Puzzle games are always a tricky subject matter. There are those that are the pinnacle of the genre, the Portals and Braids of the marketplace that sweep you off your feet and are amongst the most rewarding affairs in all of gaming. Then there are games like Degrees of Separation, developed by Moondrop Studios and published by Modus Games, which are so middle of the road it is hard to know where to start picking them apart.
After beating the game, the best word I can think to describe the experience is – uneven. It’s certainly a creative concept, with players controlling Ember and Rime, who inhabit a fire and ice world respectively. Upon being woken to unwelcome changes in their landscape, the two meet and explore what could have caused these disturbances. Unfortunately (well, depending on your viewpoint, since it makes for a pretty interesting gameplay gimmick), the two cannot directly interact, as a barrier forms between them, keeping their different climates apart.
This opens up a bagful of potential mechanics for Degrees of Separation to capitalize on, which it does so to an effective extent. Certain constants remain throughout the experience, such as Rime freezing bodies of water to traverse over them, whereas Ember can swim through lakes and rivers to reveal new routes. On the other hand, each level of the game introduces a new, short-lived concept for you to play with, such as using the barrier between the pair to create an angled bridge of light or reacting the opposing elements they possess for a destructive and propulsive explosion.
Each new mechanic helps keep the game fresh, but some are certainly more interesting than others, leading to the levels featuring the blander ideas to feel a bit more of a drag in comparison.
Undoubtedly though, Degrees of Separation gets the basics right. The controls are intuitive, with the characters having a moderate weight to them, as jumps stay floaty and therefore forgiving enough to correct course if you initially misjudge a distance. Whilst the game is a puzzle platformer, the emphasis is clearly much more towards the former; figuring out the solution to the various physics-based machines and courses you are presented with is the focus, with navigating them being just a formality. The goal of most of these challenges is to gather one of the many collectible scarves dotted across the level, which count towards unlocking later worlds, providing a good incentive to at least try your hand at each scenario you come across.
As I mentioned before, each level is surprisingly lengthy. Thankfully, the game comes with a handy built-in star chart which shows your progress, as well as if you have skipped over any of the desirable scarves. Well, I say handy, but your placement along said map is completely hidden to you, meaning once you use one of the various fast travel points across a given level, it is down to your memory to recall where you may have missed one of the collectibles. This makes backtracking more of a chore than a joy and, unfortunately, is not the only fiddly, frustrating aspect of the title.
Ideally, Degrees of Separation is to be played with two people, taking charge of a character apiece on their own controller. When playing alone though, a press of a button allows you to switch between Ember and Rime, whilst another calls the other to you so you can travel in unison. However, the AI programming is a little wonky, with computer players often taking idiotic routes back to the player. This can result in the character falling, meaning you have to approach the puzzle from scratch once again, or alternatively avoiding such a fate by navigating the second avatar through the path you’ve just walked with the first, which is simply not very fun.
In addition, a stationary character model is often more tricky to navigate around than most of the platforming challenges you face, especially in the tighter areas of the map, leading to annoyance towards the game itself. Of course, all of this can be missed by playing the game the way it was intended to be controlled, with a friend, it is just worth mentioning that the solo experience is not as well integrated as it should be.
In stark contrast though, Degrees of Separation excels on the visual presentation front, with particularly lovely lighting effects really bringing the diverging worlds to life. It is a truly gorgeous effect that runs over the screen which turns the harsh whites of Rime’s ice world to the welcoming hues of Ember’s autumnal home, and vice verse; you really do never get bored of seeing it. It’s such a shame then, that the standard of the music and storytelling is so far behind in comparison. Since the narrative as a whole is typically fantasy, with doors leading to other worlds, dragons and of course the conflicting worlds thing, you’d have thought the writers would do something to set it apart from the rest of the crowd; this is not the case.
The music is painfully generic, background elevator music at best, without a single track that springs to mind despite my many hours spent in the world of Degrees of Separation. Similarly, the story is told through narration, which immediately feels impersonal and ironically enough creates a barrier between the player and those they control. This narrator also insists in speaking in generic, wishy-washy riddles, such as the ice world “melting as if weeping at the destruction of his world”. Yeah, sure, that’s relatable. The result is a disconnect from the visuals and the atmosphere they are trying to create, with the player unable to ever fully immerse themselves into Ember and Rime’s plight.
I do feel as if I have been a little harsh on Degrees of Separation throughout this review, perhaps even wandering into nitpicking territory. It’s just so close to being brilliant but is weighed down by these smaller aspects that a bit more polish could easily fix. Overall, it is easily on the right side of good and is insanely easy to recommend for puzzler fans. When it works, it works extremely well. For everyone else though, it is simply missing that spark that will incentivize casual payers through the quieter, duller moments. The aforementioned unevenness bleeds into the experience more than the individual moments of triumph, making Degrees of Separation an experience only essential for those really grabbed by the initial concept and all the potential it holds.