Puzzler is innovative.
Sliding block puzzles are a dime a dozen, but for one to let you reach into its innards and rework it as you see fit is rare, if not unprecedented. Baba Is You’s raison d’être is exactly this. The result is a radically new approach to puzzling that’s equal parts eye-opening and maddening.
How does it work? All elements of a level are assigned at least one property using blocks that can be pushed around. Remove these modifiers, or swap them with something else, and its properties change instantly. An object becomes an asset rather than an obstacle. A deadly threat turns malign. A useless prop becomes the key to victory.
Take the following examples. Typically, “Flag is win.” But if I can liberate the second half of that statement, perhaps Baba (the bunny-like player character) can be “win.” Instant victory. In another level, a stream lies between me and the goal. “Water is hot” and “Baba is melt,” a dangerous pairing. But with a readjustment, “Water is hot and float” – now the water hovers harmlessly above me and I can cross underneath it. Or if I can’t navigate the level, maybe I can become the level – “Wall is you” – and now I control the entire perimeter. I only need one piece of wall to touch the flag and I win.
Essentially, Baba Is You is coding-lite, working along the same principles as programming but without any technical knowledge required. As a concept, it’s genius. It feels entirely new, and this is its greatest achievement in a well-worn genre.
That said, the puzzles are finely tuned and set within solid constraints. Whereas there are certainly multiple novel solutions to each level, it deliberately puts some variables out of reach, hard-coded in or physically inaccessible. It’s less of a freeform coding sandbox and more of a sanitised playground. Yes, you can climb up the slide if you like, or stand on the swings – maybe even swap the seesaw for a jungle gym. But you can’t transform the playground into Disneyland or make ice cream rain from the sky. At times I wished for more freedom, but locking down the options ensures it can’t be too easily exploited.
You’ll still need to stretch your imagination at times to acclimatise to Baba Is You’s internal logic. Not all of the conditions and variables make immediate sense. One example is when I had to remove a river by pushing a rock with the condition “is shut” into it. Did it work? Yes. Did it take liberties with logic? Yeah, a bit.
Frustration sets in when you get stuck – which you will, often – but the flipside of this is that when you finally work out a solution, you feel like a bloody puzzle savant. Until the next level, at least. The challenge is relentless, though there’s mercy in Baba Is You’s structure. You don’t have to complete every level in order to progress to the next world, and are often able to sidestep a stage that has you stumped.
This is appreciated, because some of the more complex puzzles are fiendishly hard. They present so many rules and moving parts, you don’t know where to begin. These levels are so intricate, trying to complete them through trial and error feels like you’re one of the monkeys hammering away at a typewriter in the hopes of rewriting Shakespeare. Though Baba Is You is a rewarding experience, it’s also a challenge I didn’t always relish facing.
For something so mechanically complex, Baba Is You is remarkably simple from an aesthetic standpoint. It adopts an 8-bit style, but think less Shovel Knight and more 90’s amateur game maker project. But there’s a charm to it, like the nondescript white blob that is the titular Baba, with its four frantic little legs. And this low-fi style feels appropriately matched to the DIY coding vibe.
A bugbear is that levels have a border around them, varying in size. Sometimes it’s a narrow letterbox frame, other times it takes up half the screen. Why? Why not just zoom in, like it does on some levels but not on others? It feels a bit daft to waste so much screen real estate, particularly when that screen is the Switch in portable mode. But this is a minor quibble.
Baba Is You is clever. Very, very clever. Cleverer than me, possibly cleverer than you as well. This isn’t a puzzle game for everyone. But for those with a logical mind, endless patience and thirst for a genuine challenge, it’s essential.
[Reviewed on Switch]
James loves a deep action-adventure game, RPG or Metroidvania. He can often be found in The Indie Game Website’s review section casting his critical eye over the latest indie games.