So. Hrm. Where to begin with this one...

I've described before how you end up with these genres that end up being about the fine details, the little things that separate one effort from the next because the genre itself limits how broadly you can diverge. And "super hard platformer with wall jumps and rapid retries" is, arguably, enough of a genre for us to look at it in that light.

So that brings us to Flatland, Vol. 1, hereafter referred to as just Flatland. The game takes that core beat, as you've seen in games like Super Meat Boy or Celeste, and cooks it, abstracts it down into raw neon infused shapes and symbols. Simple enough setup, one with a lot of potential. How well does it work out?

Live, die, live again

You know the core loop of this kind of game already. You've got a goal to reach in a confined stage, you've got jumps and wall jumps, and you usually have a collectible that's often tied into some kind of progression. One hit kills you, and there's a ton of things looking to hit you. Good news, you come back really fast.

So how's Flatland mix it up? What makes it special?

Well, it's got a few things. One is, of course, the aesthetic. This abstract little square of glowing yellow that you play as, the dark background, the deep blues and purples and pinks. All of it is, straight up, deeply aesthetically pleasing. And while "album full of trancey, synthy electronic music" is a bit of an old trick, it still works wonders on me.

Gameplay wise, it's kind of down the middle. The one big thing you have is that progression is entirely centered around collecting, so you can't just find efficient routes through stages, you have to find efficient routes that let you divert into hidden areas or successfully take key risks.

And honestly, that would normally be plenty for me. Like, not every game needs to be a game changer, you know? I'd be perfectly happy to sit here and say "Yeah it's a lot like these other games but hey, if you like those you'll like this and it's more of this sort of thing".

Except for two, key decisions that really soured things for me.

Let's talk about them.

Stick and move

Controls, and especially movement, are critical in the Really Hard Platformer genre. They're made entirely on very specific movements playing off well. Near pixel perfect jumps, razor thin reactions, it's all key.

And there's...Well, I want to say it's one decision that makes this harder in Flatland than it needs to be, except it's more of a decision cascading off of that decision.

The initial thing being, your little square fellow flips around as it switches which direction it's going. Which, I don't actually know the underlying code here. This might be a simple animation playing, or it might be an actual physics operation where it spins in place.

Here's what I do know. Either way, it makes certain movements, especially wall movements, way trickier than they should be. Because if you press into a wall, you grind against it and slow down. Normal, right? And if you let go, you'll, well, let go.

But if you press away from the wall, you start to flip, then grind again, almost like the square got stuck. Which makes those sort of careful back and forth drops down shafts that these sorts of games love to do really god damned difficult, because you have to do little hops to disengage...Hops very likely to send you into a set of neon spikes.

You can see how this becomes a problem. Again, I'm not sure if this is one of those things where it actually is just "we set up this physics parameter and then this unexpected action actually causes it", or if it's "we actively and intentionally wanted you to not be able to push off the wall without jumping". Or hell, I'd even be open to "you just have to hit this other button and the reviewer missed something incredibly obvious", would not be the first time I hit that one.

Of course, you can work around that, right? Just got to see the spikes so you can set up to be able to jump and avoid them, is all.

...So about that...

Zoom(-in) meetings

The camera's tighter than a metaphor squeezed into an analogy.

Hell, really, it's not even that the camera's super tight. I mean, that's bad, but on a widescreen display there's still some room to the sides. No, the real problem is the weighting, I think. The square is almost always really close to the bottom of the screen, and that makes it really hard to judge jumps.

I didn't often have to do an entirely blind jump upwards or even to the side, in my time with this game. But enough that I really noticed it, I had to do a jump where I couldn't see the floor because I was coming from a jump height above it.

More than once, I got stuck on jumps simply because I needed to, through repeated deaths, build a mental map so I could blind-jump down between spikes or enemies or whatever. Hell, the thing that made me decide to step away from putting in game time and just write this review was one of these moments, where I had to keep grinding it out until I just decided I wanted to walk away for a minute.

Conclusion

And this is all a real shame, because there's good meat here! The level design, what I can see of it, seems solid! I'd do pretty well if I could see more in one go, if I could jump and fall more cleanly. The rest of the movement feels good. And the game has some interesting symbology going as it builds up layers of abstract obstacles to overcome.

It even has a few neat ideas all its own. I like that it brings this kind of collectathon vibe where you have two or three angles that each unlock different ways to play the game. And while it's far from the first game to say "I'm gonna make my soundtrack a thumpy synth thing and tell you the cool song that's playing so you can look it up on Spotify later", it does a pretty solid job of that and I will never tire of cool thumpy synth tracks.

I was so, damn, close, to giving this game a soft recommend, and the only thing making it soft is the sheer depth and quality of its competition in the genre.

But those two things mean I'm on the low end of neutral here.

Every so often I try to softball my problems with a game by talking about how I hope they get patched out. But this one, this right here, is one of those times where two goddamned things that would almost certainly be super easy to fix are the only things standing in the way.

It's frustrating, but here we are. Maybe you'll overcome those two things better than I did.