Dealspwn Rating: 7/10
Developer: Nicklas Nygren
Publisher: Kreatoriet AB
As far as cult indie heroes go, Nicklas Nygren (aka. Nifflas) is certainly one of the best loved. He's been cultivating his particular brand of freeware platform adventuring for some years now, and it's proved so popular that he's now branching out into the commercial sector with Saira, which, as you could have probably guessed, is an exploratory platform adventure game. Although, Saira was finished at the end of last year, it received its steam release only a couple of days ago, so we figured we'd run a beady eye over it to see what's what.
We're seeing a lot of these at the moment. As the renaissance of indie gaming continues to bloom and flower, obvious trends are starting to appear, the obvious saturated market being that of the tower-defence game. However, the side-scrolling puzzle-platformer is rapidly becoming an incredibly busy genre too, helped in no small amount by (admittedly deserved) critical fanaticism over games such as Braid. It's having a knock-on effect in the flash gaming world too, with recent arty titles such as The Company of Myself and ImmorTall finding the genre mechanics useful for exploring grander themes and asking questions that poke around at gaming metaphysics.
Saira doesn't really do that. This isn't a particularly highbrow arty game, although it is very easy on the eye, it's a simple platforming adventure game that comes across as part-Mirror's Edge 2D, part-Tomb Raider and with no small dash of Nifflas' usual charm. Anyone who has played through any of Nygren's earlier works - Knytt in particular - will feel right at home with the sense of wistful atmosphere created by the ethereal soundtrack and the large open levels packed with opportunities for exploration.
And explore you shall. You see, the eponymous heroine of this game is a pan-galactic photographer and adventure-woman extraordinaire who, upon receiving an emergency call from her folks back on Mars resolves to eschew the safe but slow option of spaceship travel in favour of the rapid yet dangerous mode of teleportation. Unfortunately, while she makes it back to Mars, she arrives to find that Mankind has vanished. Cue a highly endearing story filled with surprises as Saira makes her way across a whole bunch of different planets, attempting to work out where everybody has gone, why she was the only one (or was she?) kept safe, and how to bring everyone back. Depending on the paths you take through the game, there are six different endings for you to wend your way towards.
Being a cross between Mirror's Edge's Faith, Lara Croft and a sightseer, Saira is able to scale rock faces, leap supreme distances in floaty slow motion and occasionally turn into a dove if she happens to step in a magical pool. The platforming element to the game is delightful, and the different locales all pose different challenges. The arrow keys move her around, whilst the A key operates her camera (useful for taking snapshots of passcode tattooed ruins), the S key makes her jump and climb, and the D key allows you to interact with various objects and items scattered around the galaxy or open her PDA which houses your portfolio and also useful notes on dangerous creatures. Well, she's got to keep organised somehow!
So far, so Nifflas. But there are some big differences though, that may come as a slight disappointment to fans of Nygren's previous works, one of which is the departure from relative minimalism. Considering that this is developer who made his name trading in exploratory platformers that never attempted to limit or restrict the movements of the player, it's a little jarring to find this game so broken up by puzzles, and perhaps a shame that Nygren felt he had to do so.
For the most part, the puzzles are a relatively standard affair of passcode entering, sequence initiation, code breaking stuff, which is all well and good. To be honest, I found that they provided a welcome distraction at times and never really impinged upon my enjoyment of the game at all. The use of the camera and PDA for taking shots of handy hints means that you never find yourself backtracking, which is wonderful. The timed platforming sections, however, are a different matter and serve to highlight an issue with the game's control system: that it feels incredibly heavy and unresponsive at times. In many ways I almost feel that this would have been better served on XBLA on the PSN.
The graphics are new ground for Nifflas too. Gone are the endearing pixellated images of previous titles, instead Saira is soaked in the watercolour backgrounds that appear to be all the rage these days. But, as Lucidity should have taught us, pretty pictures do not always make for good games. It's more detailed and the character animations of the lead herself are pretty realistic (aside from the way her limbs fail to shatter after falling from a great height - she can fall 30 feet but can't swim...how weird is that?!), but the game lacks some of the charm of Knytt.
I would have liked to have seen more integration of the story: it's a wonderful premise and I feel that more could have been made out of it as you're able to go for such long periods that you often forget what the hell is supposed to be going on. But then that's part of the reason why this game is good: it sucks you in via the gameplay itself and, in spite of its flaws, it's a lovely little platformer with some ambitious ideas and delightful execution. There are some fantastic level tools as well, allowing people with far too much time on their hands to craft intricate levels, replete with enemies, structures and even make unique playable characters. Don't expect too much help from the game with this though, you'll probably have to wade into the fan community for some tips and tricks. Essentially, then, Nifflas stalwarts might take a little while to adjust to the change in style, but for everyone else this is a fine place to start, and an impressive commercial debut.
- Smooth platforming elements
- Masses of user customisation possible
- Most of the puzzles work really well...
- ...except for the arbitrary timed challenges
- Somewhat wasted plot
- Lacks some of the charm and personality of Nifflas' other works
The Short Version: Saira is a solid, enjoyable platformer that represents a brave attempt to move into new areas for Nygren. There are some issues, but these are generally outweighed by the game's smooth platforming mechanics and expansive levels. An assured, if slightly less distinctive commercial debut than one might have expected.