If you know anything about me you know that the elevator pitch for Degrees of Separation would have got me seriously interested. A 2D-ish action/adventure puzzle platformer with an interesting fire and ice mechanic and the promise of a great story too. It sounded right down my alley. However, after experiencing the game I found that while it was not unenjoyable, my journey into the paradoxical world of heat and cold, unfortunately, left me feeling a little tepid. Like that first sip of the morning cup of coffee that’s been left on the counter just a little too long.
Written by Chris Avellone (with various well-received video game and comic book writing credits to his name) the story of Degrees of Separation is a consideration about how all the things that differentiate us and pull us apart can also be what ultimately draw us together. The protagonists, Ember and Rime, come from two different worlds. One a world of comforting warmth and the other a world of resilient cold. Being drawn to each other and thrust into a new environment where they have to work together, the couple is forced to confront their preconceptions and their prejudices. In doing so, they explore not only the mystery of their world’s past but also, hopefully, develop a better understanding of each other and themselves.
The game’s mechanics are an attempt to serve as a metaphor for the story’s themes –
difference, connection, struggle and synergy.
The game’s mechanics are essentially an attempt to echo the story’s connection and struggle throughout. As Rime and Ember explore the world, they leverage their unique traits to overcome the various level puzzles. The two characters can be used alternatively in single-player mode, or concurrently in a cooperative two-player. Rime with his focus on cold freezes bodies of water when he gets close to them. Ember melts the ice and travels underwater. She then heats volcanic vents and is thrust upwards in the rush of steam, while Rime cools the chaotic bursts of hot air and builds a snowy mound to reach higher planes; moving forward together but apart.
A fully voiced narrator explains the story as you progress through every level. Initially, the voice is pleasant and engaging, and listening to the story unfold is very interesting. The world is stunning to look at and adventuring through it by switching between the characters, solving environmental puzzles by manipulating the temperature is really enjoyable. The puzzles start off feeling well-balanced, and the music accompanying the exploration is a haunting medley of Celtic-like fantasy melodies.
From the breakdown above, it’s obvious that this small indie game has some lofty aspirations. And while it gets a lot right (especially at the start) eventually the initially impressive harmony between story and game mechanic started to feel a little
Slay the Drag(on and on and on)
A castle (which serves as a sort of hub) has gates that open to magical areas. In each of these areas, a new twist of the hot/cold mechanic is introduced. In one, having Rime and Ember get too close causes an explosion which sends them flying in opposite directions. In another, both characters can attain the powers of their counterpart. In yet another, a cold/heat powered ball and chain introduces a swinging mechanic (my personal favourite). Solving puzzles and collecting scarves (and freeing the dragon) in each level sends you back to the castle and in search of a new gate.
Unfortunately, the order of the gates (as far as I could tell) seemed to be almost random. Gates were placed in strange locations around the castle and there seemed to be no specific path to follow. And while this may have been a design decision to encourage exploration, the exploration is not that fun. So more often than not, I landed up feeling confused as to where to go next. Even considering that this may be due to my own non-existent sense of direction (I get lost driving around my own neighbourhood sometimes), jumping from one gate to another in this non-linear fashion created another more important issue.
The non-linear exploration felt more confusing than freeing; especially coupled with the reliance on an ever more strained metaphor.
Each new area that opens up also reveals a bit more of the story – some more narration linking the new ability to a deeper commentary on the evolving relationship between Ember and Rime. After two or three gates though, the narration slowly begins to feel too similar, fading into the background. Then, because of the seemingly random progression of the story in my run through, the couple seemed to vacillate between growing close and drifting apart so much that by the end I had no idea what the relationship was supposed to be – Romantic? Antagonistic? Intolerable frenemies? The finale (while trying to avoid spoilers) seemed to allow for such ambiguity. But it somehow felt that the effort to create diverse non-linear progression had been taken just that too far. It felt more confusing than freeing. The metaphor became so strained that it too lost some of its
Despite my concerns with the slightly heavy-handed analogy and unguided exploration, the gameplay itself is still rather fun and it’s a pity that a number of other smaller niggling issues lowered my enjoyment. Adding a map would’ve been very helpful (at least for me) to explore the castle. Some puzzles were fantastically clever, however, many were tough. Tackling a lot of these challenges in two-player co-op requires a serious amount of coordination.
And while this would be good if they were among the last in each area (ramping up in difficulty as you move through the level) they seemed to pop up haphazardly throughout. Having an absolute mind-breaker followed by a simple puzzle was common and therefore quite frustrating. This was especially the case because gates seemed to be activated by the collection of scarves. However, no tally of collected scarves could be easily accessed (if at all). And it was not indicated how many scarves would be needed to open the next gate. This led to not knowing how much time to spend searching for scarves in each level or to devote on a single tough puzzle.
Puzzle progression was often inconsistent: having an absolute mind-breaker immediately followed by a simple puzzle was common and therefore quite frustrating.
Unfortunately, the gripe that is likely to stick with me the longest had to do with some bugs. Normally, I don’t even mention the occasional crash or a blip or two in the design. Smaller games made by smaller teams occasionally have the odd small bug and normally I think it’s not fair to single them out. However, this time around I
This game employs an autosave feature and does not allow manual saves. Normally (call me paranoid) I like to use two save ‘slots’ in my game. This gives me the peace of mind, knowing that if one fails I have a second save ready. Because of what happened to me, my paranoia seemed justified. On two other occasions, I also fell right through the floor (one pictured above) and although I was able to load back in, the autosave slot is constantly overwritten, meaning I was limited to a specific save point and corresponding location. Luckily the levels are relatively short and there is a fast travel system within each level, but in the modern age gaming, it seems like a strange decision to have the game saved in this way – and unfortunately highlighted the bugs and crash I experienced.
I had some very high expectations for Degrees of Separation. The set up is perfect for me and while it looks good, sounds beautiful and contains some really clever puzzles, it’s own lofty aspirations weighed it down. The two-player co-op experience is really interesting. When it all works well, it gives off real Unravel vibes – and in my opinion that is when it shines. Some smaller irritations and perhaps the feeling that the game is ‘biting off more than it can chew’ means, however, that the overall experience was less fun than it could have been. While playing I couldn’t help but think of Goldilocks and her unfortunate run-in with the three bears. In playing a game and suspecting it may be a perfect fit, instead, I found that it was, “Not too hot, not too cold… and just not quite right.”