Parallel Cricle advertises it’s first creation as a studio, Flat Heroes, as ‘a minimalist, epic adventure’. And as soon as you open the game, you can see they aren’t kidding: The title screen is four squares and a background that, every now and then, shifts colours. Only the energetic menu theme indicates that, yes, this is indeed a game, and not an interactive gallery of some kind. One that’s just released on both PC and the Switch, but I’ll be reviewing the PC version today.
Once you follow the small, vibrating button prompt at the bottom of the screen (these small prompts persist throughout the game, sometimes with labels explaining their purpose, sometimes not), you’ll find yourself at the main menu proper. The main menu offers you access to a Campaign, a Survival mode (initially locked), a Versus mode, and the Exit. Pressing O here will also bring up the options; a basic array covering the usual suspects, as well as toggling palette locking, screen shake, language settings, and an area to input your Twitch handle, so others know which cube you are in a stream. You can’t really expect much more in this department, considering the type of game this is.
But what of the gameplay itself, you might be wondering? What is this little design concept all about? Well, the gameplay is as simple as the graphics: Using an overhead view, you guide a coloured cube around one of 300 levels, trying to avoid projectiles firing from the sides. Whilst it might sound like a Bullet Hell, it only reaches that level of intensity in later stages; over-all, it’s much more a puzzle game at heart.
The Campaign is ten ‘worlds’, broke up into fifteen levels each. There’s no plot or anything, just levels of increasing challenge, with World One being a good tutorial to the general gameplay. And the gameplay is easy to understand: You use the WASD keys or thumbstick to roll your little cube around, Space/A to jump, and whilst holding a direction, and hit that jump button again in the air to double-jump in that direction. You can hide behind static barriers in the levels, and also use them as platforms to jump around; if you jump into one of these walls and hold that direction down, you’ll stick there, allowing you to refresh your jumping. As the game progresses, you’re introduced to concepts like untouchable walls, homing projectiles, projectiles that bounce and advertise their direction, large blob projectiles that break into smaller ones, as well as boss fights.
Yes, boss fights: At the end of each world, you’ll face off against an entity inside the level with you, whose touch will kill you. You might have to trick it into ramming itself against a wall, a trail it leaves behind, or cause it to hit projectiles too many times beat it. Each boss is certainly an interesting challenge. And once you do beat it, and assuming you’ve beaten the rest of that world’s levels, you’ll unlock the next world, and a new palette for you to use in the game. This adds a nice little incentive to the title, as you unlock new and more interesting palettes for the game to shift between (and again, you can lock one you like in particular in place; an option to choose out of the available palettes would have been nice though, but you can force switching via pressing the Control button).
The levels themselves are well designed; no two look the same, and you feel any losses on a level are entirely on you and not the level. Most levels utilise the same amount of space, with openness and platforms, whilst some are constructed to give the player a more limited area to bounce in, or are even maze-like in design. And every time a new projectile type is introduced, it has its own level – good for introduction, and good for practice.
Speaking of good design, even though it is very minimalist, the graphics don’t get old: The colours are always crisp and contrast well with eachother, the reliance on geometric shapes doesn’t get old due in part to those shifting palettes, and the fact that each object feels like it has some life to it. Your cube will leave a little trail when it moves, the platforms bounce a little when you hit them, some projectiles pulse or wobble, and later on, some shapes are combined in interesting formations; the designers have done well to make a limited set of shapes feel surprisingly dynamic.
One thing that I don’t think is super well designed, though, is how many modes are locked at the game’s start. I understand the notion of wanting to reward players with feeling like they’re unlocking content, but after you unlock Survival with completing World Four, you’ll find that, aside from the mixed survival and daily challenge, the other survival modes are locked too. Three of the four Versus modes are also locked. Just seems a bit of overkill is all.
Regarding survival, you have eight modes: Daily challenge, where people attempt to survive a challenge map for the longest time possible to claim a spot on the leaderboards; Mixed mode, which pits you against a mix of platform types; Vertical has lots of vertical platforms; Steep features sloped platforms that trigger effects when hit (slow down, freezing, for example); Arrows has, well, arrows; and there’s a Twitch survival mode. Everything but the first two are, as previously mentioned, locked: You earn a ‘currency’ that’s soley used in Survival, called Survival Points (SP). You earn one SP per second you survive – the unlockable modes range from 1000 to 10000 SP each, so you’re going to be grinding a bit. Also, if you die in the Daily challenge, you’ll actually lose SP – one of the only times the game will ever punish you for failing (every other death just resets the map).
Every single game mode is playable with up to four people, locally. The addition of a local multiplayer is very laudable (especially when it’s often missing from games that could easily have it, *cough*Armello*cough*), but the lack of online multiplayer is confusing, in all honesty – this is the type of game that could definitely make it big online, with friends and streamers playing it. Speaking of streamers, the Twitch mode is kind of pointless; why would you really need a mode just show your name? People watching your channel are going to know who you are…
Cubes may bounce off one another in multiplayer, and only one of you needs to survive a Campaign level for it to count. You can also only damage each other, thankfully, in Versus mode. Zones, the first unlocked Versus mode, challenges players (and competent AI filling empty slots, if you wish) to try to stay in a randomly generated circle the longest – the cube that manages to spend 15 seconds total in these circles wins. Battle is exactly as it sounds: You and other cubes fight to the death, each starting with 10 lives. Runner tags one player as ‘it’, with the others being armed with projectiles in an attempt to kill them and claim the runner position; the runner who can survive longest wins. In catch, you race to destroy an object first.
The multiplayer modes do highlight one particular issue with the game though – a lack of instructions. Don’t know what buttons do, or what your goal is in one of the modes? Try everything, and figure out what can do what (shooting on a keyboard, by the way, is Right Control and holding a direction – you’ll thank me for that later in the game or in some of the Versus modes). There’s no key bindings to help you here. That aside, I’ve also noticed that sometimes visuals like the button prompts or barriers on an enemy won’t render, but this is infrequent and easily patched, so it’s not a huge deal.
Infact, yet another thing this title has going for it is the amazing soundtrack; created by Niklas Ström and Christian Björklund, the ever-present, uplifting techno beats do a great deal to boost the atmosphere of the title, and help give everything from the menu to boss battles and survival modes the appropriate moods. The quality of the music is understandable, considering both have worked on numerous games before (ranging from Futurama and Just Cause 2 with Christian, and The Swords of Ditto and Twofold Inc. with Niklas). I can only hope that Parallel Circle considers releasing a soundtrack.
Overall, Parallel Hero’s first game is a neat puzzle title. A decent difficulty curve, influx of new challenges, fresh palettes to unlock, and a truly amazing soundtrack help make the title a great experience regardless of the mode. Well designed almost entirely, the few missteps it does make thus stand out more – the lack of online multiplayer, needless locking of content, and some missing information are strange flaws indeed. But over all, for an indie title costing $8USD on Steam and the Switch, it’s definitely a decent investment for those who have friends over often or just like to challenge themselves. And if you’re still not sure, Parallel Circles even released a demo of the game you can try out first (accessible from the store page). I give this minimalist masterpiece a: