Let us for a moment consider the idea that, one day, the sun might poof out and that the surface air of the earth will vanish in the process. Let us suppose that the remnants of humanity will flee below the earth's surface, where the core remains surprisingly warm. Furthermore, let us imagine that humanity will embrace a vaguely steampunk aesthetic straight out of Dishonored in the process and that, even with all that's happened, some folks will find the time to express the desire that their home be painted in garish hues of red, green, and blue. Considering the circumstances, it's a pretty uplifting message, isn't it? That's the world that Traverser presents us, and it has all the ingredients of a scrappy adventure that can grab the hearts of millions in a way that the most blockbusters never could. It's such a shame, then, that this isometric 3D platformer and puzzler becomes such a stark reminder of the fact that good concepts amount to little if they don't have good gameplay to match.
It's a concept that works well in part because it's so surreal. At the heart of the world, so to speak, stands a city called Brimstone that floats suspended above a sea of lava and below a cavern roof studded with crystals, and the rich and the poor occupy the top and bottom sides, respectively, through a trick of gravity. Breathable air is the society's main commodity, and the poor denizens of the undercity must trot about in masks to stay alive. Lately, they're not so happy with the arrangement, and a rebellion is at hand when the action kicks off.
The story itself centers on young Valerie, who has to find out why her father has disappeared on the same day that she becomes a traverser, a type of secret police in the employ of the company that controls the air supply. She travels between the two cities by pounding on platforms at specific points. She earns tools and information from the populace, and she picks up more lore from scattered recordings in the style of BioShock. Her main tool? A gravity glove that lets her sling around crates and other objects with some precision. It's in this very concept, though, where the first signs of trouble show up. Valerie is told that she has to wear her normal clothes to blend in with the populace, but everyone already seems to know what she is, and many Brimstonians even have the audacity to ask her to perform tasks such as pickpocketing fellow citizens or flinging trash into the void. Whatever else the traversers do, they don't seem to inspire much fear.
However, despite the prevailing dark tone of the story, there's plenty of evidence that we're not meant to take all this too seriously and that it may even be aimed at children. The villains, for instance, have a Snidely Whiplash air about them that all but screams that we're supposed to boo and hiss when they amble on screen. Deep in the sewers, there's a diploma on which a mad scientist has scrawled his name as "Nicholas Cage." When simply hitting shift to sneak past guards isn't enough, Valerie can hop into a comically oversized barrel and hope her adversaries won't notice. Toss in some jaunty music and an exaggeratedly angular visual design, and it's easy to spot the influence of Tim Burton pervading the whole.
This isometric 3D platformer and puzzler becomes such a stark reminder of the fact that good concepts amount to little if they don't have good gameplay to match.
All of this would work in Traverser's favor if Valerie's gravity gun were more fun to use. She can use it to smack some enemies out of the way by slamming boxes on them, Magneto-style, but most of the time, she merely uses it to stack boxes to craft makeshift ladders or plop them on buttons or in front of lasers in the style of Portal.
That's all fine, but actually using the glove isn't. Grabbing an object and hoisting it up or down requires using both the left mouse button and the mouse's scroll wheel, which can be a bit of a feat when you have to direct the object you're holding with mouse movements as well. Adding to the awkwardness is Traverser's fixed camera, which often prevents you from accurately seeing how high or low an object you're holding is since the camera often ends up perfectly aligned with the beam. The crates and other objects often don't fall into place as easily as they probably should (which, again, might be the fault of the camera), leading to creations that tumble over just when you think you're almost done.
The puzzles themselves are usually simple, introductory affairs, although Traverser does manage to generate some excitement when Valerie has to use a number of techniques in quick succession. These moments are especially prevalent in the few boss fights and when Valerie has to switch between the top world and the bottom world to overcome obstacles. Never once, though, does Traverser present a challenge that's truly memorable or satisfying, and other aspects of its gameplay are complicated by the lack of a minimap or the occasional vague entry in Valerie's journal that leaves little clue as to what to do next. Traverser's at its best when it requires Valerie to use stealth, but even that's complicated by unwieldy objectives and guards who can apparently see through walls.
Still, there are worse ways to spend four hours, which is the amount of time you'll spend on a full playthrough, and the game's personality is generally strong enough to forgive some of its shortcomings. But it's a shadow of what it could be. Were it better able to traverse the gap between an attractive presentation and engaging gameplay, Traverser would be a game to remember.