Living in Tasmania I see changes in the weather quite often. From frosty mornings straight into nights sleeping in undies with the fan on, old Tassie can have all four seasons in a day. While dying from the heat you think back to nights drinking tea in ugg boots – when freezing your arse off you reminisce of days spent by the pool, enjoying the sun. The unpredictability is a pain for sure, but it comes with a humbling lesson—you can’t truly appreciate one without the other. 2D side-scrolling puzzle title, Degrees of Separation, explores this notion of balance and symmetry with a heartfelt narrative, pieced together with mostly interesting puzzles, stumbling only in a few places along the way.
It will be fine, just dont look down
Degrees of Separation is playable either as a single-player or co-op experience. The two protagonists, Ember and Rime, hail from worlds of fire and ice (respectively) and wield their realms’ elemental powers as they traverse a forgotten land in search of answers. Players assume control of both Ember and Rime, each of whom can change the environment with their realm’s influence. Rime, for instance, is able to walk across bodies of water as they freeze in his version of the world, whereas Ember is able to swim right through them in hers. The puzzles in the early stages of the game start off fairly simplistic, easing the player/s into the idea of manipulating the environment with either heat or cold in order to collect mysterious scarves. It is discovered early on that these scarves are used to open locked doors that lie within a dilapidated castle. The doors, each requiring a certain number of scarves to open, take the player/s to a variety of different locations that are scattered throughout the castle, which acts as a hub area between them.
Which each new location behind these doors comes a new twist on the game’s puzzles.. For instance in the first location, Rime and Ember are gifted with staves that have the power to create a solid bridge where their worlds meet, allowing them to climb to otherwise unreachable heights. Though this makes collecting the scarves much easier at first, the puzzles slowly increase in difficulty, forcing the player/s to think vertically, horizontally and every which way in-between in order to succeed. There are dozens of scarves– protected by puzzles – in each location, but it isn’t necessary to collect them all in order to succeed, as long as you have enough to open the next door in the castle. If you are anything like me and get controller-throwingly annoyed by failing to complete a puzzle after an hour of attempts, this will be a very welcome mercy.
The majority of these locations add an interesting twist to the gameplay and keep the puzzles fresh and challenging, but some are less interesting and more frustrating. As an example, one location adds the ability to create a blast at the barrier between Ember and Rime, propelling them apart and destroying obstacles caught in the explosion. This is all well and good until it becomes obvious that these blasts are caused not only by a button prompt, but also when the two characters are too close together. Sure it is fun to see both characters fly in opposite directions, and even more fun to troll your co-op partner by sending them halfway to space as they try and climb a rope, but the novelty soon wears off and is replaced by aggravation. Luckily, if a location’s variation doesn’t appeal to you it is easy enough to collect a handful of scarves before moving on, compensating your low scarf collection rate in a location that suits you more.
It’s all snowballs and sunshine
All of the locations throughout the game are absolutely beautiful. Both characters look as though they have been cut out of a child’s story book and the environments are equally as gorgeous. The scenery changes and reacts depending on where the characters are standing. On Ember’s side of the screen, everything is lit by a warm glow and trees are full of leaves that blow in the wind, whereas Rime’s portion is covered by a blue sheen with snow building on the mountains in the distance and icicles forming on the branches of the leaf-less trees. The transition from one world’s touch to the other is flawless; as the characters moved through the environment and I found myself walking back and forth multiple times just to see the finer details that come with each. As awe-inspiring as the scenery is, it does have a habit of blending together the foreground and background. There were multiple times where I found myself jumping towards a platform only to be stopped halfway by a branch or wall that looked as though it was firmly in the distance and not interactable.
The story is told primarily by a voiceover that narrates throughout the game. The narrator subtly gives hints to help with puzzles and also voices the thoughts and feelings of Ember and Rime, giving them both individual personalities in the process. As they venture together to uncover why their worlds are falling apart, their bond strengthens and their desire to break the barrier between them grows. It is a simple tale, but a thoughtful and heartwarming one that explores duality, love and understanding. As I approached the end of the game, I figured someone in my house must have been cutting onions because my eyes were more than a little glassy.
Let me hold the door for you
Though the option to play through Degrees of Separation on your own is there, it is definitely best to play co-operatively with someone else. When playing solo, the player is required to control both characters by swapping between the two in order to progress. A button press can command the non-player character to follow, but due to the verticality of most levels the AI seems to get confused about whether to follow along below or above, or to come to the players location, often doing the opposite of what is needed. This not only becomes a bit of a chore when using trial and error to figure out a solution, but some timing-based puzzles become close to incompletable. When playing co-operatively, the puzzles feel far more fair and balanced as you aren’t having to battle with the AI (though you might have to battle with whoever you are playing with instead). As the game draws to a close, a new feature is implemented that requires even more co-operation and planning than in previous levels, further exemplifying that this is a co-op title at heart. I played through a good portion of the game with my girlfriend, which not only helped alleviate the issues with the AI and improve the gameplay experience as a whole, but playing alongside someone else added more emotional weight to the story as well.
What. A. View.
Degrees of Separation wonderfully blends challenging puzzles with a heartfelt and humanising narrative. Despite a few sections of the gaming missing the mark, the constant introduction of new gameplay features keeps things feeling new and interesting. If you are looking for something to play with your friend or significant other while you sit next to each other on the couch on a rainy afternoon, this is exactly what you are looking for.
Reviewed on Switch // Review code supplied by publisher