At first glance, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to call Jonathan Blow’s Braid charming – cute, even. The lavish, saturated colour palette, the oddly-proportioned character of Tim, the rich, string-glazed music, the barely audible chirps from fallen foes and the painstakingly animated visual style create a safe and sunny first impression. It’s quickly ascertained, however, that this isn’t Braid; Braid is something different altogether. Braid is beautiful, but unsettling. Braid is arrogant, but not confident. Braid is cold, but endearing. Braid is awkward, but deliberately so. Braid is brilliant, but not particularly fun. Braid is not sugar-coated fluff – it’s mesmerising, it’s fresh, it’s odd, it’s disturbing – it’s as deep as it needs to be.
There are many interpretations of Braid’s central message, ranging from an abstract critique of platform games in general to a huge metaphor for the Manhattan Project. Blow himself reminds us, however, that these are merely different takes on the game, and he didn’t necessarily intend any of them to be either conveyed or deduced. Its story is initially simple, but soon evolves into a confusing mish-mash of Tim’s hopes and laments. Again, the rapid realisation that Braid shouldn’t be taken at face value runs through every area of its design. The Super Mario trappings – piranha plants, goombas, end-stage flags, “The Princess is in another castle”, even platform layouts – help at first to ease the player in, but later become a stark reminder of the nature of Braid. It’s not The New Mario, rather, The Anti-Mario.
Braid sets out to create art in the mechanics of play, and this is achieved with rare bombast through the time-travelling abilities. With a tap of Shift or the X button, a sepia tone sets in and everything is reversed. The twist is that the power is limitless in use, and death in the game is, in fact, impossible – should Tim fall foul of a creature or be impaled on some flaming spikes, time stops and a prompt to rewind appears. Braid, therefore, is a side-scroller with three dimensions, and the mechanic itself is very different to comparable ones; most notably in Prince of Persia: Sand of Time and its direct sequels. Rewinding in Braid becomes more than just an arbitrary feature, it’s integral to the puzzle design itself. Whereas the Prince had an ability that looked cool and eased frustration when confronted with the harder play sections, Tim’s is so extensive that it’s arguably more important than the jump button. Yes, it does assist in beating the tougher platforming areas, but they’re few and far between, with the vast majority of the player’s time spent pondering how to reach the next jigsaw piece.
Each of the six worlds has a different time-bending quirk, and this lends a much needed variety to proceedings. Although the first world is effectively straightforward (as straightforward as Braid gets, anyway) the second introduces glowing green items that aren’t affected by time. For instance, if a key is used on a door with these attributes, time can be rewound so that the key is recovered but the door stays open, allowing a second use of the key. Subsequent worlds introduce more of these mechanics, and after a while the game’s logic begins to click into place. Areas that seemed insurmountable at the time suddenly become accessible – not through Tim’s abilities, which aren’t extended whatsoever – but by the player’s organically adapting mind. It’s design bordering on genius, and Blow has managed to do something that very few developers can, which is naturally, gently seep the laws of the game world into the brain of the person at the controls, tuning their senses to better solve the conundrums they’re presented with.
The worlds take roughly half to three quarters of an hour to finish, and the introduction of a new mechanic to adjust to this often works well in practice, allowing the maximum number of setups to be explored without any particular level outstaying its welcome. The puzzles themselves are much like those found in the best adventure games, with most sitting at the ideal juncture of fiendish difficulty plausible resolvability. A handful, however, appear to be almost entirely down to trial and error, and although the ability to rewind the action until the section is beaten nullifies the irritancy somewhat, it’s more than enough to indicate that Blow perhaps struggled to reach the full potential of the time-travelling on occasion.
That said, it’s about the only thing wrong with Braid, and is more than forgivable amongst the accomplished majority of the puzzles. Other touches like the ending, perplexing plot, gorgeous backdrops and exquisite score serve to strengthen the experience beyond just solid platform-puzzler. To call Braid a throwback to the 16-bit era would be to some extent fallacious, for it’s a new breed of 2D platformer. It doesn’t just copy a certain plumber’s early adventures verbatim like so many before it – some of them excellent in their own right – did, but seeks to plant the seeds of growth that the genre has lacked for so many years in showing that, by imprinting its own identity on a well weathered template, incredible things can happen.