Charm goes a long way in our illustrious hobby. A game with – let's be generous – difficult mechanics can be forgiven quite a lot of sins if it's got plenty of character. Ministry of Broadcast most certainly has difficult mechanics, but it positively oozes charm. Almost every screen is interesting, the characters are well-written, it's frequently darkly funny and it provokes thought along lines of both the cryptic and the existential.
It's important to make it clear that difficult mechanics doesn't mean bad mechanics. Ministry of Broadcast is a cinematic platformer in the mould of the classic Flashback, Blackthorne or Abe's Oddysee, where every move is committed to and each step must be calculated. If anything, it's even more fastidiously demanding than these games – main character Orange feels heavily weighted and extremely stiff. Thankfully, the environments are designed around these limitations, and it's satisfying when you figure out the route forward. Orange's weakness relative to other platform game heroes means that no progress feels meaningless or unearned.
The premise is a downbeat one. A disturbing medley of dystopian game show tropes (think The Running Man), Ministry of Broadcast sees Orange competing in a live broadcast for a chance to be with his family, kept from him by "The Wall" constructed by a fascist regime. The tasks he's forced to complete take the form of arenas, each filled with puzzles, acrobatic obstacle courses over drops to certain death and hungry dogs eager to munch Orange's flesh.
In order to progress, Orange must often take advantage of his fellow competitors – use them as live bait for the aforementioned dogs, or straight-up use their fallen bodies as platforms. At first, these instances are somewhat humorous, if molasses-thick black comedy. As the game goes on and the situation becomes more desperate, your actions will begin to weigh on you. It seems that success is only possible by destroying others. This is no Spec Ops: The Line, but it'd take a hard heart not to feel anything towards the sheer desolation of the scenario.
As the game goes on and the challenges get more demanding, the quality of the puzzles increases and the level of thought required increases exponentially. We've seen some coverage of Ministry of Broadcast lament trial-and-error unfair deaths, but that hasn't been our experience at all. There are deaths, for sure – it's not an easy game and you can go from glorious victory to shattering defeat in a matter of a split second – but we didn't find the game to be cheap or thoughtless in its punishment. You've got to think carefully and pay attention to your surroundings. Often the solution will require outside-the-box ideas and you may well get stuck for some time. It's a game that requires patience, forethought and all of your attention.
The set-pieces are beautifully woven into your progress, so the obstacles you face never feel arbitrary. They could do, easily, and there'd be a narrative excuse for it – these are set challenges for the terrible, horrifying game show you've been cast in; it would be trivial to brush aside any criticism of the level design as being arbitrary with "sure, it's supposed to be contrived". But it isn't. The environments manage to feel creative, carefully composed and – best of all – far from unnatural. Of course, they're not natural, but the design is so thoughtful that the immersion is never broken by a "oh, that's just stupid" moment. The certainty that Orange's abuse of others will result in a positive outcome for him also feeds into his character development – is he really sorry about what he's doing? If so, for how long?
Graphically, Ministry of Broadcast uses a familiar pixel style, but executes it superbly. There are many excellent touches – we're particularly fond of the way Orange skids in the thick snow – that elevate what could have been a pedestrian visual style into something special. The camera zooms in and out to provide a sense of scale for the fantastic heights you clamber as Orange quests for the right to see his family, the art itself is beautifully detailed and the atmosphere is often almost nauseatingly tense. The music, sparing as it is, complements the proceedings beautifully. The aesthetics are completely in keeping with the gameplay, and that's a very good thing indeed.
A relentlessly impressive experience, Ministry of Broadcast is always enjoyable, often excellent and very clearly a labour of love. Some will find the exacting nature of the controls rubs them the wrong way, but if you're looking for an old-school experience that isn't a self-conscious throwback and has a narrative you can get your teeth into, it's an unambiguous recommendation from us. It's not perfect – the in-game dialogue is well-written but rough around the edges, with plentiful typos and grammar confusion – but that's not enough to distract from Ministry of Broadcast's terrific level design and superb visuals. Nothing new here, but what it offers is, quite simply, a very, very, very, very good cinematic platformer.