Shift Happens means good mechanics happen, but the modes that execute them show some flaws.
Couch multiplayer is arguably one of the cornerstones of gaming most central to unifying video game enthusiasts together, creating friendships and rivalries since all the way back to Pong. On the occasions where I play video games not Hey Poor Player-related, they’re multiplayer more often than not. There’s nothing like gathering friends from home after a few months away, and screaming at them endlessly in Super Smash Bros. Competitive streaks be whatever colors they may, though, co-op multiplayer is just as important. Often, it’s this side of multi-man play which excites and interests me more completely.
Enter Shift Happens, a recent Steam Early Access graduate and another entry in the recent indie-revived interest in couch co-op experiences. It’s a cartoony and brightly-colored side-scrolling puzzler, with level and visual design very much reminiscent of Portal 2’s co-op levels. With local and online co-op capabilities, as well as a selection of single-player puzzles to work through, Shift Happens is ready to size-swap its way into players hands, providing they have a little bit of patience, along with a relationship too strong to be shaken by fellow-player sabotage.
Players take control of Bizmo and Plom, two goo-comprised drones manufactured among dozens of others in a factory and laboratory using them for various puzzle-solving tests. When two cans of paint get flung into the test tubes creating more of these flubbery minions, Bizmo and Plom are not only dyed bright colors, but are made a little more aware of their surroundings than the rest. After being linked via electroshock, the two set off on a quest through an enormous laboratory full of tests to complete, puzzles to solve, and a few distinct biomes to explore.
Shift Happens’ protagonist pair can basically do all the same things, able to run, jump, and stand on stuff up there with the best of them. They can also both change sizes, with a smaller size useful for jumping higher, while turning huge can be vital to surviving height-based dangers (example: you can’t swim, so you’d best be higher than the water). Anytime one player shifts sizes, it causes the other player to simultaneously shift as well, meaning that at all times, one will be big and the other will be stuck in smalltown, USA. It doesn’t take a blob scientist with a PhD in blobology to figure out that this leads to a whole bunch of puzzles connected to who should be big or small where, and when it’s a good or bad idea to make the switch. No one player can ever really act without some affect on the other, for better and for worse.
There’s a lot of really great puzzle design in Shift Happens at a base level. It’s often affected by how you’re playing it, but we’ll get there. Level design combines platforming elements interconnected with levers that open and close doors, rooms that change sizes, doors that open and close and plenty more. Essentially, the design philosophy of Shift Happens is to assemble different combinations of interlocked parts across the lab, as it goes from stark clinical science to wild forest, and then to caves and more locations. And it works, albeit quickly gaining difficulty, as a fun and challenging series of puzzles along the lines of “how do I get you here to open this door, and then how do we both get to it without you screwing me over or vice versa.” When playing on the couch with a friend, figuring things out and timing execution in order to collect gold and get to the exit, Shift Happens is a really fun time. Notable, though, is the slightly imprecise controls the pair of characters have, especially in movement. Sensitivity is a little sluggish on either controller or keyboard, which isn’t that big a deal on local multiplayer, but can become more of a challenge over the internet.
Outside of local co-op, though, things begin to fall apart. As mentioned, Shift Happens also sports online multiplayer. For reference, Portal 2’s multiplayer was playable online and could be completed as such, but was undeniably a more enjoyable time with someone playing on the same screen. The same is true here, too, and more drastically. Online play is possible, but anything timing-based becomes a nightmare to execute. There are so many already-difficult puzzles as Shift Happens goes on that will gladly smoosh or zap a player when a button isn’t stepped on at the right time, or a jump is made towards a moving platform with even the slightest influence of internet lag. It’s a lot harder to stay in sync, especially given the challenge of puzzles starting in the game’s second leg, when you’re trying to play a slightly imprecise game across multiple systems.
There’s also a fairly robust series of single-player levels, which start out just fine but quickly become the biggest flaw in the package. A single player is tasked with both characters, which isn’t inherently an awful idea. The gameplay is start-and-stop enough that swapping between the two, while a bit clumsy, isn’t deal-breaking. What is a little more so, though, is the complete lack of any way to move both characters simultaneously, which slows down progression to about that of a three-legged race. It actually surprised me how taxing it was to constantly switch between the two characters and have to think about whether the one I wasn’t controlling was in the right place, or was risking death upon a size switch. It’s not as fun, not at all. The game also sports a timed level set, of which I was only able to dip into a couple before finding myself frazzled and defeated. Shift Happens’ Mouse Trap-esque puzzles take time and precision, and the existence of such a mode winds up feeling counter-intuitive.
Shift Happens isn’t a bad co-op experience, not at all. But its modes make it a frustrating one. The game sports solid puzzle design consistently, and couch co-op is a blast (albeit a sometimes antagonistic one, though all’s fair in love and war).Online co-op falls victim to too much bad timing, and the single-player is a little bit too stressful to stay fun. That stress is lifted almost entirely when the player has a friend or partner to elbow in the ribs after being dropped in lava for the fourth time.
Final verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, Playstation 4 (next month) ; Publisher: Deck13 Interactive; Developer: Klonk Games; Players: 1-2; Released: February 22, 2017 ; MSRP: $14.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Shift Happens given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.