When we watched the trailer for 0 Degrees, our first thought was “someone likes Celeste”. It was there in the sharp pixel graphics, the mountainous backdrops, and the tough-as-nails gameplay. It wasn’t clear whether it was an homage or more, but there are worse games to follow the snow-prints of.
As it turns out, the comparison was far from accurate. While 0 Degrees is a pixel platformer, and you will definitely be dying plenty of times in its mountains, it’s not concerned with the same things as Celeste. Where Celeste had big fish to fry (or freeze) in terms of the main character’s struggle with mental health, as well as offering a huge world to explore, dense with collectibles, 0 Degrees is aiming for something more prosaic. It wants to offer platform-based puzzles, and let you unpick them with a couple of tools.
You’re immediately presented with a grid of forty levels, so you know that you’re in traditional puzzle-platformer territory. This isn’t an open world by any stretch: it’s some discrete challenges to dip into. They start simple enough, teaching movement and jumping controls, which are all relatively intuitive. Then it dishes up the first of its two big ideas.
Using the right stick, you can move a reticule around the screen. Pressing RB, you can then cast a spell-projectile that turns into an ice block, as soon as it hits solid ground. So, if you can’t reach a platform, your best bet is to aim beneath you, creating a block that gives you the added height you need.
You need line of sight to where you are firing, otherwise the box will appear well short of where you want it to be, and you have a limited number of ice boxes that you can create in a level. There’s no walking errors back, either: if you lose a box or put it in the wrong place, you will need to press Select and restart.
To put an extra spin on this, 0 Degrees serves up physics. The ice box won’t sit suspended in the air: it will fall to the ground, topple and teeter, and might even fall off your platforms. If you want to stack boxes, you will need to make sure they are aligned well, or the whole thing will Jenga down.
Once you’ve got to grips with creating boxes and anticipating the gravity applied to them, you can see what 0 Degrees wants you to do. A pit, full of spikes, that’s too long to jump over? Fire at the ceiling and let the box fall onto the spikes, creating a stepping stone. Spot a faraway nook with a button on the floor? Aim at the nook with a long-distance spell, creating a block that will push the button.
It’s a strong idea, but it’s incredibly frustrating to play with. There’s the initial weirdness of it: instead of casting a spell like you’re catapulting an angry bird, you are choosing the end-point for the spell and then pressing to confirm. It takes a fair amount of time for this to click, as it’s not intuitive: it’s like playing a snooker sim, but highlighting the pocket where you want the ball to go. Maybe we’re a stubborn sort, but it never felt immediate.
You also need a clear line-of-sight, but the collision detection in 0 Degrees is patchy. If you’re firing on a downward arc from a high position, for example, you will very often hit the lip of the platform you’re on, creating an unwanted block and – more often than not – forcing a full restart of the level. It also takes some time to realise that, when firing at a 45 degree angle to a ceiling, for example, the block won’t materialise exactly where your cursor is. Because of the angle of your arc, it will appear a few pixels to the side. When margins are so small in 0 Degrees (there’s definitely a degree pun in there somewhere), it can mean a sudden and unexpected failure of the level.
There are moments when it clicks and works. Some of the puzzles are genuinely well-structured and mind-bending. The platforming controls are hugely generous, allowing you to land a jump when you half-expected to be falling into oblivion. Plus, the levels fit onto a single screen, so you’re only ever a few steps away from completion. However, the inaccurate, clumsy block-creation will always return to hit you in the face when you least expect it. You just know it will be a single jump away from the end.
Stacking on top of these unstable foundations is the second tool that you’re given. Roughly halfway through the game, you’re given the ability to freeze the block you’ve materialised. So, where it once fell to the ground thanks to the game’s physics, it will now hang still in the air.
While it sounds like you’re being given more control, you’re given less. For one, 0 Degrees suddenly gets extra confident in its design, and ramps up the difficulty, anticipating that their new mechanic works well and the player is happy with it. For two, the controls add new ways for you to fail, without it necessarily being your fault.
A platforming peeve we have is a sequence of solid, vertical platforms. You don’t see them often nowadays in Mario games, for example, presumably because Nintendo knows how frustrating they can be. Let’s try to be clearer: it’s when you are standing on a platform with the same width of platform directly above you. The only way to reach that platform above is to jump away, and then pivot halfway through the jump to land on the platform above. It’s subjective, sure, but these have always felt awkward and unsatisfying, as we spend X number of jumps whacking our head on the platform above, or accidentally Hail Marying into the sea.
0 Degrees lives and breathes these platform sequences. It wants you to climb vertically by creating and then freezing rows of blocks, and we grew tired of trying to do so. But the frustration is nothing compared to creating the optimum distance between them. If you create the blocks too close together, you can’t fit in the gap between them. Create them too far apart and it will be too far too jump. 0 Degrees expects you to know the exact length and height that your character can jump. Oh, and you have to remember that the ice block doesn’t get generated exactly where you fire it. And you have a limited number of blocks per level.
Yet, there is greater frustration to be found than even this. 0 Degrees gets cocky, and wants you to freeze blocks in exactly the right position as they fall through the air. You will have screen-wide pits, and you have to create an escalating staircase by firing up to the roof, yet freezing the block in the split-second that it falls to the ground. Now, do it five times, in a staircase pattern, with all the foibles we have already mentioned. And did we mention that the frozen ice blocks are slippery?
We will freely and honestly admit that, on level 36 of 40, this was taken to a crazy extension. We took our leave of the pad, and went to do something else. We couldn’t face it any more.
0 Degrees clearly has ideas. Its art style is lovely, with a tense chiptune soundtrack. The level design often gets a thumbs up. While it would have benefited from some extra longevity (our vote would have gone to rewards for completing levels with some blocks remaining; we’re still proud of doing one level in particular with four blocks still to us), it doesn’t outstay its welcome, it’s good value for the price, and it offers 1000G on tap.
Alas, 0 Degrees’s two big guns, the creation and freezing of ice blocks, are loaded with blanks. By applying physics to its ice blocks, and not tightening up the ways in which you create them, it feels like you’re climbing a mountain with all the wrong tools. Adding insult to injury, 0 Degrees creates a complex obstacle course that would only have worked if those tools were fit for purpose.
Somewhere in all that snow and ice, there’s a fun puzzler with precision controls. We chipped away as much as we could, but couldn’t find it. Then we went back to playing Celeste.
You can buy 0 Degrees from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S