What happens when you take two quirky space engineers and make them solve complex puzzles, in dangerous environments, while tethered to each other, for the entertainment of others? You get Shiftlings, the new physics-based, puzzle-platformer from Sierra Entertainment and Rock Pocket Games. In Shiftlings, you take control of Purple Plop and Green Goop and attempt to repair various things, while unknowingly taking part in a TV show complete with an announcer. Meanwhile, the game heavily relies on a fictional soda named Black Hola Cola for jokes, mechanics, and objectives.
The core mechanic of the game is the shifting system. The way this works is one alien passes gas from drinking too much cola, and the gas travels through the shared air hose, enlarging one character or the other. Yes, that’s right, passing gas is literally the mechanic the game is based around. The even better part of the mechanic is the squeaking noises and subtle flatulence sounds that come from shifting the gas from one character to the other. Admittedly, I’ve spent a few minutes just passing the gas around, just for the ridiculous and entertaining noises.
As stated, though, there’s more to the shifting than just the entertaining noises. Because there’s all of this gas stuck in the suits, one character is blown up like a big ball at all times, while the other is normal size. This means the two characters will play off of each other in order to make their way through stages. The bloated character can only jump a couple inches and can’t fit into tight spaces, however that character will become heavier and can be used as a spring for the normal sized character to bounce off of. Because the gas can be shifted between characters, and you control both characters, the mechanic works well for the style of game.
To take it a step further, the way the levels are designed is outstanding. There are no tutorials or tutorial stages. Rather, the game teaches you the mechanics through clever level design. Each stage in the early parts of the game teaches you a different aspect of the mechanics. It starts off with the very basics of shifting to jump over something small and progressively introduces more with each stage until the player reaches the very last stage of the game. This game really does have top notch level design.
The down side is that, even though the level design is rock solid, and the shifting mechanic works very well, controlling two characters is incredibly challenging. I figured out most puzzles even if they took me a while, but making my characters do what I wanted them to was a completely different story. This isn’t to say that the controls were inaccurate or bad. The controls were fully functional and responsive at all times. However, when a puzzle requires precise timing – for example jumping, shifting, and bouncing two characters simultaneously, while moving at different speeds and interacting with the environment – it becomes much harder to do. I spent over five hours at one point on the final stage trying to collect one of the colas, not because I didn’t know what to do, but rather the complex combination of actions was an overload of my senses.
I’d imagine that the control issues aren’t a big deal if you have somebody else playing with you; the game does support 2-player co-op. Unfortunately, the Wii U version doesn’t have online co-op, just local. Also, another small hindrance of the Wii U version is the fact that the Off-TV Play is behind a menu, rather than mapped to a button or the screen for easy use. This is even more unfortunate when you take into consideration that the game doesn’t do anything else different with the Gamepad. It does have Pro Controller support, which is always awesome.
On the note of style, the game has a hilarious theme and an art style that fits well. The visuals in this game are gorgeous on all the systems it’s available for, including Wii U, which was the version I played. The sound fits the game, as well. The music is quirky and reminds me of a Saturday morning cartoon or an animated film. The sound effects also really add to the experience. As stated earlier, the shifting noises are hilarious, and some other noises can also be entertaining. The announcer has hilarious cut-scenes and fun lines, but because the lines are repeated so often as you play the game, it can get old. This is especially true if he keeps repeating the same lines as you mess up or die.
Ultimately, Shiftlings is a good game with some small hindrances here and there. The game is undeniably challenging, and you’ll be fighting against yourself and the complex actions needed to solve the puzzles. The announcer may also get under your skin, more or less, depending on your personal preferences. However, the mechanics are unique, and the level design is top notch. The theme and style of the game is ridiculous, as well, which I personally find very entertaining. I got a good amount of time out of the game, and my overall experience has been pretty positive. Ultimately though, opinions of this type of game will vary greatly depending on personal tastes.