I don’t particularly want to feel small right now, or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I don’t want to feel powerless. The world has been buffeting us all an awful lot lately, and it’s hard not to feel like little insects or toys, blasted into a boundless vortex by every slight sneeze or throttled to within an inch of our lives by the enormous invisible hand of the marketplace.
But smallness does not always equal powerlessness, at least I hope not, and we’ll be putting that premise to the test this month with a variety of new games. For some strange reason, multiple upcoming releases from multiple developers on multiple platforms all involve the same basic conceit: You are very small, and it is up to you to save a world that is very big.
Maybe there will be something cathartic about feeling both tiny and strong? That would be a relief, and now that I think of it, vastly preferable to the opposite — being enormous and weak, a.k.a. how the bugs in my apartment think of me.
You stand in a beautiful fantasy world. All around you are tall towers, and in front of you is a small scale model of your environment. Any change that you make to the scale model is reflected in the world: Nudge a building block in the model, and in your world it is as though a giant finger has descended to push the corresponding building aside. Maquette is a creative puzzle game that asks the player to think creatively about scale, and the mental gymnastics that it requires reminds me of the delight and surprise prompted by a first playthrough of Portal. Alas, trailers for the game are accompanied by some overambitious dialogue that melts the immersion. (Saying something in a profound tone of voice doesn’t make it so.) In addition to being a creative puzzler, the game is also a metaphor for romantic relationships; you see, couples can sometimes blow things out of proportion, turning small annoyances into gigantic conflicts. This insight is delivered with a serious tone that is likely to be at odds with the micro-macro tomfoolery, and I suspect that most players will find the game’s sincerity undercut. But hey, at least the puzzles look fun.
Available on Steam and the PlayStation Store
Beautiful Tintin-inspired design blends nicely with platform puzzling here. You are a young mechanic with a magic wand, exploring an island of technological ruins deposited by giants. Visually, it’s a treat, and I look forward to spending time wandering and exploring this environment; it looks like it’ll fit nicely with the chill go-for-a-walk games I reviewed a few months ago. The player’s small engineer character, sometimes dwarfed by the massive giants and their machines reminds me a bit of Miyazaki’s Nausicaa, and the game seems like it’ll make for excellent streaming — because it’s so pretty, it’s a fine title to sit back and watch someone else play. Honored at the Independent Games Festival, Gamescom, and at the PAX East Showcase, I would not be surprised to see this modest-looking title become a quiet obsession among your cool friends. Developers have hinted that end-game levels will involve “psychedelic episodes that break physics,” so I suspect there’s more to the story than just a calm stroll.
Available on Mac, PC, and consoles
Here’s another game that’s not content to just offer puzzles; it’s also a story of a relationship on the brink. Two married heterosexuals considering a divorce are turned into little dolls who must navigate their way through a variety of puzzles while also healing their relationship; the shift in scale from human to toy provides an abstraction that will no doubt be therapeutic. As with Maquette, I am skeptical about the story content of It Takes Two; the trailer hints at stale Dreamworksy banter and an insistent screaming narrator that I could not wait to get away from. (“You’re not feeling it?” the narrator sneers; if this was a few years ago, it would have been a joke about how THAT’S going to leave a mark.) The puzzles themselves look delightful — a creative crafty world full of tiny objects transformed into threats and opportunities like Yoshi’s Wooly World or Little Big Planet — and you know, sometimes fun puzzles are enough.
Available on PlayStation, Xbox, and PC.
ALSO: GIANT MONSTERS, MUSICAL THEATER, CRASH BANDICOOT
Of course, the month’s most prominent game in which you will be made to feel very small is Monster Hunter: Rise, coming March 26 to the Switch. Fight against colossal monsters in lush landscapes; though your character is not miniaturized, you might as well be as these creatures bear down on you. I wrote about how to get started with Monster Hunter over here. Also this month is a Crash Bandicoot 4 remaster for next-gen consoles, which will be fun though I can’t imagine who is buying a PS5 to play last year’s/decade’s platformers. And then there’s Balan Wonderworld (available on Switch, PlayStation, Xbox, and Steam), an odd indie-developed, Square Enix-published title that has a promising premise — acquire powers by dressing up in a platform adventure themed around musical theater — and a look that is so generic, unpolished, and uninspired that I fall asleep just thinking about it.