They say never judge a book by its cover, however a lot of the time in gaming, if a game comes with uninspiring cover art, nine times out of ten you can bet your bottom dollar it’s not going to be the best game out there. You only have to look at Horse Racing 2016 for proof of that one!
Sometimes a game can come along out of nowhere, sit itself quietly amongst the countless other games available and wait patiently for someone to discover the hidden gem it is. In the case of Degrees of Separation, those titans were Metro Exodus and Far Cry: New Dawn, AAA games that occupied the same launch week as this indie offering. If now though you’re ready to move on from the blockbusters and take on something a little calmer, something that can present a memorable and enjoyable experience, then this little indie gem could be just the game for you.
Going back to cover art for a moment though and call me shallow but there’s little I love more when booting up a new game and seeing vibrant colours, bubbly menus and an exciting artstyle to help it stand out from the other games in my library. Degrees of Separation doesn’t do any of that though, and upon booting up and hearing what felt like some overly meaningful piano music and beautiful yet eerily silent game backgrounds on the press start screen, I was thinking I may just be in for a depressing ride.
Let me apologise now though as I judged this ‘book’ by its cover, and I shouldn’t have, as my hours with the game proved me wrong. In fact, the experience on offer is one I have thoroughly enjoyed.
Degrees of Separation is a cooperative, 2D puzzle platforming adventure that sees players take on the role of two contrasting souls, Ember and Rime. The game has been designed with two players in mind, with one taking on each character, however things can also be played solo – although doing this sees some areas proving a little more challenging. Throughout the game, the key focus is on cooperation, with every action made playing a part in working out the many puzzles throughout; both characters proving integral to solving the issues at hand.
The story begins with Ember, the personification of warmth. As she is awoken by a roar, she finds that the usual lovely temperatures have turned to a chill, whilst Rime, the one who embraces the cold, has been woken within his frozen ice castle by his lucid dreams and a faint smell of sulphur. After investigating, both Ember and Rime come across one another only to find a that a shimmering barrier separates them and their unique hot and cold worlds from one another.
From this point the game is about utilising the different elements of both Ember and Rime, using them together to travel the world and solve the various puzzles and obstacles that present themselves, all as you try to uncover what has caused the sudden changes in each character’s world. It’s not exactly revolutionary to see opposing elements used as a key mechanic in a puzzle game, but even with something as simple as hot and cold, it’s fair to say that it works particularly well. Yes, the early puzzles are as simple as heading in with the right character first, but it’s good to see the difficulty slowly ramping up as you go on.
Now if you’ve come to this one hoping for a lengthy co-op adventure, then be warned, the whole experience isn’t really going to take you much longer than 6 hours at the very max. With no real reason to be going back over things once you’ve done it either, it’s certainly not something you can make a day of. For an evening of co-op gaming though it’s not a bad way to spend your time.
What it doesn’t have in length however, it certainly makes up for in character with the relationship between both Ember and Rime slowly blossoming as the game goes on; each reliant on the other to move on. This means that the developers over at Moondrop have ensured Degrees of Separation has all the key ingredients to make players care about the game’s protagonists.
There are five levels to explore within Degrees of Separation, all of which are accessed from the home region known as The Castle. Within each stage players must navigate various routes that can be explored in order to find and master the numerous puzzles and locate the collectibles. Now if you wanted to, you could quite simply run through each level and move straight to the end, although you’d probably find very few puzzles in your way, and wouldn’t progress very far. But it is possible. To get into the later levels however, the collectibles are important too, as finding each of these mysterious items – referred to as scarves – is essential to unlocking the next level and so exploring and taking your time is where the real gameplay comes in.
Simple collectible hunting may not sound all too challenging when it is put like that, but it’s the reaching and collecting of the scarves where the challenge comes in, as they themselves have been built into the puzzle of progression. To find them in the first place you’ll need to explore a little, with each scarf usually found after completing a puzzle. To reach them though, you’ll need to make the most of the new and unique abilities acquired in each level, with a new gameplay mechanic that comes into play usually the one you’ll need to use to progress. One such mechanic allows players to form a platform of sorts between both characters that can then be walked on, allowing access to otherwise inaccessible areas due to the extra platform positioning, whereas another ability sees players able to cloak one of the characters to allow both to walk in the same world… something which is usually not a possibility.
The good thing about Degrees of Separation though is being able to simply walk away from puzzles that are too challenging, something which feels like a breath of fresh air. You see, within each level there are a number of puzzles that are hidden away in their own areas, and with plenty of scarves available for completing them, you aren’t always forced to complete every single one to be able to unlock the next stage. For me this is a godsend as whilst the game isn’t brutally challenging, there are certainly a few puzzles that prove tricky to complete. Being able to move on without depending on every single scarf does mean the non-puzzlers out there can still enjoy the experience.
It wouldn’t be right to talk about this game without at least mentioning the encapsulating visual design and from the different worlds of each protagonist, to the various layouts and gorgeous illustrations that make up the background of each level, there is nothing that feels like it doesn’t belong in the game. Now that might be an odd statement to make, but with certain experiences in recent years going beyond the call of duty when it comes to ensuring even the finest details make it into the final product, it’s nice to see a game that can strip things back down to a simple yet fulfilling design choice, and still ensure there is enough to make the game feel ‘alive’. Whilst every background comes beautifully designed and full of detail, nothing feels forcefully included.
Overall though and if you like unique platforming experiences, then Degrees of Separation on Xbox One is certainly one you need to be getting involved in. With simplistic controls ensuring gameplay is easy to pick up for players of all ages, a smoothly spoken narrative pushing the story along at the perfect pace and plenty of interesting puzzles found throughout, this is one cooperative puzzler that offers a memorable and enjoyable experience.