Developer Moondrop released their title Degrees of Separation on Valentine’s Day and it’s a doozy. This 2-D puzzle-platformer stars a princess named Ember and a prince named Rime who must work together to solve puzzles and unravel the heart-wrenching mystery of their kingdoms, which appear to be facing simultaneous natural disasters.
But there’s another element of play that makes Degrees of Separation so cool. Ember’s kingdom and Rime’s kingdom appear to be physically identical, but hers is a kingdom of fire; his of ice. A thin but distinct line divides them at all times regardless of their screen position, and on Ember’s side all is warm and sunny while on Rime’s side a snow-capped winter wonderland stands proudly. I’ll get back to the weather in a minute. Players can take control of either character, switching between them in the moment whenever they want (or playing both simultaneously via co-op), in order to do all kinds of co-op puzzle-platformer stuff like using simple machines to navigate environments, helping each other through areas usually accessible to one character but not the other, etc. Your quarry is a collection of dozens and dozens of scarves, one hanging at the end of each environmental puzzle. Imbued with magic, collecting the scarves helps you unlock new areas and learn more of the story.
So why the fire and ice? The elements interact directly with the environment in countless ways. Strong geysers in Ember’s world (pictured above) blow gusts of steam and prevent her from moving in certain directions, but they lose their power in Rime’s world. Likewise, a platform stuck in ice in his world can thaw in hers so he can pull it up and she can run across it. Or maybe a large snow boulder is on one side of a small, low opening and it needs to get to the other, so they may have to move around each other and make the snow boulder appear in her world to melt it down so she can push it through the gap to him so he can roll it up again to…well, you get the point.
Moondrop gets an insane amount of mileage from this mechanic, and the dynamics of puzzle solving really make your brain exercise. In a good way, it plays like this weird amalgam of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Ico, Journey and Broken Age. The puzzles are challenging and occasionally frustrating but you never hate it, which is more than I can say for some puzzlers. Thankfully, it never gets boring. For starters, different areas offer different mechanics in play. In one area, the game plays out exactly as I’ve said – Ember and Rime are on their own to move around and change environmental aspects to fit their goals. In another, they receive magic staffs that can solidify the line between them with the push of a button on your controller, turning it into a walkable surface itself. This way, if Rime finds himself on a small platform above Ember and needs to cross the screen, they make the divide and he can run across it along the open air. Or if you want the line to stay still for a minute so Ember can run away from Rime without the divide following her, you solidify the line and let her roam on her side. Second, the puzzles aren’t presented in a linear format – for the most part, you can walk past one puzzle and try a different one out if one is melting your brain. Obviously you want to solve as many as possible, because opening some new areas depends on collecting a minimum number of scarves, but it’s good to be able to clear your head and try something different.
Degrees of Separation has a lovely fantasy-based fairy tale story with a romance as star-crossed as Tom Waits’s “Fish and Bird” (look it up if you haven’t heard it). You may be asking “If their environments are identical, what’s the deal? Is it a rift in time? Parallel universes? Does the world change behind their backs in some kind of existential philosophical conundrum?” And I’m sorry to say I can’t (and won’t) tell you; it’s a major part of the story.
Graphically, the game is also a treat. It won’t overheat your console or anything, but it is beautiful. It’s easy to find yourself having Ember jump over Rime (or vice-versa) just to see how different aspects of the background change as the divide between them is altered. The music and sound effects dance out of your speakers, as does the narration, which could easily have slipped into children’s book overacting/whimsy but never did.
One more pic of this gorgeous title, then we’ll get down to the verdict.
Overall, Degrees of Separation is great. It’s at least a must-try game and all aspects of the game genuinely succeed. But at the end of the day, a couple of the puzzles drove me up a wall and it is a relatively straightforward title, plus I can’t promise I’d come back to it after I beat it. However, these are relatively minor gripes. I’m gonna call this an 8 out of 10 with my congratulations to Moondrop for their success – and my recommendation that you buy this and keep an eye on them for future titles.
Disclaimer: AIR Entertainment was provided a free copy of Degrees of Separation for review.