Friday 2 August 2019

Switch Review - Robbie Swifthand and the Orb of Mysteries

There’s an appeal to overcoming an insurmountable challenge, but does this brutal platform game push things that bit too far?

Developed by Pixel Reign
Released in 2019

During the amusing tutorial of  ‘Super Mario Maker 2’, Yamamura and Nina are discussing difficulty. “Since the dawn of time, philosophers, game designers and seat-cushion engineers alike have asked the question: How Hard is too hard?” 

Anyone who thinks 2D platformers are easy and designed for kids hasn’t played a ‘Mega Man’ game. Games like ‘Castle of Illusion’, ‘Ghosts ‘n Goblins’ and even ‘Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels” were known for their challenging gameplay. Indeed recently there have been a slew of platform games celebrated for being brutally difficult. ‘CupHead’, ‘Super Meat Boy’, and ‘Hollow Knight’ are obvious contenders.

‘Robbie Swifthand and the Orb of Mysteries’ is a game very much cast from this mould. Any doubt about this should be eliminated the second you press start. “This game is meant to be experienced by hard-core players. Tough but fair [...] with an increasing difficulty from start to finish”. The warning isn’t subtle, but it is an apt way of summarising the experience. 

The premise of ‘Robbie Swifthand’ is a simple; you’re presented with a plethora of short levels that can typically be finished in minutes provided you know the optimal route and method. The majority demand you find a glowing orb, and then transport it to a gateway. Doing this opens an exit door and once reached the level is completed. Of course, as the game progresses the complexity of the stages increases.  Levels consisting of simple timed jumps over spikes and under pendulums make way for more complex stages involving double-jumps between spiked moving platforms while riding air currents.  “‘Robbie Swifthand’ was born out of our love for high difficulty 2D platformers and our slightly sick sense of humour,” remarks Angelos Gkamiliaris from Pixel Reign. “The levels have obstacles with minds of their own where everything is designed to kill you. Or at least to inflict severe psychological pain that will drive even the most hard-core platformer enthusiast to madness.”

Robbie starts in a central hub from which four worlds can be selected. These worlds consist of a world map comprising dozens of levels, which can be selected from in order to negotiate a route through to an end of world boss.  So, provided you’re not stumped by two levels simultaneously you’ll always be moving through the game, working out which route presents the easiest challenge. But there’s no point even starting to play this game if you’re afraid of failure.  “[The game] can quickly transform from a fun casual platforming experience into one that will make even the best platforming veteran cry” says Gkamiliaris. After each failed attempt a marker will be left on the level to show your mistake and before you finish most stages there will likely be dozens of these glowing graves.  Deaths are usually pretty horrific too, with Robbie’s lifeless bloody corpse smeared across the levels.  But gory mistakes serve a purpose; you have to ultimately discover what not to do, to determine what you should do. 

Obviously when a game requires you to fail before you can succeed there’s a risk it’ll become quickly frustrating.  The strength of any game like this depends entirely on deaths being the result of your error. When a player feels played by the game, enjoyment for it quickly dissipates. You should be kicking yourself for not noticing something obvious, or for mistiming a simple jump. What you should not be doing is throwing the controller across the room in frustration, because you’ve been cremated by a random jet of fire seconds before you pass he goal. ‘Robbie Swifthand’ starts off fun and fair, but tragically it quickly becomes cheap and irritating. Initially, difficult spots are highlighted: Admittedly this is often quite subtly and on occasion you’ll only realise what the danger sign post was after you’ve died. Spot lights will illuminate spikes, wall decorations will allude to where blocks will fall and failing a series of precise jumps will see you landing on a platform below rather than instantly onto spikes. In the second world though, the game begins to feels unfair and by the conclusion you’ll be at the mercy of luck. Notoriously difficult levels include giant spiked balls that plough throw the level destroying the route and instantly killing Robbie. Because these levels feel longer and have to be completed at speed they prove to be the hardest in the game. There’s no time to think, no time to perfect timing and no margin for error.
The end of stage bosses, while imaginative, are also unfair. It’s all pretty standard, “hit-them-in-their-weak-spots-several-times” fare, but their attacks seem to always include one that’s unavoidable. The first for example, tries to crush you with giant stone hands. After much trial an error you’ll master the ability to lure and then dodge these hands, you’ll also be adept and leaping over them when they strike across the screen. But you’ll scream in frustration when this same boss suddenly summons a row of blocks without any noticeable warning. The only escape is run to the other side of the screen, but when it’s impossible to reach that in time ‘Robbie Swifthand’ feels deliberately obtuse. 

Even with the ability to move the screen using the right analogue stick, there are far more “leaps of faith” than I’d like. Arguably this might be deliberatly part of the “fail to succeed” design but while that may explain it, it doesn’t justify it. The best levels of ‘Super Meat Boy’ and ‘CupHead’ made it obvious what you had to do and where you had to go. That’s what made it satisfying when you completed a level, the method was obvious but the execution was the challenge. In ‘Robbie Swifthand’ too many levels involve simply taking the plunge; jumping off a platform edge hoping you’ll land on a platform not a spike. Technical issues also blight the experience. On several occasions the screen became fixated on parts of the level I didn’t need to see, and I had to wrestle the camera to even allow me to see where I intended to jump. Some levels also end up in an unwinnable state, typically because you haven’t caused a block to fall at an earlier point.    

Even the ball throwing mechanic seems arbitrarily difficult and imprecise. Robbie can only throw the orb to his side at a right angle; he’s unable to throw it up or down. To open a gateway directly above you, Robbie will instead have to ricochet the ball off a nearby wall or throw it while jumping or falling. 

The game wasn’t designed for the Switch’s table top or handheld mode. Everything feels a bit too small with most of the text so minuscule on screen it’s almost impossible to read. More crucially it’s trickier to gauge the pixel perfect jumps when they’re illegible on screen. The unfair spikes hidden in the shadows or behind foreground practically vanish when played on the Switch’s screen which means deaths from them seem all the more cruel. 

It’s admittedly a difficult balancing act. There’s a need to see as much of the level as possible, but the more environment you show the smaller the game characters and hazards become. ‘Robbie Swifthand’ is an attractive game. The rich varied environments are all illuminated with unity powered real time lighting. The main character is cheeky yet charming, with pixelated eyes looking towards hazards as they swing and loom around him. But the problem is the good looks and complicated particle effects might be atmospheric but they’re not ideally suited to the task at hand. Platform games depend on precision, you need to know exactly what is, and isn’t, safe to stand on especially when the game gives such a small window of opportunity to make very accurate jumps. Again, ‘Super Meat Boy’ and ‘CupHead’ do this much better. These two equally brutally hard games look stylish but they also look clean. The gloom of ‘Robbie Swifthand’ too frequently adds an extra layer of difficulty, and in so doing, once again success feels even less like the result of successful play. 

Many say it’s not the destination but they journey, and if you’ve come to this game looking for a gripping tale of self-discovery you’ll be disappointed. The intermissions that occur between most levels seem bizarrely random, as characters with ‘Zelda’ alike voices talk about the internet with post-modern self-referential irreverence. So if the narrative destination isn’t worth the pain, is the journey good enough to warrant the time you‘ll have to spend to get far in this game. For me, finishing a level wasn’t satisfy, it was just a relief it was over. But for others (maybe those who also enjoy bullet-hellshooters) achieving what seems impossible is immensely satisfying. ‘Robbie Swifthand’ deliberately puts up a stiff challenge. Patience and persistence is required to complete the fair levels, and luck and good fortune is needed in the unfair ones. 

As Yamamura in ‘Super Mario Maker 2’ points out, some players just like to be challenged.  There’s delight to be found overcoming something others can’t, and it’s fantastic that the platform genre can cater for these people, with their nerves of steel, restraint and discipline. ‘Robbie Swifthand and the Orb of Mysteries isn’t a game for the faint hearted, it isn’t a game for the casual and it isn’t a game for children. But for those who found ‘Super Mario: TheLost Levels’ a casual stroll, you may have met your match here, after all Angelos Gkamiliaris does describe it as a “masochistic experience”. 

If you gaze across the levels created for ‘Super Mario Maker 2’ you’ll likely see more stages judged hard than easy. These will be good practice for ‘Robbie Swifthand’ and if you’re up for it, a fiendish challenge awaits. Just stock up on Joycons to replace the ones you’ll inevitably break in frustration. 

A copy of this game was provided for free to review. The content of this post has not been seen or edited by anyone prior to publication. 

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