I don’t know what it is about a companion gimmick that makes me so invested. I mean most of the time you’re usually controlling both as a single entity, so it’s not like you have much attachment to either side of the equation directly, but the concept of going into something with a partner is inherently less stressful. Take something like Banjo Kazooie (or the more recent Yooka-Laylee), as you’re generally controlling the former, and the latter merely acts as a power-up — just the notion that you’re not alone is enough to bring a smile to my face. Ellie & Max ($3.99) isn’t quite as iconic of a pairing as the aforementioned mascots, but I got somewhat attached by the time I reached the final curtain call.
Ellie & Max sees the player taking control of an abnormally large dog in an attempt to collect objects in a strange world and rescue Ellie, his companion. You’ve seen the concept before — there’s minor objectives that amount to three stars for completionists, and a goal you can rush to if you so choose. But the whole idea of perspective, used to great effect in several other puzzle platformers like Fez, elevates the magic quite a bit. Everything is charming on its own before you bring the big gimmick in, mind. It’s bright, the characters are memorable, and the voxel look isn’t too dated. Oh, and the music, it’s so darn happy you’ll probably be humming along to it every time you boot it up.
But again, the perspective shifting element is so strong it’s easy to get lost in it. With simple swipe actions you can move the world around at will, shifting structures from small caverns to wide reaching platform islands instantly. Max can be controlled with a quick tap anywhere, with some insurance for pitfalls, avoiding a lot of frustration from missteps. There’s a timer involved, but the end result is a cheery puzzler that begs to be played.
The first few stages are remedial. You’re basically just shifting things until you find your way to the next platform, jumping over, then repeating that until you get to the end. Since you can’t leap off into the abyss it’s mostly a guided affair as you can’t really get lost or screw up enough to warrant a reset. But after that initial tutorial, things get a little more interesting. The game starts limiting your rotations, so you need to carefully think before you swipe. Then flags start popping in — flags that serve as a super jump of sorts that cause Max to careen across the screen into another area. That simple idea really opens up the levels a little more and begins to resemble a puzzle game.
The IAP system from the ever-popular Crossy Road returns, but this time it comes with a twist that’s either a “bonus" or a clever scheme to get you to pay more money (for the game’s premium currency, gems, that lets you buy anything outright), depending on how you look at it. As a whole, $2 for Ellie & Max, sans ads, feels complete. At no point did I think “I wish there wasn’t more of [x] annoying mechanic to get you to go premium," nor did I feel like I was getting gated out of anything. With 80 on board (with an optional hard mode) and more on the way, it’s hefty to say the least.
But there are costumes — oh yes, plenty of them, and they’re tied to a random lottery machine just like Crossy Road. While playing the game you’ll earn currency to spin the wheel, and in turn, you’ll start to unlock new costumes (most of which are in the realm of the bizarre, like a giant bed or monkey). Some (but not all) items are linked to a themed level — so if you unlock all three pieces of furniture for example, you’ll get a “home sweet home" bonus stage.
It’s…just inoffensive enough to be ignored. It would be great to have everything unlocked from the start, or even through normal progress, but I got enough free spins where I felt like I was getting costumes on a regular basis. That, combined with the strength of the basic levels from the campaign, ensured that I wasn’t “missing out" on anything by not getting a good few random rolls here and there.
I didn’t expect much from Ellie & Max, and got quite a bit back in return. There’s a lot of heart in the game’s duo, and even though you probably won’t recognize them until you’ve played a few rounds, the developer definitely has my attention going forward.