By Ian Ording | firstname.lastname@example.org | @IanOrding
One-man indie game developer Smudged Cat Games was clearly writing a love letter to its favorite games when it made Gateways. The game fuses the brilliant puzzle mechanic of Valve’s Portal with the upgrade-driven exploration of classic 2D Metroid games. While Smudged Cat executes the best aspects of those games with impressive precision, the game fails to find its own identity, getting lost in what the developer was inspired by. That said, for fans of either classic series mentioned above, Gateways will be a pleasant trip down memory lane, albeit a maddeningly difficult one.
The game centers around a scientist who has created “gateway guns,” devices that work much like Portal’s titular portal gun. They serve as the primary gameplay mechanic for overcoming the plethora of puzzles in his sprawling underground laboratory.
It manages to avoid being a wholesale rip-off of Valve’s masterworks, however, for two reasons. Gateways is set in a two-dimensional space and has four variations of gateway guns.
The first gun the player receives is essentially the same as the one used in the Portal games; it creates two doors on any wall, floor or ceiling that players can jump through to assist in movement and puzzle solving. The second allows the player to change size to fit into tight spots or get on a platform that is too high for a normal-sized scientist. A third gun changes the direction gravity pulls depending on where the gateways are places. The last gun lets players make clones of themselves that emerge from the gate a few seconds earlier than when they went in the first one. Players must then coordinate movement with themselves from the past in order to solve environmental puzzles. Near the end of the game the scientist gains the ability to use all the guns in tandem, allowing for truly migraine-inducing puzzles.
These puzzles are what make Gateways a worthwhile purchase for any Portal fan. With the addition of the extra guns, Gateways, despite having one less dimension, manages to be considerably more difficult than both Portal games. Personally, I can complete the first of Valve’s puzzle classics in under two hours and Smudged Cat’s homage has managed to stump me entirely at parts. This is a game that does not hold your hand. Although each puzzle has a station at its start at which players can spend collected orbs on the solution, there are only enough orbs in the game to cheat through about ten puzzles. That is just a paltry selection of the trials the scientist must traverse in his lab.
Unfortunately, Gateways has a substantial disconnect between execution and originality. While the gameplay, world and puzzles are all administered with precision and excellence, the game didn’t feel set apart from those that it drew from. I honestly forgot there was a narrative except when there was text actively on the screen explaining the scientist’s situation. And even at those points, the plot was painfully disinteresting. This isn’t a fatal flaw because story obviously isn’t the primary point of the game, though it does seem like a screaming missed opportunity to make something truly inspired rather than just very well done.
Disappointing plot aside, Gateways will be supremely enjoyable to any player who has enjoyed the influencing games listed earlier in the review. In addition, as an indie game on Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade, Gateways is very inexpensive at only $1.00. The mind-bending puzzles and lab exploration are well worth that minimal price point.