In this age of multi-million dollar PR campaigns, years-long development cycles, demos, alphas, pre-alphas and betas, it’s a truly rare thing to see a game get released on the day of its announcement. Entwined, the debut from new first-party studio Pixelopus (comprised mainly of fresh university graduates) is one of these rare cases, being released on PS4 last week simultaneously with its reveal at Sony’s E3 media briefing. It’s certainly a nice way to give these graduates some release experience. Cynical souls, however, might posit that an instant release during E3 week is also a handy way to circumvent the review mill, and point out that E3 has traditionally been a dumping ground for games publishers know won’t review well.
Personally, I’m with the cynical souls on this one. As much as it’s cool that Sony is supporting new talent in this way, Entwined is something of a mess.
An abstract love story about a fish and a bird who strive to be together across a series of lifetimes, Entwined tasks you with guiding the lovelorn souls through a series of colourful and spectacular-looking linear passages, collecting glowing orbs that fuel a ‘love meter’ at the top of the screen. As orbs are collected two symbols representing the lovers gradually move closer together, the goal being to have them meet in the middle whereupon the souls are reunited and combine to form a magnificent green dragon, which then flies through a portal taking them to the next lifetime and start the process all over again.
I don’t know if this is actually one big metaphor for illicit bird/fish sex or if it’s just me, but I’m happy to assume so as the idea is more entertaining than the game itself manages to be.
Of course, the game would have you know that this is a totally serious and profound thing you’re witnessing. Entwined wants to be an emo art game, and reeks of effort from the second you boot the game up and see the words ‘Always together, forever apart’. Trophy names like ‘Innocence’, ‘Loneliness’ and ‘Eternity’ hammer home the idea that something Really Deep is going on, but in reality all this grasping at profundity is ill-reflected by the game itself. You control the souls as they fly through a series of Rez/Child of Eden-like tunnels, collecting orbs as you go, with the bird and fish being independently controlled via one of the Dual Shock 4’s analog thumbsticks (Reminiscent of the dual control scheme used in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons). Apart from picking up orbs, you also need to navigate the souls through an infinite loop of colour-coded gates of increasingly complex patterns. If one or both of the souls fails to hit all of its gates, you lose soul energy and the meter depletes, robbing you of a chunk of progress that needs to be regained.
And that is essentially it. With the game advising you to roll the thumbsticks around rather than push them, the whole thing feels like a tutorial for the control scheme for another game, that somehow became a game in itself. A shame then, that it fails to be a particularly fun one. Entwined works hard to sell itself as a relaxing, arty experience, with its lack of fail states New Age aesthetic and music that sounds like it was compiled solely from outtakes from flower’s soundtrack. It doesn’t take long for the game to make a lie of these pretension, however: Entwined is essentially an obstacle course, and a frequently stressful one at that with the hit detection of the coloured gates often being virtually nonexistent unless you hit every gate dead-center (and occasionally doesn’t even register when you do that), and many of these gates are quite wide. It quickly becomes a case of learning the gate patterns by rote so you can anticipate your movement and positioning, a process which is often hindered by the gates lacking the transparency to pick out the more complex patterns at high speed. Throw in the fact that you’re controlling two characters at once, and you get a recipe for frustration rather than the chilled-out arty tone the game strives for.
It’s not as if clearing each lifetime is a quick process, either. The meter itself has a second stage of ‘connectedness’ portrayed as tendrils of energy connecting the bird and the fish, which makes no actual difference to what you’re doing but helps to make the frustration of fluffing a series of gates all the keener. Actually completing each lifetime isn’t exactly difficult – each can be surmounted with persistence – but is reliant on a lot of repetitive trial and error that makes each level a grind. Also frustrating are the frequent 1-2 second freezes that break what little flow you manage to wring out of the gameplay, and often at crucial points. These freezes are odd considering how smoothly the Unity engine runs on the PS4 hardware but are nonetheless maddening, especially when you’re already struggling to hold onto your love meter progress and one strikes just as you’re about to hit one of the more complex gates.
When you do complete a lifetime you’re treated to a short sequence as the newly-formed dragon flying around a series of pretty but barren landscapes collecting more orbs to unlock a portal to the next lifetime. Here the Flower-y music soars in an extra Flower-ish way and I suppose we’re supposed to be awestruck by the ability to skywrite in sparkly stuff before moving on, but it all feels like a big song and dance over a rather empty piece of business that you’re generally still too annoyed from the previous level to want to be bothered with.
The game also gives you the choice to replay the lifetimes as the dragon on completion, or try a series of goal-based challenges, but it’s hard to see many people wanting any more Entwined after the first playthrough. It’s pretty to look at, but at the same time it’s pretty in ways it shares with many much, much better games. While it can’t be forgotten that the game was made by a young and inexperienced team and is being sold at a low price, the fact is that Sony have a history of success in the downloadable/’arthouse’ field that this game completely fails to live up to. It throws in elements of Journey and Flower and makes a big show of trying to replicate their dreamlike gameplay and emotional potency, but it lacks either game’s depth or substance. The Pixelopus team clearly have talent, but Entwined raises questions about the level of guidance Sony have provided (or otherwise) on the project. By drawing this much attention to the game in the form it’s currently in, Sony risk creating the impression that they’re imitating themselves, and badly.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars