Untold Tales have been quietly making indie bangers for the past few years. Arise: A Simple Story, Aspire: Ina’s Tale and Golf Club Wasteland are all well worth a weekend’s worth of play, and now they’ve dropped What Lies in the Multiverse, a puzzle-platformer that should become their calling card.
The idea behind it is pretty simple. There are countless games where you can tap a button and switch the rules of a game’s world. The Legend of the Zelda back-catalogue is rammed with them: at the press of a button, Link has been known to switch between decades, dimensions and seasons. For the past year, we have had a glut of games that allow you to switch between shadow and light, including Shady Part of Me and Iris.Fall.
What Lies in the Multiverse takes the concept and runs with it. Rather than being able to switch between two states, it keeps adding new ones. Tap RT and you can invert gravity, turn walls invisible, and make solid walls into ice. It uses the concept of the multiverse (so hot right now) to allow its central character, the Kid, to flit between worlds with different rules, and exploit them to his advantage to navigate some reasonably knotty problems.
Let’s reverse back to the story and setup, because it’s comfortably the best thing about What Lies in the Multiverse. You play the Kid, a young lad who is accidentally zapped from his room and into a new world of the Multiverse by another character called Everett, who looks like he’s stolen a hat from Balan in Balan Wonderworld. He’s on the run from a dimensional authority (the more we write, the more we realise that the concept adheres to the plot of Loki, last year’s MCU TV series). But there’s a kinship there, and what feels initially like Stockholm Syndrome eventually becomes a genuine affection for each other.
So, you’re following in the slipstream of Everett, as he uses his dimensional widget called The Voyager (a skull cane, because he’s arch and likes the style), to duck into new worlds. He’s got a vaguely mysterious aim of reaching Aisle Island, a place where a research laboratory resides, and he’s got history with it.
As the Kid and Everett cavort through dimensions, they are notionally aware that they are ripping holes in its fabric. The platforming regularly cuts away to the authority chasing them: a series of enforcers who are increasingly frustrated by Everett’s antics, and just want to tuck the Voyager in a vault.
It may not come across in our synopsis, but the plot, characters and dialogue are absolute gold. In other games, the constant switching from gameplay to cutscenes would be tinged with frustration, but here it gets you hand-rubbing. Emmet is a riot, toying with the Kid, but in an entirely affectionate way. In an early sequence, Emmet carries the body of a man he accidentally ran over with a truck (looooong story), which means he has to goad the Kid into making all the progress. But it’s not entirely clear if Emmet is actually helpless while he carries the body: he keeps hanging back and catching up, toying with the notion that the Kid might not quite be as useful as Emmet is making out.
But what makes the story absolutely sing is the comedic timing of Untold Tales. They ring every last comedic drop out of What Lies in the Multiverse, thanks to a natty ability to prolong a laugh, hold onto it, or whack you round the head with it spontaneously. What Lies in the Multiverse is hilarious, and we don’t hesitate in calling out the character animators for being the primary reason why it got us gut-chuckling over and over again. We still giggle whenever we think of enforcer Nate’s thigh-slapping idle animation.
While on the topic of Nate, there is a warning that is worth chucking in. It’s signaled by the game’s two opening screens, which hint of trigger warnings. There is an undercurrent of bullying and mental illness in What Lies in the Multiverse, and – while it is handled reasonably well – there’s not a huge amount of accountability shown by the bullies. That might rankle with some. The cast of characters at least acknowledge the toxicity of the character in question.
Away from What Lies in the Multiverse’s world(s), the puzzling is generally of a high standard, with patches that don’t quite hold up to the rest. It’s probably inevitable that, with such a magpie-like approach to different universes and rulesets, that some would work better than others. The opening world is a cracking introduction, for example, with the cunning concept of ‘Ubiquitous’ blocks that exist in both universes, but glitch out of existence when they are placed in conflict with another block. Shove it in one universe so that it overlaps with a block in the other universe, and that block disappears, allowing for some unique puzzle layouts. We’ve never encountered it before and it folds our brain up like a paper aeroplane.
But other universes are slightly too familiar, and What Lies in the Multiverse either doesn’t go far enough with their concepts, or pulls back out of fear that they could get too complicated. The ice levels and gravity-defying levels are too tame, or rely on simple platforming to unknot the problem. They could have been ported in from another game, which undervalues the potential inherent in What Lies in the Multiverse.
Credit to What Lies in the Multiverse for having the confidence to ditch the Voyager on a couple of levels. The team are obviously so supremely confident in their ability to construct puzzles that they ditch their MVP, the dimension-travelling device. They mostly pull it off, too: one of the best levels in the game, set in a security block, doesn’t even use the RT button.
The plot swerves in other directions before the end, but we’re going to be coy: one of the principle satisfactions in playing What Lies in the Multiverse is it’s bat**** craziness, and its tendency to go full loop-the-loop when you expect it to be straightforward. And that’s the kernel of what makes it such a strong recommendation: nobody in What Lies in the Multiverse is playing by the rules, and there’s an attention-deficit to the puzzles that means that each screen has something new to offer. As a game it’s a bag of Revels, full of different flavours, tricking you into thinking that it’s going to be one thing, when it turns out to be something completely different.
If you’ve had an increasing feeling that gaming is in a bit of a rut, that the same old ideas are percolating downwards, then play What Lies in the Multiverse. It’s a puzzle-platformer that uses its deck of different universes, accessible with a press of the RT button, to construct some of the most satisfying brainteasers that we’ve played in the past few years.
But they’re not even the best bits. What Lies in the Multiverse has such a knack for character and visual comedy that you’ll be in danger of lacking concentration in the puzzles because you’re grinning so much.
You can buy What Lies in the Multiverse from the Xbox Store