Tero [99¢] -- the new by-the-numbers platformer from Studio Yomi featuring the titular pilot who, oddly enough, runs and jumps instead of piloting anything -- is ostensibly about saving lives. But don't be fooled by the 24 gorgeously detailed naturescapes or the Fern Gully-esque cautionary tale about the dangers of using science to exploit the environment. Tero is about death, about dying over and over and over again.
The thing about Tero's difficulty (besides the fact that it ramps up in, oh, the fourth level) is that it's borne out of a perfect storm of bad implementation and great design. On the one hand: Tero's accelerometer-based controls are finicky at best (tilt to run, swipe up to jump and down to attack, etc.), and its hit detection is equally spotty.
On the other hand, Tero would be a difficult game even with tighter controls, and its this idealized version that's so interesting. Despite it's slick presentation and lack of pixel art, Tero's aesthetic and design hark from an older era -- blind jumps lead to nothingness, and enemies appear out of nowhere to attack Tero mid-jump. Success in Tero depends on players' ability (or willingness) to repeat themselves, to memorize patterns, to rely on muscle memory instead of intuition.
This difficulty is mitigated by short levels, generous checkpointing, and by Studio Yomi's decision to reward almost every player action with extra "lives" for Tero: collecting flowers and killing enemies yield "hearts," and Tero can be hit once for each heart in his stockpile. But despite these concessions, Tero remains a punishing game.
The result -- if you have the patience -- is that every death is a small lesson, another opportunity to nail the timing on this or that jump, to learn more about an enemy's pattern, to find a secret ledge, or to rack up enough hearts to bulldoze your way through. This learning process is, I think, essential to Tero, because it's after each lesson has crystalized that the game really begins to shine.
At its best, Tero is a delightfully kinetic experience -- there's something triumphant about letting Tero run at full-tilt, confident in one's ability to time his jumps, kill his enemies, and collect his hearts with precision that can only be learned through repetition. Letting Tero run, dash, and spin his way through a well-memorized and well-worn level is the sublime catharsis that makes all the dying and all the frustration worth it.
But if you lose yourself in that sublimation, you'll fail to notice just how precisely crafted each level of Tero can be. Each jump, each enemy pathfinding routine, each floating lever and invincible ghost seem purposefully placed and timed with the assumption that Tero will be running as fast as possible. Under the best possible circumstances, that flame-throwing statue isn't designed to kill Tero, but to present him with the illusion of danger as he bounces past unscathed. The real meat of the game is in its speed, timing, and grace, not in stomping baddies or saving flowers.
At first blush, Tero seems entirely unremarkable in a sea of iOS platformers, a first impression bolstered by the sketchy controls. But, under the right circumstances, Tero synthesizes the visuals of Super Mario World, the physics of Yoshi's Island, and the death-cult gameplay of games like Mega Man and Super Meat Boy into a game that strikes the nice balance between tension and release, between frustration and delight.
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