By the time of Braid, there had not been much of anything remarkable in the 2-D puzzle-platforming genre, beyond the efforts of indie game-makers like Edmund McMillen (who had yet to become stupendously famous). In fact, there was not much of anything spectacular that would have the genre catching the attention of the mainstream, at least away from the likes of Nintendo's titles.
For better or worse, Braid, developed by indie game-maker Jonathan Blow and his associates, would revive the genre in the eyes of the mainstream. Of course, the consequences of Braid's achievements are not the subject matter of this review.
Anyway, Braid has made a name for itself by having many things that make a game great: a seemingly simple story with interest underpinnings and surprising twists, and seemingly new, functional and entertaining gameplay elements that had not been seen or not seen for a long time in its genre.
The player character appears to be an adult man, who is called "Tim" by official canon but rarely if not never directly so in-game. He is supposedly a painter, though whether he is a full-time painter or not is debatable.
His act of painting is not shown in-game. Instead, when he interacts with a would-be painting, he is transported to some fantastical realm that may or may not be borne from his imagination. He collects parts of his paintings from the regions (called "worlds" in-game) in this realm, and then cobbles them together like a jigsaw puzzle. If there is any significance to these paintings to the story, it is symbolic at best.
Braid does not make it entirely clear whether its story is about a person's journey into a fantastical realm or the delusions of a very lonely individual. This was perhaps deliberate, as this uncertainty had since generated a lot of speculation and discussion about symbolism among fans of the game since its release.
However, all of the aforementioned elements of the story would seem insignificant next to a surprisingly dark twist at the finale of the game, which the game perhaps would be most remembered for because it is a startling parody of the damsel-in-distress plot trope.
HUB WORLD & THE CLOUDS:
Braid starts itself by showing the player the level that is connected directly to other levels – or the "hub world", to use a term that is usually used to describe such a level. However, this is not immediately apparent to the player; instead, the first segment of the hub world is used to teach or remind the player about the controls for the basic directional movement of the player character. This is done amidst a brush painting of what appears to be a city – which may or may not be on fire.
The screen soon transitions to a constellation of stars. To new players, it may seem like just another artistic expression, but it ties into a (minor) gameplay element that will be described later.
Soon, the player has the player character entering what appears to be the house. Its sprite is revealed to be that of an adult ginger-headed man in a suit, albeit drawn in a super-deformed manner.
The house contains a collection of unfinished paintings, each of which is mounted in its own room. These paintings are portals to fantastical and bizarre worlds that contain the puzzle-filled levels that the player wants to play. They start with a set of levels that the game calls "World 2", curiously enough. The player may be a bit confused as to why the game starts itself proper with "World 2" instead of "World 1", though the reason for this oddity is only clear much later.
Entering the door under any painting brings the protagonist into the "clouds", which are perhaps a metaphor for the protagonist's thoughts, as is evident from the pedestals with books that are lined up in them. The clouds also contain doors into the fantastical worlds; each door starts the protagonist off in one segment of its associated world.
Each world has a few segments, each in turn having a handful of parts of the painting that is associated with the world. The number of parts that each segment has remaining is indicated above the door for that segment, which is a convenient visual design.
LOADING & SAVING GAMES:
In the aforementioned early segment of the hub world, the game mentions to the player that he/she can bring up the main menu with a tap of a button. Unfortunately, the console roots of the game may become all too apparent when the player sees the main menu of the computer version of the game for the first time.
This is seen in how the feature to save and load games is tucked away in the options within the main menu. Specifically, it is tucked under "Help & Options", together with the options for the settings of controls, audio and screen size.
Of course, one can argue that the game is meant to be played without resorting to saving and loading sessions a lot, but this feature could have been made a lot more user-friendly by having it within the first page of the main menu.
TUTORIALS & GAMEPLAY BASICS:
The very first level in the aforementioned fantastical realm acts as a tutorial on the controls of the game, in addition to the hub world. It is not a snobbish hand-holding one, fortunately. Instead, it resorts to putting brief and initially vague pictures and words in the foreground; the significance of these only becomes clear if the player is somehow stuck and is looking around the screen for any guidance.
If the player messes up and gets the player character injured, he/she would learn that like the player characters in just about any other platforming games, the protagonist dies immediately. However, upon learning this, the player will also discover that the game does not resort to punishing the player by reverting the player's progress; instead, a button prompt comes up, and if the player presses it, the game rewinds as long as the player holds down the button, erasing mistakes (and achievements).
The tutorial will also reveal to the player that just about anything other than the player character is lethal to the player character, often by touch alone. On the other hand, he can also jump onto most of them, which knocks them out of the screen (in typical old-school 2-D platformer fashion).
He also bounces off critters that he jumps on, obtaining a boost in height for each critter that he successfully lands and jumps off from. This nuance in the mechanism of jumping will be utilized in many puzzles within the game, such that this is the goal of jumping onto critters, and not merely killing them.
The tutorial levels will also introduce the gameplay element of keys and locked gates. The latter are imposing metal structures that cannot be easily hopped over without some assistance. However, they can be unlocked with keys, and they will stay unlocked.
Keys are objects that lay around in levels until any character, including critters, moves over them, upon when they will stick to the character. The key will move around with the character, and the main way to remove the key from the character is having the character dying and thus dropping it.
There is a way to remove a key from a critter by having the player character touching the key without touching its holder, but this is difficult to do. More importantly, it is not needed to complete the mandatory parts of the game; there will not be any set-piece scenario to demonstrate this nuance. The player is likely to learn about it through third-party sources, sheer accidental luck or plenty of experiments.
Another important characteristic of keys is that any key can be used to unlock any door, but once these keys have been used, they are dropped to the ground, all but shattered. These are key traits (no pun intended) of keys that the player should consider remembering.
The player is also introduced to the doors that lead into other segments; each segment has one door leading back to the previous segment (or the clouds in the case of the first segment) and another to the next segment (or the clouds if the player has completed all segments).
To unlock a segment for later play, the player character must enter it through its entry door (which is the exit door of the previous segment). This is not told to the player, though it can be argued to be too minor to be considered a significant gameplay element. However, the player will have to learn to use this in order to obtain some hidden collectibles (which will be described later).
There appear to be a handful of edifices that the protagonist can climb. The first category of these only allows vertical movement, e.g. ladders and vines. Another category, which are fences, offers more freedom of movement along the 2-D plane that the protagonist resides in; he can climb in almost any direction along said plane, which is handy when the player wants to avoid hazards.
The tutorial does not appear to teach the player how to adjust the speed of the rewinding (including having it stop to a pause). This is because there is not a scenario in the tutorial, or even one in the mandatory puzzles, that requires a rewind that is long enough for the associated button prompts to appear over the protagonist's head. The player may possibly only realize this tool when he/she has been rewinding for a long time in later levels.
To cut the game some slack though, adjustment of the rewinding speed is not needed for the puzzles that are mandatory for progress in the game.
The tutorial levels also give the impression that the solutions for puzzles are few and often rigid. Indeed, each puzzle in the game appears to have only one or two efficient solutions, with little space for improvisation. Fortunately, for most of these solutions (with the exception of those for the collection of hidden trinkets), the rewind process is there to undo mistakes.
Unfortunately, the tutorial levels will highlight deficiencies in the controls that cannot be given the benefit of the doubt so easily. The player character cannot leap off anything that he is climbing; he can only let go and fall from it. This is a break from the norm in the 2-D platforming genre of the time, and it is perhaps not a wise one as it reduced the versatility of the controls.
In addition to unlocking segments, the player will need to collect painting parts and assemble the paintings in order to progress in the story of the game and reach its conclusion. Assembling them can be considered a mini-game.
However, not all of the paintings are merely inconsequential distractions from the main gameplay of solving environmental puzzles. The first two paintings in particular have their own nuances.
The nuance of the first painting is perhaps the easiest to discover, as it has an element that visually resembles the platforms in the levels. The nuance of the second painting is not so easy to discover and utilize, however.
It is therefore unfortunate that the other paintings do not appear to have any part in the gameplay or meta-game of Braid. They are still pretty paintings, of course.
There are cannons that are inexplicably located in various places within some, if not most, of the levels in the game.
With their seemingly infinite supplies of ammunition, they are practically spawn points for objects and even characters, not just cannon-balls; in fact, the first few cannons that the player will come across fire solid clouds, which can be a bizarre sight.
The player will learn later that cannon-balls fire straight, without any drop, and that different cannons have different firing rates; these differences can be seen in the speeds of the animations for the burning of their fuses.
However, if they fire critters instead, the trajectories that the critters take when exiting the cannons greatly depend on the orientation of the cannons. Different cannons also have different firing strengths for launching critters with, though there does not appear to be any visual differences between these cannons.
Some cannons do not regularly fire their payloads. Instead, perhaps behaving more so like spawn points in this case, they only release their payloads when the player has eliminated their previous ones, effectively replenishing the level with them.
The second chapter of the game will show that Braid is not just some puzzle-platformer with time-rewinding mechanics (which by themselves are hardly anything new by the time of this game) that have been shoe-horned in for player convenience. It also shows that the creators of the game are aware of how to tweak the computing fundamentals of the rewinding process.
Before this notable difference can be described, a note has to be made here about the rewinding process. It makes use of a log of processing instructions for the objects within a level; the log is reset upon the player character's entrance into a level, and will record instructions from then on. When it is invoked, the rewind reverses the processing instructions in the log. When the rewind stops, any entries in the log from that point on get wiped. This is not unlike what has been done before in a certain game by Ubisoft that is known for making extensive use of such a process (albeit with imposed restrictions).
However, in Braid, not all objects in every level are subjected to the recording of the log. These objects are differentiated from the rest with a green corona around them. The conditions of these objects persist regardless of how many times the player invokes rewinds. They do, however, reset if the player exits and re-enters their associated level.
It so happens that many painting parts happen to be time-immune, meaning that they are permanently collected regardless of how much rewinding the player makes. However, there are some that are not time-immune; they must be permanently collected by nabbing them and exiting their associated levels. (This can be exploited for the sake of convenience.)
Unfortunately, the game may have made a misstep in introducing the feature of time immunity to the fresh player. Its first couple of silent lessons involve a key, and so it requires the player to keep in mind the traits of keys while learning about the feature of time-immune objects. This can result in some mistakes in the comprehension of the feature.
Fortunately, there is a third consecutive lesson that imparts hints on the property of time immunity in a much more straightforward manner. On the other hand, the game could have been better at teaching the player by arranging for this lesson to be the first one instead.
The protagonist is generally not time-immune, but this property can be imparted on him by having him stand on platforms that appear to be emitting white particles. He will visibly absorb these and appear to have a green corona around him, thus marking him out as being time-immune. The player can then use the rewinding process to reverse the movement of objects that are not time-immune without the player character moving anywhere else – even if these objects are supposed to be only able to move with the interaction of the player character.
He can retain the time immunity for a short while after leaving the platform, though this is something that the player will not know immediately. This knowledge is also only useful for the collection of hidden items.
Once the player has learned how time immunity works, he/she can fully enjoy the very interesting and tricky puzzles in the game that involves time-immune objects. To provide elaboration here would be too much of a spoiler, though it should suffice to say that the player will be timing rewinds (and pauses) a lot to have time-immune objects (and characters) simultaneously interact with regular ones.
Not content to just stop with the already sophisticated time-rewinding and time-immunity gameplay elements, Jonathan Blow and company developed another element to further enrich – and complicate – the gameplay.
This element is only introduced later in the game; it affects anything that is not time-immune. The player character's movement, that is, to the left or right, determines the flow of time for these things. Generally, having the player character move left causes time to move backwards, as if the rewind process is being invoked, whereas going to the right causes time to move forward.
The rewind process can still be invoked, but it is not as useful as it is in levels without this condition in the flow of time. This is because reverting the player character's movements also cause objects in the level to move accordingly.
It is worth noting here that the game designers have thought far enough to include pre-existing logs of instructions to be enacted backwards for levels with this gameplay element, for the occasion when the wily player character attempts to replay these levels by entering them through their exit doors from the levels after them.
A nuance about this feature that the game does not inform the player about is that the log for the rewinding process makes records independently of the log that is used for the feature of movement-dependent flow of time. This nuance is not needed for any mandatory puzzles, but it is used for some other purpose that can seem entertaining, though it will not be mentioned here as it is a spoiler.
This gameplay element also has some unpleasant but perhaps amusing surprises. The biggest of these is that keys can only work if the player character is moving towards the right. This can seem improbable at first, though it would somehow make sense if the player can keep in mind the different rules that he/she has to follow when playing the levels with movement-dependent time.
There is a variant of this gameplay element that appears very late into the game. It appears like a simple reversion, but it is used for a plot twist that would be so surprising that the player would likely overlook this. To elaborate more on this is to mention spoilers, of course.
When the player least expects the game to become any more interesting, it introduces yet another gameplay element, or to be more precise, an alternative that replaces the aforementioned movement-dependent time flow mechanism in the next world.
Perhaps the game could have been more complex if this additional gameplay element is stacked onto the previous ones, though the game might have become unplayable.
Anyway, the player character gains the ability to create shadowy clones of him by making use of time-rewinds. The game makes use of the log of the player character's actions from when the player started the rewind to when the player stopped it to create behavioural scripts for the clone. The clone proceeds to enact these scripts, and if he is not somehow eliminated, he appears to collapse and fade away after having performed them.
Furthermore, any existing shadow clones are destroyed whenever the player invokes the rewind process; the shadows of critters and objects are also restored, if they have been removed by the shadow clones (more on this shortly). This means that at any time, there can only be one shadow clone.
The tricks of this gameplay element are not easy to figure out quickly. In fact, they can be misconstrued as gameplay inconsistency. In actuality, the shadow clone resides in the plane in which the shadows of sprites and objects reside. This plane itself has its own set of physics that similar to the one that the plane with actual sprites has.
As illustration, it may appear as if the shadow clone is defying physics when it performs actions such as appearing to unlock a door with a shadow key and simply moving past the solid door. However, what he is doing is actually interacting with the shadow version of the door.
Another example is when the shadow clone is directed to stomp on a regular critter. The clone only knocks out the shadow of the critter, which moves on as if nothing has happened.
In other words, the player may want to realize that the shadows of objects, characters and environments practically have a playing field of their own in levels with the shadow clone gameplay element. Objects and characters in the main plane cannot interact with those in the shadow plane, and vice versa. One of the mandatory scenarios happens to impose this lesson on the player, though the player has to be observant in order to notice this and learn.
However, there is an exception to this rule. Some objects in the main plane happen to glow purple, and it so happens that the clone can interact with them.
For example, there are painting parts that glow purple, so the clone be used to collect painting parts from places where the original cannot get out of. The clone can also be used to operate switches and other objects separately, but only if they are glowing purple; otherwise, he simply gets confused and depressed before fading out. The clone can also be used as bait for purple critters.
The shenanigans with purple objects are completely reversible with time-rewinds; it just so happens that there are very few time-immune objects or characters in their associated levels. This is probably a deliberate decision on the part of the game-maker, as trial-and-error and a lot of rewinding is the only way the player can learn to utilize the clones and purple glowing objects. After all, there are few tutorial scenarios to learn and test them with.
Braid was not one to skip the bandwagon of time-slowing gameplay features.
However, instead of repeating what other games had already done wholesale, it contributed some fresh elements to a game design that was fast becoming a cliché. In fact, the game resorted to using a placeholder level – with a large, gaudy sign-post - to have the player learn about the differences that Braid's time-slowing method has compared to other time-slowing methods.
Like the two previously mentioned game mechanics, this one is an alternative to the other two. This is perhaps for the better, as it would have been quite incompatible with the other two.
Anyway, the protagonist can drop what appears to be a golden ring. This golden ring exudes a time-slowing aura, which gets stronger as one gets closer to it. It actually has a considerable range of effect – almost half a screen – but its effect is more noticeable in the shaded circle around the ring.
This limited area-of-effect is much more useful than one would think. The ring can be used to slow down approaching hazards at their source and placed on mobile objects so its area-of-effect moves together with it. The player character can then move about elsewhere away from the ring.
It is certainly more refreshing and sophisticated than the typical effects of time-slowing features seen in other games, which involve slowing down everything else but the player character. It is also worth noting here that there are not many other games that implemented a similar time-slowing mechanic even up to the present-day.
It may be a bit difficult to figure out where to put the ring for best effect. The game-makers appear to have thought of this though, because one of the early levels in the world where the time-slowing ring is available happens to have visual indicators where the ring is best placed for maximum effect. However, this is the only hint that the player would get.
To use the ring elsewhere, the player character will have to retrieve it. This may seem straightforward enough to be not worthy of a mention, but there happens to be a convenient design that the retrieving process has; the player character does not have to be right on top of the ring, but merely near it, to take it back. This is shown through the solution for one mandatory puzzle, fortunately.
There is also another puzzle that would teach the player the hard way that the ring is affected by time-rewinding. It can end up disappearing, or more precisely, reappearing back in the protagonist's possession if the player made a rewind that is too far back.
If there is a complaint with this gameplay element, it is that there is no convenient visual indicator for when the protagonist has the ring in his possession. There is a button prompt that remains translucent and floats over the protagonist's head as he is moving about, only becoming opaque when he is standing still. However, the button prompt is perhaps too translucent to be noticeable at all times.
In addition to the painting/jigsaw puzzle parts, there are stars. These have been alluded to by the constellation just outside the hub world that is the house.
These stars are often hidden in places that are not shown by the default camera orientations. The player is likely only be able to obtain these if he/she was curious enough to test whether Braid is anything like the games that inspired it or not – as long as he/she did not resort to walkthroughs, of course.
For example, Nintendo's Mario games had been suspected to be one of the inspirations for Braid; the Mario games often have hidden places within levels that can only be reached by going over their default boundaries. It just so happens that Braid has some stars hidden away in such manners.
Some other stars are in plain sight, but are often seemingly out of reach. The player will need to come up with peculiar solutions to nab them. Many of these solutions are terrifically more difficult to pull off than solutions for mandatory puzzles, and the player also needs to be aware of the many nuances of the game.
However, some of the means to obtain the stars can seem absurd or are so deeply hidden that only very curious players would discover them with third-party help.
As an example, there is one star that can only be obtained by having the game run in one level for a long time (and by entering its associated level from another entrance). Another example is a star that can only be obtained by knowing that the opportunity to gain it would have been lost as this star is not obtainable if its associated painting has been fully (and thus irrevocably) assembled.
VISUAL DESIGNS – OVERVIEW:
For a game that uses sprites and hand-made artwork, Braid is surprisingly visually sophisticated.
Much of its visual designs appear to be scans of hand-painted artwork, most of which are seemingly done with actual brushes or at least painting software with very convincing brush strokes.
The artwork is not static either. The art for the background and foreground have subtle visual effects that change as the player character moves about or just stands in place waiting for something to happen.
The sprites in the game have a substantial number of animation frames, as well as visual effects that disguise the rigidity of their sprites surprisingly well.
VISUAL DESIGNS – HUB WORLD & PLAYER CHARACTER:
The hub world is the first thing that the player sees. Its background art is seemingly a city in dusk or dawn light – or it may be on fire, depending on the player's perception. The player character's sprite's transition from a silhouette into a coloured and detailed sprite when he enters the house is also a notable visual element of the hub world.
Speaking of the player character, his sprite is perhaps one of the most detailed and animated sprites that has ever been seen in 2-D puzzle platformers.
That his sprite is actually composed of two parts – his head and his body – would be apparent to the observant player almost immediately from the start. Cobbling together individual sprites to create a composite sprite for the purpose of animations is nothing new by the time of this game. Fortunately, Braid does not resort to it too much and instead relies more on sprite frames, which would please purists of sprite-based graphics.
Anyway, the player character's sprite has many animation frames, including some for when simply standing around and which are supposed to depict breathing. The more entertaining frames are those for his running and jumping animations, most of which has his combed ginger hair bobbing about.
VISUAL DESIGNS – LEVELS & DENIZENS:
The levels in the game are fantastical and surreal in themes. However, this does not mean that they are entirely original. An observant (and knowledgeable) player may notice the sources of inspiration for their visual designs.
Among these sources, Nintendo's 2-D platformers are the strongest. The player that also happens to be a fan of the Mario franchise may notice that the walking heads that are very common in these levels waddle in manners that are not dissimilar to those of Goombas. There are also carnivorous plants that come out of green pipes, and cannons that seemingly fire on their own. One level has an even more overt reference, albeit to a Nintendo IP other than Mario.
Although some players might be amused by these references and see them as homage, others may have the opinion that Braid could have projected a more unique identity by not relying on these inspired imageries.
An observant player would notice that there is recycling of level layouts from world to world. This may seem lazy, but there are visual changes that are both subtle and significant across them.
For example, there is a small level that has a cannon-piece that repeatedly spawns critters at the highest of several platforms that are linked to each other with climbable fences. There is a version of this level for the morning, when it has brilliant-looking foliage in the foreground. There is another version for the afternoon, when the foreground is vibrant grass growing on rocks. The third version is set at night, which has crawling plants with luminescent flowers in the foreground.
It may be easy to accuse the game-makers of laziness in creating level layouts that are different from each other, but it is undeniable that they have a tremendous sense of art direction.
The foregrounds in the levels contain seemingly random gamma-changing effects, which give a semblance of vibrancy in the environments. They are generally not too bright to be too distracting, though players who are stopping to watch the scenery would have quite a visual treat.
The backgrounds also have changes, though they are more subtle, as befitting of backgrounds. For example, there are light brush blotches that appear randomly in the background, apparently imitating blinking light sources.
When the rewind process is invoked, the background zooms out. In addition, changing the rewind speed actually changes the colour saturation of the screen. This helps the player know when the rewind process is being invoked.
If the player has the speed set at a standstill, the colour saturation almost turns completely grayscale, with the exception of time-immune objects. If the player reverses the rewind to undo a reversal that has gone too far, the colour saturation increases instead, up to a sickly concentration at the highest speed.
VISUAL DESIGNS – MISCELLANEOUS:
Other little touches on the game's visual designs include the widening effect for the borders of the menu screen. The screen is narrow when the main page of the menu screens is shown; it widens when the player accesses the deeper pages and narrows back again when the player returns to the shallower pages. This is inconsequential, but it does add a bit to the user-friendliness of the menus.
The first sound effect that the player listens to is the clopping of the protagonist's feet as he runs. This is a surprisingly pleasant and believable noise, especially if one had been playing one too many platformers with whimsical settings.
There are only two major critters in the game, so there are not many sound effects for characters; the protagonist himself appears to be of the silent sort. The more single-minded of the two critters only yelps and groans, but the other one has high-pitched growls and whines that give away its presence.
However, it is worth noting here that the sound effects for them can be heard even if they are off-screen. This appears to be of little consequence though, because the player is better off having critters within the same screen as the player character to monitor them.
There are other sound effects for important occurrences, such as the dropping of the time-slowing ring, dispersal of shadow clones and flipping of switches, but they are mostly there for the purpose of functionality.
However, they may sound a lot more strange and entertaining when subjected to the playback effects that the rewinding process has in addition to its gameplay-related ones. Hearing sound effects played backwards can be a delight the first time around, though the drawling can eventually get on one's nerves if the player is trying to solve a complicated puzzle.
The game has great music, though perhaps it may have made a mistake by starting with a rather sombre-sounding track, which is used for the hub world. However, it does project loneliness, which is perhaps thematically fitting as the protagonist appears to live very much alone.
When the player gets into the fantastical realm, the music switches over to dreamy soundtracks with slight cheeriness, which aesthetically matches the sometimes surreal and colourful worlds in it. Most of these tracks play in the earlier worlds, where their orchestral and Gaelic qualities are quite fitting.
However, as the player learns more about the plot and the darker underpinnings of the story, the music switches to more sombre tracks. Some of them can be forlorn enough to be depressing.
It is worth noting here that invoking the rewinding process causes the music to be played backwards like sound effects would be.
The most memorable music in the game, however, is the set of tracks in the world with the condition of movement-dependent time. The tracks start off with a rendition of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star", likely chosen by the game-makers with the assumption that the player knows the tune and would quickly realize that moving the player character about has the music playing.
At first glance, Braid might have seemed like yet another 2-D puzzle-platformer to enter a genre that was by then already quite stale. However, as would be apparent from playing the game, this indie game would turn many tropes, both gameplay- and story-related, of 2-D platformers on their heads.
One can argue that Braid is not straying from the trope of rigid solutions for puzzles, but at the time, there were very few, if any, other games with Braid's puzzles and solutions. Many of these puzzles had required the player to think outside the box at the time, being hardly straightforward when compared to the stock stuff in puzzle-platformers before Braid. Moreover, the rewinding feature made the undoing of mistakes rather easy.
With its achievements, Braid can be said to be an important milestone in the 2-D platforming genre – a statement that would be difficult to argue against.