There are so many games that let us play god, nurturing our worshippers or striking them down, building up cities or destroying them. Those games draw on something we've all known since we were children: when you feel powerless, there's nothing more satisfying than having complete power over something—real or not. Maybe you built great cities for your toys or melted them down to show your wrath. Maybe you caught frogs and felt them panic between your cupped hands before letting them go free. Now Backflip Studios has published Band Together [$0.99 (HD)], a puzzle game that goes back to the roots of that experience, that feeling of power that comes from choosing between kindness and cruelty.
The story of Band Together goes something like this: as a small child, you are teased and treated cruelly. You spend a lot of time on your own, and get into places you probably shouldn't. One day while digging around in the attic, you make an amazing discovery: a group of animate cardboard dolls that see you as their god. You, like any imaginative child, decide to see the lengths they'll go to for you.
It isn't a complicated story, but it's a sophisticated one. Who hasn't felt alone as a child; who hasn't felt powerless? Who hasn't used their imagination to pretend to be more powerful than they really are? Childhood is a lot more complicated than the usual narrative admits, and this is a game that gets it right. And it's a puzzle game, not a high-concept art piece, so good on the developers for taking the time to explore these themes without getting bogged down in them.
Like a kid with a rat and too much time on his hands, our hero builds complicated cardboard mazes to test out his newfound followers. The Bandies, as he calls them, need to navigate the mazes, working their way to the exit without getting ripped to shreds by any of the traps. Each of the 30 experiments the Bandies are put through are tests of their willingness to obey: will they follow orders no matter the stakes? Or is there a limit to your godlike power over them?
It starts simply enough. The Bandies need to get from the entrance to the exit, and you need to learn how to make them follow you. You can lead them one at a time with your fingertip, or you can pull them from the side to gather them up together. There is a problem, though: the Bandies can only follow you when they're awake, and they're only awake when they're near a candle. So one of them becomes the leader with a wee candle hat, and it inspires life for those in the aura of its candlelight.
The puzzles all take place on a single screen, and most are shrouded in darkness. As you lead your Bandies around you might stumble, lead them off the wrong edge and need to start over. But the tasks you need to complete are rarely complicated. First you lead Bandies onto switches and popsicle stick pressure plates to help their brethren. Then you add in more creative dangers like pencil spikes and thumbtack powertools. That's when it starts getting hard not to feel for your little Bandies. If one is torn apart by thumbtacks, the other Bandies start quaking and shying away from the danger. If, on the other hand, one makes it to the exit before its friends, they'll all brighten up and cheer. It's cute, yes, but it also makes them feel just a little more sentient, giving you a reason to want to keep them alive.
Then your empathy is put to the test, because it isn't always possible to save all the Bandies. One of them might need to stay behind to hold a drawbridge down for its friends, or to keep them from getting smoked by pencil-spikes. The game encourages you all the while, cheering for each victory that ends with all the Bandies that can survive making it through. So maybe you shouldn't feel too bad? Like the good old companion cube, they aren't real. It's not like they feel anything when you lead them to death by impalement.
Sometimes they die, or fail, for worse reasons. The physics can be twitchy, and sometimes you'll watch as a Bandie slides off what should be stable ground. Or you're stymied by a piece of loose styrofoam that seems to serve only to frustrate. The game gets tricky when you need to position Bandies incredibly carefully, but it's not the fun kind of tricky. Thankfully these problems are few and far between. Band Together is rarely frustrating, but it's also rarely a great challenge.
It does come together incredibly well, though. The game is the product of gorgeous design, with stop motion-like animation and photorealistic cardboard sets. The story is told through detailed sketches that add to the sense that this is all a project of a child that's too clever for his own good. The atmosphere is engaging even in the moments the puzzling isn't. So Band Together is a compact, complete experience that never draws your attention away from the action. The downside of that is that distractions like achievements are absent, along with any sort of replayability. The only reason to ever hit the level select menu is if you need to go back to save a Bandie or two that you left behind. There is a little treat for completionists, one that hints at great things to come.
Band Together winds up feeling just a little bit inconsistent. Judged purely on its puzzling, it doesn't really distinguish itself. The puzzles are well-crafted, but they aren't going to seriously tax most players. But bring in the themes, the atmosphere and the presentation and it starts to resemble an experience that shouldn't be missed. That its creation was a collaborative effort between a couple triple-A industry vets and a group of game design students might help explain it: there isn't much like this on the App Store, but who better than newcomers to make that happen? I'm looking forward to seeing what else comes from this crew; they might find themselves with power over my wallet after this.
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