Of all the genres out there, I feel like puzzle games often go the most overlooked by design. They tend not to have an overarching storyline that would earn some kind of emotional investment from the player – except for the Professor Layton series, and even then the puzzles and the plot are treated as two separate entities that exist in the same area but barely interact with each other – their soundtracks are often calm and relaxing, but can’t be too exciting or bombastic because they would distract the player from finding a solution, and once the solution is discovered, there’s very little replay value to be found. Which is a shame, because puzzle games are just as worthy of your time, attention and praise as any other titles out there.
Another reason why they might go overlooked is simply because they’re not very interesting to talk about; comparatively speaking, of course. The last time I wrote about some puzzle games on the DS, I crammed four of them into one review just so that it wouldn’t be just five lines long, and that’s a real shame, because Rooms: The Main Building is a really imaginative and enjoyable game, and Polarium was a really creative and original launch title for the handheld console, and Picross DS… is also video game. Ok, I actually feel a little bit bad for that one, Picross DS is a perfectly functional and it even has some bonus puzzles of classic Nintendo characters and items, but it’s a good example of my point; what more can you say about Picross DS other than it is a Picross game for the Nintendo DS?
That’s why I mostly go through puzzle games quite quickly and then they fall off of my radar. I barge through them in a few hours spread over a couple of evenings, usually settle for getting all of the achievements, and if I really enjoy them, I’ll give them a very brief shoutout on Twitter. It’s not that I don’t enjoy them, but very few puzzle games contain more than a few hours of content, and that’s usually for the best for both the player and the designer. The player doesn’t get tired of the gameplay, and the designer doesn’t have to come up with ten hours of consistently entertaining content, with no story, little to no soundtrack, and gameplay that’s free to evolve, but for the most part has to follow a fairly similar structure from beginning to end. I’d rather have a two-hour game that left me wanting more than a ten-hour game that I had gotten tired of.
And that is exactly what I was expecting when I played Deleveled, a palindromic puzzle-platformer that boasted ten worlds of twelve levels each. A simple game that I could breeze through in a few nights without really engaging.
Three weeks and twelve hours of gameplay later, I had finally finished the damn thing.
Deleveled isn’t just a palindrome for fun, but because the game is about finding a path that works in both directions. At all times, you are in control of two separate… blocks; look, this game isn’t exactly heavy on story, and that’s just fine. These blocks usually have a similar starting position, but on opposite sides of the level, and with opposite polarities; the block on the top is being pulled down, and the block at the bottom is being pulled up. If they happen to touch each other, it’s game over for good… by which I mean the level restarts. Here’s a look at the fittingly basic opening level.
See? Very simple. You control both blocks simultaneously, so by pressing ‘right’ they both move right, and the goal of each level is to guide them towards the exit. Absolute piece of cake. Frankly, I didn’t see what all the fuss was about, and I was certain – beyond any reasonable doubt – that I would not find it retrospectively ironic if I went online and complained that this game was too easy, based entirely on its first level.
Ah! Now we introduce a second mechanic; bouncing! When only one platform separates the blocks, and they come into contact with each other, the force of one block colliding with a platform will send the respective block (as long as it’s lined up in roughly the same spot) flying through the air for a short while, after which it will return and collide with the platform again, sending the other block flying through the air, and so on and so forth until they find themselves unaligned again, usually because the block flying through the air will have more freedom to go in a particular direction than its stationary counterpart. Still nothing too difficult though.
Merely guiding the blocks to an exit would be too simple however, so the game quickly introduces the third and final staple of the rest of its levels; switches. In order to make the exit appear, you must activate four pairs of switches, and you can only activate them in pairs, with one block touching each switch. Most of the time, these switches have obvious pairings that are clear from the offset, but the further you get into the game, the more paths become available to you. While all eight switches must eventually be pressed at the same time in order for the exit to appear, they can be activated and un-activated, which might sound counterproductive, but can be very helpful when there’s a switch which is very easy for one block to reach, and three switches of varying difficulty that the other block can reach, but which are convenient to be paired together.
Every time a pair of switches is activated, the blocks return back to the starting position of the level, and any changes that the level has undergone will also be reset, so despite a very minimalist and simplistic appearance, each level quickly starts to give you a minimum of five separate tasks; find four paths (possibly more if you use some switches more than once) and then find a fifth path to the exit once it appears. The exit is usually… slightly less-hard to reach than the most difficult pair of switches was, but still significantly harder than the easiest pair, if that makes sense.
Hopefully that doesn’t sound too complicated, because now you have truly grasped everything there is to know about Deleveled, and you too can finish the game in just a few hours by completing simple puzzles like-
… Ok. Ok, I think… I think I’ve made a mistake on this one, but if I could just get a restart, I could probably take it from there, no problem. I’ve solved far more difficult puzzles than this, I’m sure I can-
There are lifts now? Sorry, elevators for my American friends. Those show up in later levels too? And they work just like the blocks, so moving one lift up means that all of the lifts on screen move up too? Okay, well, that’s not too difficult, I’m sure that in just a few attempts, I could probably get the hang of-
And… and that little icon reverses the direction of one of the blocks, so they now move in opposite directions instead of the same direction? Well, that seems like a logical next step, and I’m sure that with a little trial and error, I should be able to get to the bottom of this. It’s only the direction, it’s not like you’re reversing the gravity of each block or anything. … Oh, that’s another mechanic in later stages? Well, fine, sure, great, I should have no problem with that either; if anything, this all sounds too easy for a seasoned expert like-
Alright, fine. My head hurts, my mind is the Windows 95 Blue Screen of Death, and I’m pretty sure my brain is leaking out through my ears. Are you happy now?
All joking aside, I am deliberately presenting these out of context in order to demonstrate the multitude of interesting new mechanics that are introduced in each world, but what I genuinely admire about the game is how surprisingly well it handles multiple difficulty curves at the same time. In every world past the first two, in which you’re mainly just getting the hang of the basic rules, and then a few more advanced manoeuvres, you’re shown an original mechanic, and the first few levels will reliably feel like the developers just want to show you the ropes and make sure that you understand how these new features work, and nothing more. Then they start to throw you a few curveballs and task you with coming up with a few more creative solutions. And then, once they’re confident that you’ve gotten the hang of it, they stop holding back.
Not only is there a difficulty curve in every world, but there’s a subtle overarching difficulty curve over the entire game which is executed really well. As every new mechanic slowly increases in difficulty, the overall game gradually gets harder as well as you begin to understand the base mechanics more thoroughly. It’s hard to put into words, but the best way I can explain it is that after finishing the game completely, I went back to the first few worlds and tried some of the later levels in them – levels which had given me real trouble the first time around – and the solutions all seemed so much more obvious to me now. You might think “Well of course the solutions seemed obvious, you’d already beaten the levels!” but with four pairs of switches over ten worlds of twelve levels, that would be more than four hundred solutions to remember, and my memory just isn’t that good. Most months I can’t even remember to update this website.
It helps that the gameplay mechanics themselves are both open to be used in a lot of creative ways, but also so straightforward that you can quickly get the hang of them without having to study for an age first. The thinner, translucent lines in the image above, for example, can be safely traversed through, but turn solid as soon as a block has touched them and then moved away, leading to more obstacles, reduced options, and paths that are only viable in one direction. There are also ghost platforms, which stay solid for around two seconds after you touch them, and then disappear for a while before coming back.
The neatest thing about the way the game handles these abilities is that it doesn’t overload you with them until you’re nearly at the end of the game. The first two worlds feature no strange mechanics at all, to let you get the hang of the basics, and from then on, world three to world eight introduce one new mechanic that is used in gradually more complicated ways until you have a greater understanding of them as well. Then, for the final two worlds, suddenly they start mixing things together. You’ll have lifts and one-way platforms and little power-ups you can grab and activate at your leisure that will reverse gravity, reverse the direction of one block, or rotate the entire screen layout by ninety degrees. That last one is definitely the most difficult to get used to, but you’re in the final stretch of the game by the time it comes up.
Every time you load up the game, you’re greeted by the logo of the developers, ToasterFuel, and the publishers, Quantum Astrophysicists Guild, whose name is a pretty accurate representation of how smart you will feel when you finally string together a winning sequence of moves. What sets Deleveled apart from a lot of other puzzle games is that just identifying the correct course of action to take isn’t enough to succeed; you also need to timing to properly execute it, which gets progressively more difficult as your movements become more complicated and, to be blunt, wackier, but it never reaches a point where it’s untenable, and you can die as many times as you like on every level and the switches you’ve already pressed will not be reset, although you will lose the chance to win a bonus star that you get for completing the stage without dying or having to reset the blocks.
Speaking of which, while I mentioned that every world has twelve levels, only ten of those are regular levels, and two of them are bonus. In order to unlock one of the bonus levels, you need to collect a certain number of stars – so, completing levels without dying or resetting – and these bonus levels are, fittingly, usually the most difficult ones that the world in question has to offer. But the other bonus levels are unlocked by finding the ‘secret switches’ in each world, and activating them at the same time. Here, have a look at this screenshot again.
It might be hard to tell, but can you see how two of the activated switches in this picture – centre-right and centre-left – seem to be… sparkling a little bit? There are little light particles shining off of just the two of them. These are the secret switches, which, when activated at the same time, will unlock a fancy achievement (the name of which will always be a palindrome) and also unlock the eleventh level in each world. These switches aren’t too hard to find – simply by trying to enter Level 11 before it’s unlocked, the game will refuse, but highlight the level that the secret switches are located in – but they’re normally positioned in such a way to make you think “How in the bloody hell am I supposed to activate that one, all the way over there, and at the same time, this one, all the way on the other side of the level?” It’s a challenging but very gratifying way of unlocking secret levels, and it also encourages you to come up with unorthodox pairings of switches, a strategy that becomes more useful the further into the game you get.
In addition to this, the eleventh levels are usually the most fun. Rather than having to hit switches, these levels always task you with simply leading the blocks to the exit, and the result is either an unexpected gameplay change, like the above, in which you have to race to the finish before the one-way platform you have to cross at the start finishes materializing, or perfectly-irritatingly simple-looking puzzles where the answer is always just cryptic enough to take you a few minutes to solve, but just obvious enough that if you’re stuck on them for a long time, you’ll want to slap yourself on the forehead when you finally figure out what the answer is.
This puzzle can be solved in ten seconds, and it took me half an hour. Don’t judge.
The soundtrack also warrants a mention; Patrick Nance composed twelve chiptune tracks that mesh perfectly with the game; catchy and upbeat enough to hum along to and stick around in your head for a long time after, but also not overbearing or distracting enough to get in the way of solving whichever puzzle your currently stuck on. Each world has its own theme, and much like the difficulty, they start to ramp up in intensity nearer the end to emphasize how far you’ve come from the starter puzzles you could easily solve with a single glance. This could have come straight from an authentic NES game, and it would probably have been one of the best soundtracks on the console.
The development in general is extremely impressive, as the entire game was created by just two people, Kyle Donnelly and the aforementioned Patrick Nance. It’s no surprise that Quantum Astrophysicists Guild were the publishers of this, given their previous portfolio including the monochrome logic game ‘The Bridge’, which has been on my to-play list for about seven years now, but they’ve published several other games from smaller developers, like ‘#Funtime’, a colour-swapping twin-stick shooter that looks like a combination of Geometry Wars and Ikaruga. I’ve looked through the whole QAG library and it seems that they excel in finding short and sweet games by small independent teams and publishing them. I hope they can make it onto consoles soon, because with the exception of The Bridge, they all seem criminally overlooked.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned at the beginning of the article, it’s hard to say much more about puzzle games because they tend not to have a narrative, or themes, or… sequel hooks (not sure how they’d make ‘Deleveled 2’ into a palindrome, unless it was ‘Deleveled 2: Deleveled,’, but Deleveled is definitely still a game that really deserves to be talked about. Not only is it well worth the low asking price of $9.99, and not only is it one of the best puzzle games I’ve played in recent memory, but it’s a fantastic example of how original and simplistically innovative puzzle games can be, which, considering it was released in September 2020, is something of a miracle.
Deleveled is the kind of indie game that just makes you want to tell people to buy it, and I hope I’ve convinced a few of you to do just that, or at least add it to your wishlist. To sum up my feelings in palindromic form… I enjoyed Deleveled a lot, and I think it’s really good. Doog yllaer s’ti kniht I dna ,tol a deleveleD deyojne I.
I never said I was good at palindromes. Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog.
Thanks for reading!