Let’s get the obvious comparison out of the way first: Gateways is a lot like Portal. Many things in Gateways are pretty close to Valve‘s classic puzzler, ranging from the similar name and focus on “science” to the use of portals created by a gun as a central mechanic. It’s the first thing everyone mentions about the game—even the developer calls it an homage—and with good reason. However, it would be a real shame if people simply dismissed it as a Portal clone, because Gateways does some pretty ridiculous stuff as the game goes on. From time travel to size changes, Gateways throws in some pretty crazy mechanics to differentiate itself.
The storyline to Gateways is fairly basic, but certainly serves the game well. You are a scientist whose lab has been overridden by some mystery villain in your control room. This turns your lab into a dangerous obstacle course full of broken glass and rampant experiments. Luckily, our plucky scientist has a couple of portal… er, gateway guns stashed around the lab. Using these tools, you need to solve puzzles and find additional upgrades to reach the source for all this mess.
The basic game structure is a “Metroidvania” puzzler, which is a pretty neat concept. Unlike many “Metroidvanias”, the focus isn’t so much on upgrades as it is on brain power. There’s still plenty of upgrades to find, and many of them are required to progress elsewhere, but upgrades alone won’t get you through safely. The puzzles range from fairly straightforward to devilishly tricky, but all of them are rather clever and often require different strategies. One puzzle might require some outside of the box thinking, while another needs quick reflexes, while the next one is all about planning things carefully. It can certainly get frustrating at times, but the implementation of an excellent hint system keeps things in check.
Scattered around the lab are collectibles that can be bartered in exchange for hints. Every single puzzle is accompanied by a hint pylon, which are marked on your map when you find them. Spending ten gems on the terminal will tell you whether or not the puzzle is possible with the tools you have, saving you from repeated, frustratingly impossible attempts. Better yet, the symbol will be recolored to green on your map when you finally get the upgrades in question, allowing you to figure out exactly when and where to backtrack for extra upgrades and secrets.
As mentioned previously, knowing what you need is only half the battle when it comes to the puzzles. For an additional forty gems, the game will temporarily take control of your character and show you how the puzzle is done, solving it in the process. This can be used to skip overly-tricky platforming bits you just can’t master, or to get past puzzles that get the best of you. It may seem like cheating, but I was certainly happy to have the system in place for some of the more challenging time travel puzzles. But for those who would abuse the system, you only get a very limited amount of hint currency to use before you’re out of luck. It’s all about making the game as accessible and frustration-free as possible without making the game too easy to play or exploitable.
Let’s talk a bit about some of those challenging mechanics. Aside from your run of the mill gateways, the good doctor also has various other gateway guns at his disposal. One gun amplifies or divides your size, depending on which size of gateway you hop into. Another keeps your gravity consistent through the gateway, meaning floors become ceilings and sheers walls become useful paths. The best gun, although also the most challenging, is the time gateway. Shooting one gateway opens an exit, while shooting the next one makes an entrance. Jump through the entrance and you wind up ten seconds or so in the past, when your past-self fired the gun. It’s an ingenious way of reworking the time mechanic from previous Smudged Cat platformer The Adventures of Shuggy. While the time puzzles were a bit of a drag in the previous game, the revamped mechanics fix many of the problems by giving you a lot of control over how it plays out.
One thing that was really nice to see made it to the 2D plane is the impressive graphical effects. The game generally uses some very nice retro-pixel graphics that work perfectly well for the game. However, that same wow factor you first experienced when looking through a portal is intact. Looking through the gateways renders everything you see from a side-scrolling perspective, which has the curious effect of making it easier to tell where you’re going while simultaneously confusing the dickens out of you. It’s difficult to explain, but be sure to take a look at some of the mind bending screenshots to get an idea of how weird this game can look.
As you can see, these changes make for quite a different game from the mega-popular inspiration Gateways is derived from. There are a few issues that crop up, like a bit too much backtracking and the occasional difficulty spike, but overall, any puzzle platformer fan should really take a look at this hidden indie gem, currently available on PC and eventually coming to Xbox Live Indie Games.
Final Verdict: It might be a Portal homage, but there’s enough unique mechanics and ideas to make Gateways both play and feel very different. It’s extremely creative and full of tricky puzzles, but also does a good job of alleviating any potential frustration.
[xrr rating=8/10, max_stars=10]
This review is based on a review copy of the PC version of Gateways provided by Smudged Cat Games.