Shifting World Review
Posted by Philip J Reed
Less was more
In 2008, a Flash-based platformer/puzzle game called Shift was released online. Its gameplay was a model of brilliant simplicity: levels were constructed from black and white blocks, and the Shift key would flip the room upside down, turn background objects solid and push previously solid objects into the background. It was a premise that made sense to players the moment they shifted a room for the first time, and over the years since it's received numerous ports and sequels.
Shifting World is the series' debut on a Nintendo system, and it does its best both to add new elements to the formula and to stand out from the earlier games. Unfortunately those new elements don't work quite as well as the developer would like, and the entire game suffers from a careless execution.
The story is that our mysterious main character has been summoned to the home of the equally mysterious Duke of Shadows, where he quickly finds himself trapped in an also-mysterious dimension for — say it with us now — mysterious reasons. The game's story is deliberately passive, with little in the way of development. That's a positive thing, as it allows the puzzles and gameplay themselves to step to the fore. Or, rather, it would be a positive thing if the puzzles and gameplay were much better than they actually are.
One of the early hallmarks of the Shift series were single-screen rooms that allowed you to see everything up front. It was up to you to figure out how to navigate these rooms, which was rarely an easy task, but you could at least see what you were up against. Shifting World, however, takes a contrary approach, giving you an extremely limited view of much expanded levels.
In the original games the smaller levels made sense, as they were designed to test your thinking and reflexes with quick challenges, and Shifting World's larger, more sprawling ordeals could have worked just as well. By limiting the view, however, players never get a sense of the expansiveness of these levels, and the unvarying black and white colour scheme makes it easy to loop back around the same small section of the level several times without realising it.
The bottom screen attempts to make amends for this by displaying a map, but that just leads to its own set of problems. The map is tiny enough that it's difficult to orient yourself, for starters, and the icons representing your character, the keys and the exit are so enormous that they obscure large portions of the map, making it even less useful. Additionally, the map doesn't display certain features of the level, meaning that numbered switches — for instance — must still be scoured for inch by inch, leading to a lot of aimless wandering. The same goes for hazards, which are also not indicated and which you will only discover after you leap into spikes you couldn't see from where you were standing.
Further compounding that last gripe is the fact that once you die — and any damage is an instant kill — the level restarts from the beginning. Again, that made sense for the single-screen origins of the game, but here, when you can easily spend up to ten minutes wandering a level in search of a way out, having to start over because you were killed by a hazard you couldn't see in advance is extraordinarily cheap and frustrating.
You can prepare to be killed even by simple hazards you can see as well, as the game has an irritating tendency to lag before acknowledging your input. This regularly results in the protagonist failing to jump, and that can either force you to backtrack and figure out the way forward again, or simply restart the level from scratch. Neither of those outcomes is a happy one.
Additionally, the game seems to struggle bizarrely to keep from crashing. A quick glance at the screenshots will give you a pretty fair idea of how absurd this fact is, as Shifting World never has to render more than two colours at a time, and its levels are constructed from basic shapes. Regardless, the game regularly grinds itself into ludicrous slowdown, and even comes to a complete stop when you grab a key. One might think this is built into the game as a way to catch your breath before moving on, but if you catch a key while falling, for instance, you'll find yourself teleporting to where you'd be if the game hadn't stopped. In other words, the game is still carrying on, and you can even be killed, while it appears that you're frozen in place.
Other games, such as Kid Icarus: Uprising, Super Mario 3D Land and Resident Evil Revelations, have pushed the capabilities of the 3DS to their limits, and thanks to them we know that the unit absolutely should not be sputtering under the weight of black and white line drawings.
Further gameplay quirks conspire to cloud your enjoyment of Shifting World. For instance, characters pop onto the screen to stop the action entirely so that they can warn us to beware of hazards — the very hazards we were attempting to avoid when we were so rudely interrupted. Also, keys open new paths, but it's impossible to know which paths were opened and so with every key you collect you can look forward to combing over the entire level again to see what's changed. Sometimes an arrow appears to show you the new path, and sometimes it doesn't — presumably another game-wide glitch. Additionally, death is no longer the humorously gory bloodbath of the original series; stepping on spikes now causes you to hiss like a deflating balloon while grey orbs scatter everywhere. Don't ask, because we don't know.
The game claims to have three gameplay modes, but that's pretty misleading. The main mode is the string of 60 levels that make up the game, and Adventure mode just allows you to replay levels you've beaten. Time Attack mode also allows you to replay levels you've beaten, but with a timer.
The nicest thing we can say about Shifting World is that it had a genuinely great idea. Expanding upon the gameplay of the Shift series by introducing new objects, larger levels and the ability to shift in three-dimensional space as well as two were all great ideas, and we had high expectations. Unfortunately the game simply doesn't feel finished, nor does it ever manage to be much fun. It's almost like we've accidentally shifted into a dimension where Shift was never all that good to begin with, and that's not a place we want to live.
Shifting World certainly contains the germ of a great idea but it execution leaves a lot to be desired. Uninspired level design, a useless map, poor responsiveness and inexplicable slowdown all come together to make Shifting World feel like an unfinished beta version released at retail. Shifting World had potential, but in its current state, you're not missing much by passing on it.