In the vein of recent perspective-shifting games such as VVVVVV and And Yet It Moves, gShift tries its hand, and mostly succeeds, at creating an engaging platformer with a unique twist. I like it. I like it a lot. But not because it offers finger-bleeding challenge or mind-bending puzzles: the joy I get out of gShift is akin to the satisfaction children find in climbing rocks in the desert, or perhaps adults get out of biking to the top of a tall hill: every inch, every pixel scaled, is in itself a pleasure that is to be enjoyed as much as the completion of its stages.
Don’t get me wrong; gShift is at its heart an enjoyable game, and from a game design perspective does much right. It offers both depth and breadth of content, taking the player on a gravity-shifting journey through 90 levels across ten vastly different environments, all scored beautifully with an original, sometimes upbeat, sometimes dark and moody soundtrack. With a push on one of the four directional keys, our heroic young boy changes the pull of gravity to that side of the screen, simultaneously re-orienting the player’s perspective to reflect the shift. Player death occurs upon falling more than two blocks (more on this later: the game’s platforms are strictly built of boxes).
The first three or four worlds of gShift’s ten environments are a breeze for the experienced gamer, offering little challenge at all. Still, gradually, level complexity and difficulty begin to ramp up as new mechanics, such as moving elevator blocks and disappearing blocks crop up more and more frequently. The fourth world, Savannah, really begins to up the difficulty with the addition of insta-death squares, which can be jumped over but not stepped directly on. That’s another thing that’s easy to like about gShift: the learning curve, pushed forward by a tutorial on the frontside of each world, is deliberate and even, not introducing too much to the player at once, but never leaving him without new mechanics to explore for too long.
Sadly, the last couple of worlds are so sprawling that at times they can become exercises in tedium rather than enjoyment, a problem that may have been remedied by a simple checkpoint or quicksave system. Playing through ten minutes of a relatively massive platforming maze, only to time a jump poorly and fall, is quite discouraging, and going through this pattern several times will cause frustration to set in before the player is tempted to quit to the desktop. The problem is much less pronounced, however, when the game is taken in smaller chunks, booted up for twenty or thirty minutes to complete a level or two before moving on to something else.
A platformer game stands or falls, quite literally at times, on the strength of its level design, and gShift is somewhat of a mixed bag in that department. While I appreciate the circular flow of the levels, which cleverly avoid the age-old left-to-right 2D platforming setup, there are a couple of elements that can frustrate in a few of the stages: first, there are red herring platforms leading to nowhere on several occasions. Considering the slower movement in gShift, it annoys me when I take the time to shift over to the end of a platform only to have to double back. Also, to complete each level, the player must collect three energy orbs to power the transporter at the exit, and while a small radar helpfully indicates where the end of the level lies, there is no way to tell where the remaining orbs are, leading to some irritating old school blue key hunt backtracking. This could have been solved by having the orbs be an optional pickup rather than mandatory. Still, other than these issues that crop up from time to time, by and large the level design is successful on a small-scale level.
What I mean by this is that there is a supreme satisfaction in methodically traversing gShift’s topsy-turvy playgrounds. Even when the level flow messes up your first few runs through a stage, the box-based grid-like levels mean there is no confusion as to what jumps you can make, which falls will kill you, and what areas of the map are inaccessible until another platform is invoked. I really wish more games had this kind of precision baked into their micro-mechanics (such as player movement) when they are so essential to an enjoyable experience; in this, Deadweight Studios succeeds with flying colors. I mentioned earlier that it’s a sensation not unlike rock climbing: when I was growing up, my family and I would take vacation in the desert, where we children would spend all day (when my Game Boy got confiscated, that is) scaling the then-huge rock formations protruding from the flat sandy earth. That’s perhaps the best equivalent to the feeling of playing gShift: every moment climbing and moving about is a weighty action easily as significant as the end goal. You might say it has—wait for it—gravity.
But enough poetic waxing: the developers also ought to be applauded for the impressive content in the (virtual) package: just shy of a hundred stages, some taking up to ten minutes to complete, add up to roughly 15 full hours of playtime. In a day when some big budget first-person shooters can be completed in the time it takes to watch The Return of the King director’s cut, gShift comes along and offers much more singleplayer meat at a fraction of the price. Now, there’s no multiplayer on offer here, and other than going back for speedruns there isn’t much extra material to sink your teeth into after the campaign is completed, but all in all it’s a pretty impressive value, especially for an independently developed title.
While the storyline is very straightforward and there isn’t much background or dialogue wrapped around the core gameplay, what interactions there are between the protagonist and his father are pretty funny and well-written. But the real draw here isn’t the background or setting or humor, it’s simply addicting platforming gameplay.
A few technical notes: there doesn’t appear to be a way to remap the controls, so if you’re the customizer type be aware you’re stuck with WASD, Spacebar, and the arrow keys to navigate the fractured shards of Earth. Also, strangely, the game seemed to run worse in the later levels, a fact that could be contributed to either additional layers of post-processing and effects or the larger stages struggling to be run in the Unity engine.
If you’re looking for a unique take on the platforming genre, gShift is a safe, relaxing choice. There’s a certain calming quality to its rules, design, and atmosphere that’s not often seen in the genre, a calm that’s usually reserved for simple casual games. You’re not getting a fierce challenge like the similar VVVVVV, but you are getting a package whose smooth, endearing aesthetics and tight gameplay are easy to love even through some flaws. If you like your platformers fun and lengthy, you can’t do much better than gShift as far as value goes.
Developer: Deadweight Studios
Genre: 2D Platformer
Game Length: About 15 hours
Gripes: Flawed level design, backtracking for items
Get it for the: Tight mechanics, relaxing atmosphere
Platform: PC (Desura, direct from developer)
Full Disclosure: Deadweight gave PXOD a copy of gShift for reviewing purposes.