Platform: PC [PSN & XBLA versions in development]
Developer: Eko Software
I am the wind. I am the rain. I am lightning.
I am nature at its most nurturing and destructive thanks to Storm: a new indie puzzler from Eko Software and IndiePub. Using the elemental forces of mother Earth and more than a little forward-planning, players guide fragile seeds through gorgeous and serene environments, on their way to becoming fully-fledged trees. Halfway between Flower and Lemmings, it's a lovely counterpoint to the incessant wub-wub and intense violence we're used to at this time of year.
The premise is simple. Throughout 49 different levels based on the four seasons, you're tasked with coaxing a fragile seed past various obstacles to a patch of fertile ground, at which point it will sprout into a beautiful tree. However, as mother nature, your only way of interacting with the world is through the power of wind, rain and lightning. Both you and your charge are constrained by the laws of gravity and physics, thus providing a fruitful foundation for a selection of cerebral puzzles.
Triggering a recharging ability is as simple as clicking and dragging the mouse (or flicking the controller thumbstick), with each power affecting the world in different ways. Wind can be used to dislodge and blow seeds along the ground or move obstacles in your path. Rainwater fills up depressions and floats seeds along the surface, or creates bridges out of buoyant objects. Predictably, lightning is best suited for shattering some of the bigger obstructions. Since each level presents a unique collection of challenges and surfaces, working out how best to use each skill to overcome a specific obstacle takes logic, lateral thinking and trial and error in equal measure.
It's worth noting, though, that the unforgiving nature of the physics engine makes getting exactly the right combination and placement of powers very finicky at times.
Combining your elemental powers is also a key part of the gameplay, such as using both wind and water to create currents or jets to carry your seed up to higher elevations. As Storm progresses, stages introduce new skills and effects that provide perfect opportunities to overcome some of the tougher puzzles. Bubbles can trap seeds and float them incredible distances under wind power, ice and snow change the properties of the ground surface and tornadoes act as both shepherd and destroyer. Once breakable and heavy seeds are introduced, Storm becomes incredibly nuanced and frequently difficult, but puts all the tools you need at your disposal.
Storm's greatest achievement is creating an atmosphere of pure, blissful serenity. The gorgeous watercolour levels present a rich, vibrant, sharp yet muted world to enjoy, accompanied by a calming ambient soundtrack. Charging your weather effects actively affects the weather, creating dark rainclouds or vicious thunderstorms, with drops of water appearing on the screen as you do so. Thanks to a pared-back, minimalist interface and the bare minimum of 'gamey' feedback, it's easy to lose yourself in Storm's natural beauty. That said, it's a shame that the aesthetic hasn't been carried through to the menus, which are functional and inelegant to the extreme.
This soothing atmosphere helps to take the sting out of a seriously inconsistent challenge curve, which sometimes asks far too much of players at unexpected moments. One of the earliest levels, for example, asks you to effectively move water uphill by combining both wind and rain, which can only be accomplished with incredibly precise placement and timing. The minimalistic approach means that you're not helped with hints or pointers. Difficulty spikes come out of left-field to potentially stump new players who've barely got a handle on how each ability works individually - indeed, it took me about thirty frustrating minutes to work out what to do. This is just one of a number of aggravatingly tough and inappropriately-introduced sections that, sadly, will cause many players to quit in moments of weakness.
The PC version comes with its own set of irritations. You can't use the mouse to browse the GUI, for example, while Xbox 360 controller support has to be manually activated each time you play from deep within the options menu. I'm also dismayed to report that the review build is rather unstable and frequently crashes when I quit back to the main menu or close the program.
Storm is currently also in development for PSN and XBLA, but I personally feel that it would be a perfect fit for a tablets. Though Eko Software would have to experiment with new interfaces and multi-touch gesture inputs, the ability to literally reach in and touch the game world would add a fantastic tactile dimension to the puzzling. As things stand, however, it's still a decent cure for your winter blues.
- Clever selection of physics-based puzzles
- Sumptuous, crisp and immersive art and sound design
- Intensely soothing
- Wildly inconistent difficulty curve with major frustrating spikes
- Unforgiving physics modelling can make for some finicky solutions
- PC build is unstable
The Short Version: Storm manages to offset occasional frustration with its gorgeously soothing visuals and cerebral collection of nature-meets-physics challenges. PC gamers looking for a break from guns, football and dubstep would do well to investigate this underexposed little puzzler.