motivation, the story is abstract and left largely to the player to interpret.
To help in this regard, the protagonists are given their own distinct personalities, revealed in unvoiced quotes displayed before the start of each level, and in the idle animations seen occasionally during gameplay, such as when Orange weeps softly or Grey grumbles in frustration. In addition, each character is able to transform into a forest spirit, an alter ego of sorts which gives each one special abilities, such as Brown’s “Antler Ancestor,” who can double jump and is followed around by “The Fireflies” (actually diminutive versions of his mother and father), Orange’s “Rainbow Spirit of True Sorrow,” a smiling, angelic creature who can shift the game’s panels around, and Grey’s “Bat King,” who can reveal hidden routes and platforms. A few quotes from the alter egos suggest that they are, in fact, meant to represent repressed desires or fears that strain the characters’ relationships with one another, but while the quotes are occasionally unsettling (such as Orange’s “Make one mistake in life and it will never be forgiven,” or my personal favorite, the Fireflies’ “We love to cause mutual trauma”), and they do flesh out the characters somewhat, the story never feels particularly deep or truly integral to the gameplay.
The main goal in each level is simple: gain access to the exit located somewhere out of immediate reach. Like the entry point, the exit features a whimsical face, either engraved upon a stone or etched into the trunk of a tree, which opens its mouth to let the characters through once they reach it. Although it is easy to see the exit, getting to it is the challenging part, owing to the fractured, jumbled nature of the presentation. In order to successfully navigate the environment and reach the door, players must explore the relationship between the various tiles, using such clues as watching a cloud passing by in several frames at once, or walking a character to the edge of a tile to see which of the other panels it leads to. Of course, jumping onto platforms and avoiding traps along the way, such as spike-pits or bottomless chasms, provides even more challenge, often because you only have a general idea of where the trap is located in relation to the characters until further exploration reveals more clues. Luckily, the keyboard-centric controls are easy to grasp, in which the arrow keys move the characters around, the spacebar is used for jumping, and the ‘D’ key is used to switch between the protagonists. For the most part, difficulties come from the obstacles and the disorienting layout, not the controls.
Typical tasks needed to get all three characters to the exit include standing on each other’s shoulders in order to reach higher ground, leaping across chasms, or activating interactive blocks to unleash a flurry of pink hearts that create new platforms to aid the protagonists or remove existing blocks that impede progress. At times, it is impossible to gain access to parts of the level through any conventional means, perhaps because the height of the platform is prohibitive or is hidden behind a wall. In these cases, you must use a character’s alter ego to perform actions not normally possible with that character’s basic form. Although the Antler Ancestor and the Bat King are fairly straightforward, Rainbow Spirit is somewhat more complex (but also quite useful), in that she can reposition the tiles onscreen, providing spatial clues that aid navigation. She can also shift her presence between tiles as they rotate, allowing her to gain access to areas of the game that are otherwise not directly accessible. Her abilities are also helpful in the few situations where only partially-visible tiles can be brought fully into view.
While the gameplay is quite polished, the greatest criticism I noted is how repetitive the action becomes after a while. With no story, per se, to motivate my actions and keep me intrigued, there were only so many jumps, double jumps, and character transformations that I could perform before feeling like I was simply doing the same thing over and over again. Even with the characters’ special abilities to provide some spice, most of the gameplay is a variation on those three actions. What mitigates this issue somewhat is the fact that levels unlock in a staggered fashion, typically revealing two new levels for every one completed, so that if you get stuck on one level, you can switch to another one.
The potentially-quite-brief playtime also prevents the game from truly wearing out its welcome. Gamers with quick reflexes who have little difficulty mastering all that the game has to offer, could finish in a matter of 2-3 hours, though my own experience suggests an average of about 3-5 hours, plus more if an optional secondary objective is followed through to completion. For me, the game was over before things got too repetitive, though the anti-climactic ending did elicit a verbal “is that it?” when the playable credit sequence began, leaving me ultimately underwhelmed. The three bonus levels available after finishing the game on PC actually do have a bit of variation in them, but they generally feel experimental and unpolished compared to the rest of the game.
It is possible to die in Where is my Heart?, and it is intended to be part of the game, since at times, despite your best efforts to understand the layout, blind jumps are required in order to ascertain exactly how to proceed, leading to death for the character in question if they are unfortunate enough to land on a spike or in a pool of water. In cases like this, the punishment is a return for that character to the door in which they entered the level. While trying to master leaps that require precise timing to avoid hazards, having to repeatedly traverse areas of the level that I had already solved, only to fail the jump again (and again...and again...) and have to repeat the process became frustrating and tiresome. Luckily, this specific issue only raised its head once or twice.
In addition to the main objective, you can collect a number of pink-colored hearts scattered around each level. Once collected, a heart floats over to the exit door which consumes it, gradually illuminating a small heart-shaped icon set in the outer edge of the door. When a character dies, however, a black heart floats up from where they met their end and the door consumes it instead, turning the icon dark. In addition, the door’s facial expression gradually changes as hearts of both colors are collected, with pink hearts giving it a joyful grin, and black hearts eliciting a morose frown.
Given the obvious effects, initially I thought that perhaps a certain number of hearts would have to be collected in order to leave the level, but the purpose of the hearts has minimal bearing on gameplay, seeming to be little more than a “gotta get ‘em all” collect-quest for completists. Even after collecting no hearts or dying numerous times in one level, I could pass through to the next level with no apparent ill effects on my progress or the characters, although the “score” metric on the level selection menu showed that collecting black hearts reduces the final score for that level.
Despite how complex Where is my Heart? might seem in concept, underneath the unique layout disorientation lies a very competent and traditional platformer, in the same vein as Super Mario or Kirby’s Dreamland, only without enemies to fight and with a more puzzle-oriented design. During my time with it, what surprised me most of all is how a simple change in perspective turned what would have been a fairly easy game into a brain-bending experience.
I also found it interesting how the perspective actually made full immersion in the game’s colorful world a detriment to progress. “Immersion” is typically one of the prime goals for any developer. However, in order to navigate each level I had to keep a mental arms-length from what was happening onscreen so that I could watch for clues on how to proceed. Getting too involved often meant inadvertently passing over to an adjacent tile and falling into some trap I wasn’t expecting. Creating an experiment in “anti-immersion” may not have been the developer’s intention, but it was a rather fascinating side effect of the game’s unique viewpoint. The story in Where is my Heart? could use some work, as it was a bit too vague for my taste, but Die Gute Fabrik’s experimental take on the typical puzzle-platformer, backed up by quirky, beautiful pixel art and excellent sound effects, likely makes it worth a look even by those who don’t normally find themselves attracted to these kinds of games.Continued on the next page...