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EGM Review:
Tiny Brains

By
Posted on December 6, 2013 AT 12:00pm

Modest Mouse

Someone at Spearhead Games really likes Portal.

Consider the following:

In Portal, players puzzle their way through a series of test chambers, urged along by the voice of an AI construct who’s a little crazy, a little sinister, and rather smitten with the scientific method. The game concludes with a quirky, unexpected musical number.

In Spearhead’s debut, Tiny Brains, players puzzle their way through a series of test chambers, urged along by the voice of a Russian who’s a little crazy, a little sinister, and rather smitten with the scientific method. The game concludes with a quirky, unexpected musical number.

I mean, I totally get it. Portal found a fantastic solution to a thorny problem—stitching together a series of disjointed puzzles—by making the narrative a twisted reflection of the realities of game development. Designers build these challenges for no other reason than to give the players hoops to jump through. The path of least resistance is to make an antagonist who does the same and turn the whole experience into a series of arbitrary tests. It’s deconstruction. The text is the subtext.

But Portal’s storytelling success and ensuing enshrinement in the halls of nerd culture wasn’t the byproduct of that (or any other) formula. It was the result of pointed, exceedingly clever writing, as evidenced by lines so quotable, they’ve long since become annoyingly passé.

Tiny Brains has no such wit. It does take the central concept one slight step further, literally transforming the player characters into animals in a lab, but it’s not doing much else. Your captor says things that are probably supposed to be funny but are usually just weird in the vein of what you’d find on a socially awkward 14-year-old girl’s Tumblr. OMG, mushroom sauce in a science lab! You don’t need that there, wacky Russian man! You’re so random!

It’s a shame, because the core gameplay ideas of Tiny Brains definitely deserve more compelling packaging. Whether played alone or cooperatively, the game centers around using the special abilities of its four main characters in conjunction with one another. There’s Dax the bat, who can use an ultrasonic blast to push objects away from him; Minsc the hamster, who can create a block of ice to use as a platform and then explode it to provide extra upward momentum; Stew the rabbit, who can pull things towards him; and Pad the mouse, who can teleport around by swapping positions with objects. Only Pad is a real departure from the sort of things you usually see in a physics puzzler, but the entire spread opens up enough combinations to keep you discovering new strategies as you go.

You’ll put those powers to use across a selection of traditional block-and-switch puzzles, gauntlets that task you with rolling a large ball past obstacles, and combat against an army of baby chicks (LOL, so random, right?). Of the three scenario types, only the first feels like a truly thoughtful match for the mechanics, though the other two are serviceable and do lend a bit more variety to the proceedings. I won’t say that the challenges are particularly memorable, but they’re open-ended and interesting enough to make that initial playthrough agreeable—maybe even enough to warrant repeat visits, depending on your tastes.

One big caveat, though: You don’t want to play alone. While you’re always able to swap between the currently unclaimed characters, when you’re all alone, puzzles become much more difficult to solve. It’s not that juggling the different powers by yourself is a greater challenge—though it is—but that you can only be in one place at a given time. Solutions that are simple and intuitive in co-op become impossible in single-player, forcing you to come up with much more convoluted workarounds.

I’m not sure I’d recommend playing Tiny Brains with a full complement of four players, either. Not every situation offers a use for every power, and it’s not very engaging to sit around while everyone else works through the solution. Even at three, the game will occasionally suffer from that same problem, and swapping between the different characters is a bit of a chore, since everyone’s juggling around the only open slot.

Indeed, the sweet spot for Tiny Brains seems to be two players. That gives you access to the more immediate solutions while keeping the cat-herding to a minimum and ensuring both parties will get to experiment with the different abilities. It’s here that the game is at its strongest as a couch co-op romp, as you and a friend laugh your way through botched maneuvers and ill-planned improvisations. In those moments, it’s clear that the game’s biggest problem isn’t a lack of fun; it’s that the fun is far too conditional.

Curiously, Tiny Brains also appears to struggle on a technical level, with framerate and screen-tearing issues that seem out of place in a game of this scope. The visuals are stylish and attractive enough, but they shouldn’t be pushing the limits of PS4’s hardware provided they’re optimized in the slightest. Even simple things like picking up a collectible can cause the game to seize up for seconds at a time.

You’re also likely to encounter a few soft locks and strange glitches along the way. At one point during my playthrough, the camera decided to slowly pan to the left and stare into the empty background like a wistful old sailor yearning to return to the sea. After a few minutes of waiting, I had to restart from the last checkpoint. Cameras should not have dreams.

Still, even at its buggiest, there’s nothing truly bad about Tiny Brains. Aspects might be underdeveloped, uninspired, or improperly balanced, but it’s all still enjoyable on some basic level, and that entertainment multiplies when you’re playing with a partner. There are enough hints of solid design talent here that I genuinely hope the team at Spearhead picks apart the response, hones in on what works and what doesn’t, and redoubles their efforts the next time around.

After all, isn’t that the point of an experiment?

Developer: Spearhead Games • Publisher: 505 Games • ESRB: E10+ • Release Date: 12.3.2013
6.5
A promising but not-quite-there effort from indie newcomers Spearhead Games, Tiny Brains offers decent couch co-op fun, but suffers from technical issues and some uneven design.
The Good Decently fun couch co-op with two players.
The Bad Weak as a single-player offering and a bit clunkier with three or four players.
The Ugly The game’s “jokes.”
Tiny Brains is a PlayStation 4 exclusive.
Josh Harmon, Associate Editor
Josh Harmon picked up a controller when he was 3 years old—and he hasn't looked back since. This has made him particularly vulnerable to attacks from behind. He joined EGM as an intern following a brief-but-storied career on a number of small gaming blogs across the Internet. Follow him on Twitter @jorshy. Meet the rest of the crew.

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