For gamers of a certain age, the Atari name conjures up all manner of memories. As one of the oldest and best known names in the gaming scene, it’s they who have been behind some of the utter classics. But for a few years that name was fast getting lost in the wilderness, unable to compete with others who began to dominate the market.
That was until Atari decided to hit back, first with the lacklustre PONG Quest and then hard, with the reimagining of some icons with their Recharged series – Asteroids, Breakout, Black Widow and Centipede for starters.
Whilst the continuation of the recharging of older titles is still very much in the mind of those at Atari HQ, there’s another stream to flow down too, one that deals with new IPs. Games like Kombinera, in fact.
Kombinera has been created by the team at Graphite Labs, helped along as a new Atari product. It’s a game that absolutely fits in with that famous old name too; simple to understand and play, but extremely difficult to ultimately master. On the whole though, Kombinera is a game that will allow players to graze at it for days, weeks and probably months on end, as they attempt to try and understand the puzzling mechanics that it holds.
So, the simple first – the premise. Thrown in to one of 300+ stages, Kombinera tasks you with manoeuvring two, or more, orbs with hope of combining them as one, signalling the end of the stage, an objective complete and the opportunity to crack on with the next level; one that is likely to ramp up the difficulty and complexity just a tad more.
As a general rule, that’s as basic as they come, but in Kombinera you’ll find that every input of your thumbstick will move each and every ball in unison, left and right around the play field. From there, a tap of either the A button for a longer, slightly higher jump, or the B button for a lower, shallower effort, will have you navigating across platforms, over jumps and away from danger; mostly spikes, missiles and crushing machines of doom. Working with the environments, trapping certain orbs as you move others into more optimum positions is pretty much the name of the game, before bringing them all together as one, crowning yourself as the king of Kaos.
Oh yeah, talking of which, there’s a silly little narrative kicking around in the back of Kombinera, one in which you’ll be looking to save King Kombine from the Kave of Kaos. Played out as little cutscenes in between the chapters in which the stages are split, I’ll be honest and say it’s neither here nor there as to whether this brings anything to the orb-combining table. It – and the game as a whole – feels a little like that which held Thomas Was Alone together, but it’s nowhere near as personal or interesting. Personally, I’d prefer to crack on with the puzzles at hand.
Back to the gameplay and as you’d expect, the 300 stages of Kombinera each play out differently. Some are simple affairs which can be completed in a second or two, whilst others are lengthier moments of madness, capable of keeping you stumped for minutes on end. For the most part, once you get your head around what is required for completion, most can be done and dusted within a few seconds, but gathering up the understanding of what is required is the tough part, with multiple tens of deaths no doubt coming your way prior to the ping of success. Thankfully, any death or restart of a stage is quickly actioned, with little to no waiting around for Kombinera to let you crack on again.
Orbs come in different colours, with each seemingly bringing about certain abilities. There are white orbs, yellow orbs, pinks one, blue, green; you’ll find the the green for instance is capable of stopping green bullets, the pink one can trample all over usually deadly pink spike pits, whilst yellow is mostly used as a platform negotiator. Combine the flavours and your orbs will be able to work through a combination of tricks, traps and gravitational changes, with timing very much an essential piece of what brings this together.
Movement is super precise as it would need to be for a physics-based platformer, with a background grid helping you work out where you need to have certain orbs positioned in order for level completion. Delicately placed in the background as the neon lit orbs and foreground moments play out, you’ll consistently find yourself relying on this grid as a means to an end – and to help your sanity as the difficulty ramps up.
Kombinera works a treat and whilst many of the stages can be fired through in mere seconds, there will always be one or two popping up in your playthrough that will have you stumped. I’ve found that leaving Kombinera for a short time, before heading back in after a mental rest does wonders, as you immediately begin to understand what has stumped you for so long previously. It’s a game that is perfect for dipping in and out of, maybe one or two stages at a time whilst you look to pass some time. It’s also a game which sees the minutes and hours fly by, immersed into the intricacies of what Graphite Labs and Atari have created.
Pinch points of frustration do occur and I’m not totally convinced that bouncing yellow orbs off of disappearing platforms is always perfect in terms of button lag, but eventually things start to come together, even if that does mean your death count is constantly on the rise.
Start to include small hidden crowns which require collecting, plus par times that can be challenged, and going back into Kombinera time and time again is something that could well happen over a seriously long period. Talking par times though, it’s beyond me how and why the level number and speedrunning clock have been placed up in the top left corner of the screen, so small that you near as need to rest your retinas on the screen in order to read it. A double, triple, or bigger font size would be hugely preferred.
Honestly though, there’s a lot to like about Kombinera. Yes, it can be a hugely frustrating game, but like the very finest puzzlers, the moments in which things just click and you fully understand what is needed for a level completion are right up there with some of the most joyful moments in gaming. Whether you’re an Atari fan, in need of a puzzler, or just on the market for something to kick back with, Kombinera is able to provide a pretty stellar test of the mind.
Just don’t think you’ll be done with the 300 odd stages it holds in an evening or two. This is one in which you’ll need to clear your mind and prepare for a long term investment.
Kombinera is available to download from the Xbox Store