It’s a simple premise; a physics game where, instead of manipulating objects, you create them, right down from their very shape to whether they’re attached to each other or not. That, in and of itself, is a pretty interesting concept. Add in the fact that this is all done by drawing the shapes, then letting them fall into the puzzles in wonderful colours around a scenery of doodles and pulley systems, and you’ve got something really rather special. Crayon Physics Deluxe is a very impressive physics game masquerading as something a three year old would enjoy. Unfortunately I had no three year olds handy, so I couldn’t see whether they’d actually enjoy it. Instead there’s just me, a drawing tablet, and just under a hundred levels of balls and stars.
Some of you may have played the first two islands (of 8 ) of Crayon Physics Deluxe thanks to preordering it any time in the last few months. Unfortunately, Crayon Physics doesn’t really start getting challenging or even particularly interesting until the third and fourth islands. It gets utterly insane in the fifth and sixth, until you really don’t know what to expect by the seventh and eighth. That is slight hyperbole; there are a good deal of simple levels throughout the game, merely asking you to use the skills you’ve been taught in the previous levels to reach what would have seemed an insurmountable goal a few islands ago. However, sprinkled throughout the expected are grand constructs that are as crazy as they are amusing. Part of it is the liveliness of the physics; everything moves in stops and starts, and the lack of fluidity lends to the idea of drawings come to life. The other part is the fact that all of this is drawn in crayon, and so takes on the this-was-drawn-by-a-child factor, so anything the least bit scary or creepy is doubly so.
I’ll resist running through my favourite levels, as part of their wonder is the first impression, but each island has it’s masterpiece. It’s never really anything to do with how the level is solved; while that can be challenging at times, it never becomes frustrating, or particularly difficult. It’s more about the idea behind the level, that the designer wanted to do a particular thing, and so they did it, leaving you with this great construct to the concept. The wonderfully easy to use level editor should make it simple to make similar constructs of your own, but I’ll return to that.
Crayon Physics Deluxe is the Bioshock of 2d games. Before you cry out in protestation and confusion I’ll explain myself. It’s nothing to do with the story, or how the game works, or anything like that. It’s the fact that you will only truly enjoy the game if you don’t take the obvious route. The obvious route, at least in the earlier levels, is just to draw a line from the ball to the star. As you progress, this becomes less and less of an option, instead a system of weights and pulleys becoming the most obvious, but I implore you to stop and take a second look at the level, and instead decide to do something different. It’s the choice of deciding you’d rather use a few plasmids, or set up an ingenious tripwire system as opposed to just shooting everything. Yes, it’s a bit more work, but the results are so worth it. Crayon Physics works the same way; the obvious route is the least rewarding. It’s just the route to take if you want to complete the level. Instead, if you decide you’re rather create a triple pulley system that allows you to erect an elevated bridge throughout the level, allowing you to glide down it to the star, you’ll be grinning with satisfaction as it all comes to fruition.
The level editor should make returning to the game often rewarding enough, but, even though I blitzed through the game in one sitting, I’m eager to play it through again, if only to be able to use the skills earned by the end of the game on the earlier levels. I’m sure I’ll learn new things again, warranting another play through, applying an altered approach to a single level renders the entire experience new and unique. I was chatting to a friend about how to solve a particular level, and while he had drawn little triangles to boost the ball up a vertical shaft, I’d instead set up a series of pins and ropes, slowly cradling the ball up the shaft. A similar idea behind both of our methods; creating something underneath the ball to push it upwards, but executed in an entirely different way. It’s things like this that make the game enticing even once it’s over.
There are problems. While the most obvious is the creativity and motivation needed to fully appreciate it, there are also the problems with the relative simplicity of the levels throughout. So many of them could be seen anywhere on the game, and not pose too much of a problem. There’s not really a difficulty curve, and when the game is difficult it’s usually just because the physics are causing something unexpected to happen; the second time you try it it could work entirely as you’d expect. The music, while lovely the first few times you hear it, does become slightly noticeable as it repeats, the same three tracks on shuffle could have been avoided by merely allocating one of the three to each level. Most of these are small quibbles though, and something that is more a symptom of the concentrated time I was playing it rather than any large design fault.
Before I move on to a conclusion I think it’s important to comment on the personal nature of the game. Normally the development of a game isn’t necessary or even relevant to the playing of a game, but the fact that you’re playing through someone’s drawings, and that said person is the one to develop the majority of the game, there’s a sense of overwhelming intimacy to the game; to excuse a cliche, you can feel the love. There’s a wonderful level on the third island called ‘Self Portrait’ that, like a few of the levels, had me guffaw with amusement and joviality before trying to figure out how the hell I was going to remove this bonkers construct from the level. The fact is, this is the show of one man, and it feels like it through and through.
In the end, Crayon Physics Deluxe is a game that is defined more by the player than any game I’ve encountered in a while. You really do get as much out as you put in. The novelty of seeing your drawings come to life never gets old, and while I did break the game a few times by drawing too many shapes at once, the game seems to handle really rather complex systems of shapes and rope very well. The level editor has already produced some inspired levels, more noteworthy for the warped thought going into them than the difficulty or play experience. Again, this is down to the reason Crayon Physics does or doesn’t work; the levels are only hard if you make them so, which you really should. It’s entirely worth the $20 asked, and it’s released from the website on the 7th of January.