It’s been a long time since I’ve played a Sierra game; I’m used to seeing their highly-pixelated splash screens at the beginning of King’s Quest games and other titles that reigned in the DOS/Windows 3.1 era. Admittedly, it made my heart swell just a little bit when I saw their new, unpixelated intro before starting into Shiftlings, but I can’t say the fondness lasted long. A physics-based puzzler developed by Rock Pocket Games, you control a duo of space-alien day laborers, tethered together by a long air exchange tube. Things get a little… “pear-shaped,” as in the in-game announcer terms it, when the dopey one of the two drinks a bottle of Black Hola Cola, proceeding to give him significant gas…yes, ladies and gentlemen: welcome to fart-powered physics puzzling.
More often than not, it’s not pretty, and even worse when solo. But occasionally things can lead to some interesting bonding experiences when in the company of a friend. Yes, I’m still talking about Shiftlings. And I’m going to try my best to leave out superfluous gas references and jokes for the remainder of our time.
With the acknowledgment that the Shiftlings sets the tone with a flatulence-powered game mechanic (and theme song), I have to admit that maybe I’m probably not the target market they were aiming for. In Shiftlings, you control the duo as they complete objectives for the glory of a TV show created by WePlanet Industries (tagline: “we plan it, you buy it). Problem with the show is that it isn’t really funny: the show’s host, a typical, slimy reality TV show announcer-type, constantly jabs at the shiftlings’ lack-of-intelligence with no real intelligence of his own. The plugs for Black Hola Cola and WePlanet Industries are at best confounding when not just plain unenjoyable (“I like my Black Hola Cola like I like my quantum singularities: thick, dark, and full of syrup”), and most level’s mission objectives, read by a generic female-sounding robot, tend to miss their mark as well. The failed attempts at humor are significant because they’re so frequent, and the consistent feelings of confusion or just plain malaise somewhat mirror my single-player experience.
Shiftlings’ basic concept is actually fairly solid. In each stage you’ll manipulate the two aliens as you inflate and deflate back and forth to access ledges, switches, and consoles. While one tethered alien stays small and mobile, the other shiftling balloons up to multiple times its original size, inexplicably also gaining ridiculous mass in the process. While dodging deathtraps and trying to keep the cord between the two characters from getting severed, the large one often will either activate weight-based switches, act as a trampoline for the little player, or drag the little player via attached cable to destinations. The little player, still its original size, can activate smaller switches in the stage, as well as run, jump, and climb to objectives. Both players have to reach the mid-stage console together as well as the final exit gate, and if one player ever dies, so does the other. When playing with another person the co-op nature comes naturally, encouraging tons of actual communication between players. But if you’re taking it on single-player, well, the energy takes a dramatic shift downwards.
When playing solo, you’ll not only need to switch sizes between the two characters manually, you’ll also need to switch between controlling each character. There’s no AI in play (which might be for the best considering how touchy some of the deathtraps can be), but that means that there’s a lot of stop-and-start gameplay, which kills the energy. Some of the puzzles require quick motion between the two characters as well; this wouldn’t be so bad when coupled up with another human, but trying to quickly shift gas and swap players often results in early death and dismemberment. For those hoping to get involved with the online community to find partners, know that I wasn’t able to successfully matchmake with other players, but it could have just been because there weren’t many games to choose from, and those players wanted to play solo.
All in all, Shiftlings could be a great way to spend some time with a family member or friend who’s looking for some fun, casual, cooperative gameplay. Even with its lame jokes and hollow-feeling atmosphere, the core of Shiftlings could hold up when played with the right mentality. But if you’re planning on taking the game on single-player, or if you’re looking for a puzzle-platformer to scratch your hardcore itch, then this game’s a bit of hot air. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.