Teetering between the elements.
Side-scrolling puzzle platformers have a long pedigree but tend to be an acquired taste. This is especially true of those which focus entirely on puzzles instead of combat, crazy acrobatics, Italian plumbers, or blue hedgehogs. Such is the case with Degrees of Separation, a beautiful fairytale adventure from Norwegian developer, Moondrop.
Degrees of Separation is a striking game on many levels, most notably in its beautiful presentation. A bit like a moving picture book, the game expertly uses contrasting colors and shades to convey a haunting magical landscape. The low-key atmospheric score and dulcet narration that tells the tale of the two young protagonists fit the visuals perfectly as well.
Fairytale-inspired games are nothing new and Degrees of Separation uses the standard template of that classic style to tell its own fable. This is the story of Ember and Rime, a young woman and man with a magical bond that grows stronger over the course of the game. Ember is a creature of the light and warmth, while Rime is from a cold blue arctic land.
They’re brought together by unknown forces in such a way that they can interact but never touch. Each carries with them their own climate and the specific effects that climate has on their world is imperative to the gameplay. The goal of most of Degrees of Separation is, odd as it sounds, collecting magical scarves.
There is a myriad of these scarves strewn in hard to reach places. The scarves are used to unlock doors to other places, where (of course) you must gather more scarves to open more doors. As anyone who obsessively gathers scarves in real life knows (and who doesn’t?), this simple set up proves perfectly adequate to keep both the pacing and engagement level up.
To reach said scarves requires a kind of metaphysical seesaw approach. Since Rime’s half of the screen is cold and dark and Ember’s is warm and light, manipulating them individually to allow one (or both) to reach the elusive scarf is the main gist of the game mechanics. For instance, lanterns (or gems, or something) attached to platforms will lift when in Ember’s zone. Vent shafts that can either propel Ember into the air or prevent her from passing, however, will freeze off when Rime is nearby.
The puzzles get more advanced (and clever) as things progress, including adding the ability to do things like creating a light bridge, and some of the tasks require a fair amount of trial and error. At times, the game requires nearly pixel-perfect character placement, which can get frustrating, but the overall gimmick of dichotomy has enough clever charm to remain fun over the course of several hours of scarf hunting.
Another potential selling point is the option to play alone or with a friend. Playing cooperatively could either be a zen-like experience wherein you and your plus-one bond in perfect synchronicity solving puzzles together, gathering scarves, and reaching new heights in intimate mind melding. More likely, you will not experience any of that and spend most of the time shouting at each other to move slightly to the left. “No, not that left! Your other left! Oh my god, no, don’t jump! WTF is wrong with you!? Give me that controller!”
Honestly, that’s how everyone plays video games together, right?
Degrees of Separation is more than slightly reminiscent of another sorely overlooked side-scrolling puzzler, Seasons After Fall. Both use contrasting and sudden seasonal changes to solve puzzles across a beautiful naturalistic landscape. Except, of course, here you aren’t an adorable little lonely fox. But for tree-heavy, seasonal-themed puzzle platformers, these are going to be your go-to games.
In a sea of seemingly endless Metroidvanias, combat-heavy roguelikes and general run-and-gunners, the tranquil pacing and puzzle focus of Degrees of Separation feels like a welcome respite. The gameplay is easy enough to figure out with almost no prompting, the story is charming, and the presentation is lovely. So, by all means, play it with someone you love!
[Reviewed on PS4]