Alan Hazelden embodies the true spirit of Indie development: a one man outfit who makes games entirely out of love for the medium. After embarking on numerous small flash projects, he's managed to hit upon an incredibly intriguing idea that evolved out of four hours of dev time during the recent Flashpunk game competition. The premise is simple: a puzzle game with a story.
"So what?" I hear you groan bemusedly. Well, this one is a bit different. Rather than a clutch of disparate minigames strung together with some flimsy context (as per usual), These Robotic Hearts Of Mine delivers its narrative through its puzzles - all while never losing the addictive drive for high scores, under-par runs and self-improvement.
The story concerns a pair of young lovers who discover a broken robot while exploring the woods. In true fairytale style, they repair it and become fast friends. "And that's where everything goes wrong," quoth Hazelden. The increasingly twisted story is doled out in one or two cryptic sentences followed by a puzzle that uses a single versatile mechanic: cogs and hearts.
Each stage consists of a number of interlocking cogs surrounded by pulsing hearts oriented in different directions. The aim is to rotate these wheels in order to make sure that all of the hearts face upwards - which requires players to work out the most efficient way of transferring errant hearts between different cogs while making sure that correct ones don't get moved out of position. Each stage carries a par for players to beat (or massively exceed, in my case), logging high scores and encouraging players to use the smallest number of moves. It's a simple and effective experience that has the potential to be ruthlessly addictive.
However, the true joy of These Robotic Hearts Of Mine will be found in the way that each level reflects and resembles the story. Love - hence the hearts - is a key theme that runs throughout the narrative, and the way in which the cogs are arranged actually tells the tale more profoundly than the words themselves. For example, when the boy and girl are introduced, the two wheels (and therefore their hearts) are not connected in any way. When their love for each other is revealed, though, the two cogs are meshed, requiring a more complex set of moves and the distinct impression that their hearts belong together. This may sound overly simplistic, but in practice it's a surprisingly deep and thought-provoking way of integrating story and gameplay.
The striking pink, grey and black colour scheme was part of the remit set by the Flashpunk comp, featuring a minimalist aesthetic that's equally dictated by the hurried initial development time as well as any conscious art direction. However, Hazelden opted to keep the simple and slick look for the final version; which serves to make sure that the puzzling doesn't overload players with extraneous information. Plus, it looks the business. Which always helps.
These Robotic Hearts Of Mine was originally intended to be a free-to-play Flash project, preferably released with sponsorship from a major gaming website like Kongregate or Armor Games. However, at this year's Eurogamer Expo, Hazelden told us that the simple control scheme, vivid colour palette and instantly accessible gameplay would be an excellent fit for mobile devices and tablets - and it appears that an iOS version will also definitely be on the cards alongside the PC release. Depending on which platform launches first - as well as the price tag (or lack thereof) - keep an eye on our regular review channel, Dave Brown's Free To Play column or Mobot.net for more details. These Robotic Hearts Of Mine is set for a tentative November 2011 release, and we'll keep you posted.