Six Outstanding Puzzle Platformers You Should Try
And they’re accessible and fun for everybody.
Recently I’ve started to enjoy a type of game known as the "puzzle platformer". These games are sort of an offshoot of the platform game genre, which includes well-known games such as Donkey Kong, Prince of Persia and Mirrors Edge. Typically platform games, or “run and jump” games as some people like to call them, are action and reflex–orientated. Puzzle platformers, however, rely much more on puzzle solving then quick reflexes. These types of games typically use the keyboard as the primary means of control with a little bit of the mouse thrown in on occasion if at all. But if the keyboard is a problem for you fear not because KeyStrokes and SwitchXS work well with all the games I’m going to talk about and the nature of these types of games makes them quite playable and enjoyable with the help of these AssistiveWare applications.
It will also help immensely if you have AssistiveWare’s excellent “Layout Kitchen” software. This allows you to create custom KeyStrokes and SwitchXS panels for each game that contain only the buttons and commands that you need for each game. One type of button in particular that can be created in Layout Kitchen that’s extremely useful in practically all puzzle platformers is what I like to call the “continuous run” button. There are tons of instances in these types of games where you need to run and jump simultaneously and that requires pressing two keys on the keyboard at once (holding down the run key and pressing the jump key at the right instance). Continuous run buttons on a KeyStrokes or SwitchXS panel allow you to do this without having to press two buttons simultaneously. The downside is you can’t simply press the same continuous run button to stop your character from running. You have to create a “stop” button for each continuous run button in order to release the button from being pressed thus stopping the character from running. It’s a little confusing but I’ve never managed to figure out a better way to do it. The most important thing is it doesn’t make it any more difficult to control your character.
So let’s say, for example, the game requires the typical WASD keyboard control scheme for moving your character around with “A” being left and “D” being right (“W” would be up or jump and “S” would be down). Tapping any of those keys on the keyboard (or buttons on a KeyStrokes or SwitchXS panel) will make your character move in that direction until you let that key go. To make your character run continuously in one direction you have to create a separate button for that which behaves like a continuously pressed button when you click on it. In Layout Kitchen you need to create a separate text macro button for each of these actions. When doing so look at the Inspector window for the button you’re currently working on and where the “text macro” entry field is on the bottom. In this case for a continuous run right button you would select the "d" from the popup menu then remove everything but “d↓” from the text macro entry field. For a continuous run left button you would select the "a" from the popup menu then remove everything but “a↓” from the text macro entry field. Those commands will keep those buttons pressed down without having to click and hold them. To unpress or release those buttons you have to make corresponding stop buttons for each one. In this case those buttons would be “d↑” and “a↑” respectively. I usually position these stop buttons right next to or below their corresponding continuous run buttons on each custom KeyStrokes panel that I create. I also usually place a “jump” button between both continuous run buttons since jumping while running is common in these types of games. And with the stop buttons also nearby it makes it possible to jump over a gap and stop on a dime right after landing if necessary (in case there’s another gap immediately after). It may sound a bit complicated but it’s actually pretty easy once you get use to it. You can perform some pretty complicated moves using just a mouse (even a head mouse) using this method. If you rely on Dwell clicking you would need to set the Dwell timing at no more than .5 second. Even then you might run into some difficulty in certain spots with these types of games though. I’m not certain how well SwitchXS users would fare but I’ve seen some amazing things where this is concerned so anything is possible. Fortunately almost all of these games have free demos so you can see for yourself.
Creating a panel with the buttons I described above, as well as any other basic buttons (inventory, use, etc.) that a puzzle platformer requires will sometimes be enough to play and complete some of these games but sometimes there’s other minor hurdles you must overcome. Below is a list of puzzle platformers that I’m able to play and have had a lot of fun with (and still are having fun with in some cases). For each game I’ll make note of any of these little hurdles you might encounter when trying to play it.
*All games also available for Windows
Trine - Frozenbyte
Demo: No Mac demo but there is a Trine 2 Mac demo and the gameplay is almost identical to the original Trine.
Update: As of 2/7/2012 Trine is available from the Mac App Store for only $0.99 (90% off) but that discounted price is for a limited time only. Get it here.
One of the most beautiful–looking games I’ve ever seen, at least until its sequel came out (see below). The visuals, sound, and music create an atmosphere that’s extremely immersive. But the gameplay is actually the star of the show here. After the introduction, which more or less serves as a tutorial, you plays three characters in one; a wizard, thief, and knight. Each of these characters have their own strengths and weaknesses and you can switch between them seamlessly as you see fit. The wizard can conjure up objects such as crates and planks and even move them around with his levitation spell. The thief can shoot arrows at objects and monsters with her bow or use her trusty grappling hook to climb or swing over obstacles. The knight has a sword and a shield but also has a sledgehammer that he can throw at objects and monsters. There’s a few more abilities and items the three characters can acquire along the way. Each character also has health and energy bars which can be replenished by collecting potions throughout the adventure. This system gives the player a great deal of flexibility in how to overcome every obstacle and puzzle they encounter. For example, let’s say you encounter a tall, crumbling wall. You could use the wizard and have him conjure up a series of planks and crates, stack them appropriately, then use them to climb up and over the wall. Or you could use the thief and her grappling hook to climb over the wall. Or you could simply have the knight throw his sledgehammer at the crumbling wall and knock it down. This is just a basic example but should give you an idea at how flexible this game is. Oftentimes obstacles require a combination of your character’s abilities to overcome them. This is what makes this game extremely fun to me. And of course the gorgeous visuals didn’t hurt either.
Surprisingly not too much with one sort of big exception. The final sequence of the game oddly turns into an arcade run–for–your–life sequence. It’s quite unlike much of the entire game before it and seems really out of place. For me it was just impossible to do (I tried about fifty times!). It’s definitely a situation where one hand on the keyboard and the other hand on the mouse, with your eyes fixed on screen and quick reflexes, would be appropriate. But the rest of the game was just so much fun for me that this didn’t ruin it for me. I ended up going to YouTube to view the final cut scene which was fine. I was able to complete the rest of the game almost entirely with the custom KeyStrokes panel I created. There was one or two exceptions where the knight had to hold his shield above his head to protect himself from falling objects while walking through a tunnel or something. In that case I temporarily changed his “secondary skill” key to something easy to reach on the physical keyboard, like the number pad zero key, so I could hold that down with my knuckles to hold his shield up while I moved the character through the tunnel using my head mouse and custom KeyStrokes panel. I should also note that I had to make the thief’s secondary skill button the Command key because for that I needed a button that stays pressed down so I could then move my mouse cursor off of the custom KeyStrokes panel to aim where I wanted her to shoot her grappling hook. It worked pretty well. Windowed mode is built-in and works perfectly with KeyStrokes and SwitchXS.
Trine 2 - Frozenbyte
Mac Demo: Yes
Pretty much the same as the first Trine but even more gorgeous–looking if you can believe that. If you want to show off how impressive your computer display looks just fire up this game and watch your friend’s jaws drop. Same basic gameplay applies; you use your three characters, only one at a time, and a combination of their unique abilities to overcome obstacles and solve puzzles, with a little combat thrown in. I haven’t yet finished this game but so far I’m having as much fun with it as I did the first one.
Similar enough to the first game that I’m able to use the same custom KeyStrokes panel to play it with only minor modifications (changing a few key bindings). I have noticed two differences though. The first game allowed you to assign a different key for each of the three character’s secondary skill. In this sequel the key you assign as the secondary skill key is used for all three characters. You have to use the Command key for the wizard’s levitation ability because you need a key that stays pressed down. However the Command key is a little awkward to use for the thief’s and knight’s secondary skill. It works but it would be better if you could use a non-sticky key in those cases. The other difference involves the thief’s grappling hook. In the first game I needed to use a sticky key (the Command key) to activate the grappling hook and keep it activated while I moved my mouse cursor back into the game screen so I could point where I wanted to shoot the grappling hook. In Trine 2 the game senses my mouse clicks on the KeyStrokes panel and thinks that’s where I want to shoot the grappling hook. The end result is I have to move my KeyStrokes panel to the area of the game screen where I want to shoot the grappling hook before clicking on the secondary skill button. You have to do something similar when the wizard is levitating objects. When he’s ready to let go of an object I have to move the KeyStrokes panel to where the object is before deactivating the secondary skill button. If not the levitating object will follow my mouse cursor to whereever the KeyStrokes panel is on my screen. It sounds like a pain but it really hasn’t been that big of a deal for me because the characters are rarely under any duress when they have to do these things. Windowed mode built-in and works perfectly with KeyStrokes and SwitchXS.
Braid - Hothead Games
Mac Demo: Yes
At first glance this game reminded me of Super Mario Brothers but with much less action and thus much less quick reflexes required. You play a character named Tim who’s searching for a Princess that’s been snatched by an evil monster. The story really isn’t much more than that but who really cares? Solving some pretty diabolical puzzles is what this game is all about and some are really difficult. The concept of controlling time is heavily used in this game and I have to admit it’s pretty clever. You can, for example, “rewind time” when Tim dies and watch him go backwards to a point before he died so you can try again. As you progress through the game time manipulation is used in different ways. In another of the six worlds, for example, time will move forward when Tim moves to the right, backward when Tim moves to the left, or stand still when Tim only moves vertically or doesn’t move at all. You really have to keep track of where you are in relation to where everything else is on the screen in this world. It’s a brilliant concept but some of the puzzles were really difficult in this world. The artwork is bright and colorful and the sound is decent enough although it’s not the visual experience that Trine is. Overall it’s enjoyable but you certainly have to be patient and determined to get through it.
There are no weapons to deal with and killing monsters basically just involves jumping on top of them so there’s not much to worry about in controlling this game and the simplistic custom KeyStrokes panel I made for it (pictured) reflects that. However whenever you enter the puzzle piece screen KeyStrokes is completely locked out for some reason. Even in windowed mode. Your character collects puzzle pieces throughout the game that must be assembled to give you a clue about what’s going on. Each world has a puzzle screen you can access but without access to KeyStrokes (or SwitchXS) you can’t rotate the puzzle pieces or exit this screen. You can only move the puzzle pieces around with your mouse. You can rotate the puzzle pieces by right-clicking on them or pointing at them and pressing the space bar on the physical keyboard but that obviously could be a problem for some people. For me this is where Dragon Dictate comes to the rescue. I open it and leave it in sleep mode while playing Braid. When I enter one of these puzzles screens I use it to press the space bar by voice to rotate puzzle pieces and to press the Escape key by voice to get out of the puzzles screen. So that’s one way to solve that problem. You would think a screen such as this would have an “exit” button you could click on to get out of it so I found that kind of odd. It’s also strange that KeyStrokes gets locked out like that just on that screen. Fortunately the game is quite easy to play otherwise.
LIMBO - Playdead
Mac Demo: Yes
I love this game! It’s hauntingly brilliant. You control an unnamed boy as he searches for his lost sister in sort of a dreamlike state that’s presented using excellent monochromatic black and white visuals. It looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before. There is no music and the sound is minimal but that fits the mood of this game perfectly. There’s even less action in this game than some of the other puzzle platformers and it doesn’t need it. You will have to climb ladders, jump over things, pull levers, and push or pull objects around but in most cases you can take your time doing it. And in the cases where you do have to hurry it’s not unreasonable. The challenge with LIMBO is in studying your usually sparse surroundings and figuring out exactly what you need to do to get your character out of each predicament he comes across. Sometimes it admittedly looks like there’s nothing you can do because your surroundings are so sparse. But you have to really look carefully and think “outside of the box” sometimes. Also be prepared to die a lot and in numerous gruesome ways. Apparently the designer came up with the phrase “trial by death” when describing the game and I would say that’s pretty spot on. I did need to check YouTube a few times when I was really stuck but I was able to get through most of it without any hints and had a great time doing it. This is as good as it gets!
There are only five keys to worry about when playing this game; left, right, up, down, and “action”. The actions key is designated as “alt” which is the Option key on Macs. But for whatever reason this key will not work on KeyStrokes (or SwitchXS) when playing LIMBO. So unless you’re able to hold down the Option key on the physical keyboard while moving your character left or right you’re going to need to change the actions key to something else that will work in a KeyStrokes panel. There’s no way to change key bindings within LIMBO but you can do it by altering the LIMBO settings file. Find the LIMBO application on your computer then right-click on it and select “Show Package Contents”. Open the “Contents” folder then the “MacOS” folder. And there you’ll see a “settings.txt” file. Open that with TextEdit and change the action key in the topmost section to whatever you desire. In my case I made it the “U” key. If you scroll further down you’ll also find the setting that puts the game into windowed mode (just change false to true) but you don’t need to do that because KeyStrokes will work with LIMBO in full-screen mode as long as it’s set to “Game Mode”. Then in Layout Kitchen you need to make two buttons that use the same principle as the continuous run buttons I talked about above. One button for pressing the action key down and another button for unpressing the action key. Each of these text macro buttons would be u↑ and u↓ respectively (once again I was using the "U" key but you can use any key except modifier keys). Once you get this set up you can play LIMBO entirely with the mouse, in full-screen mode if you like, with KeyStrokes (or SwitchXS). And that’s all the more reason why I love this game so much.
Midnight Mansion HD Episode 1 - ActionSoft
Mac Demo: Yes
Graphically this is the weakest–looking game of the bunch but it probably packs more gameplay time than any of the other games which are all relatively short. The gameplay is pretty basic but it’s fun and the controls are very responsive. As you guide Jack around each mansion there’s all sorts of traps and monsters to avoid, levers to pull, and signs to read. You’ll also collect various keys which open the numerous doors you’ll encounter. A unique feature of this game offers is its onscreen map. When you bring the map up it’s literally a miniaturized screenshot of every room in the current mansion that you’ve currently explored plus perhaps some other rooms you haven’t courtesy of maps you might have found in your adventures. You can drag the screen around with the mouse to view different parts of the mansion. Unexplored or unmapped rooms remain dark. This really gives you a great birdseye view of where you are in relation to everywhere else. Another nice touch is what Jack does when you haven’t given him a command in awhile – he stands there with his arms folded tapping his foot or using his yo-yo. Aside from that the game’s sounds are basic but appropriate and the music is Halloween–themed which fits well with a haunted house of course! I should also mention that Jack can die in all sorts of humorous ways. At least I thought they were humorous compared to the morbid but entertaining ways your character could die in LIMBO. Midnight Mansion HD will run on just about any Mac and is tame enough that it’s fun for the whole family. If you’ve never played a puzzle platformer before this would probably be a good one to start with.
Note: Episode 2 is available separately and adds six more mansions and the ability to play over 100 custom–created mansions created by other players.
None whatsoever. The controls are simply left, right, up, down, jump, action, and map. Like all the other games I added continuous run buttons for running and jumping and a menu button for getting back to the game menu. The game also has built–in “jump left” (keypad 7) and “jump right” (keypad 9) commands so I added buttons for those as well to my custom KeyStrokes panel. These buttons basically allow you to jump left or jump right without running. This is useful if you have to jump over something and immediately stop. You can do the same thing with continuous run buttons but you have to press a separate button in that case to stop your character from moving. So since the game already has these commands built–in I decided to use them just in case and they have come in handy a few times. Windowed mode is also built–in here but KeyStrokes (and SwitchXS) will work when the game is in full-screen as long as “Game Mode” is on.
And Yet It Moves - Broken Rules
Mac Demo: Yes
And Yet It Moves looks like somebody cut up a bunch of cardboard boxes into pieces, painted the pieces in different colors, and then just sort of spread them out all over the ground. Your character, who also looks like a cardboard cutout, is dropped into the middle of this unusual maze and has to figure out how to get through it. And yet again another small indie developer has managed to create a unique look for a puzzle platformer. It won’t wow anybody graphically but it will get people to stop and do a double take at your display and say something like “what the heck is that?”. But this game adds its own unique game mechanic – you can actually rotate the entire world! In fact it’s mandatory that you do in order to get around obstacles and so forth. I’ve never seen anything like it before and it’s awesome! Imagine running towards the edge of a cliff then suddenly rotating the entire world 90° counterclockwise as you jump off the edge instantly making the wall of the cliff the floor and continuing to run like nothing happened. You’ve just entered the bizarre world of And Yet It Moves. It’s a fascinating way to move around and creates some rather unique puzzles. It does take a while to get use to however but once you start to understand how rotating the world affects your surroundings (and your character) it’s loads of fun to play. You will die a lot though but it never gets old watching your cardboard character shatter into pieces. There’s also all sorts of cardboard boulders and the like laying around and since physics are in play here you can push them around and so forth. Be careful when you rotate the world though because objects like these may then come crashing down on you. I’ve died numerous times because of a small landslide of boulders that suddenly became mobile when I rotated the world. You can rotate the world 90° clockwise and counterclockwise and 180°. The in-game sound is pretty minimal but that makes way for the excellent soundtrack which has received much praise (and rightfully so). The game won’t grab you right away but stick around, get yourself orientated with the mechanics, then you’ll probably have as much fun with it as I did.
Nothing that I can see. The controls are simply left, right, jump, rotate 90° counterclockwise, rotate 90° clockwise, rotate 180°, and reset level. Once again I added the continuous run buttons in my custom KeyStrokes panel for running and jumping and a menu button for getting back to the game menu. KeyStrokes (and SwitchXS) will not work when the game is in full-screen mode but fear not because the game has a built-in windowed mode. My display is set to a resolution of 1920x1080 and I run the game in a window with the same resolution. This makes it look like it’s actually in full-screen but you can still see the Mac menubar at the top and of course I can still access KeyStrokes this way. Of course you can set the game window resolution to any size you want. So the only obstacle with this game is your brain and whether you can figure your way out of the predicaments your character finds himself in.
So there you have it. There are other puzzle platformers out there but these are the ones that are among the best in my opinion. So many 3-D games these days allow the player to control the camera which adds yet another set of complicated controls to such games. These puzzle platformers are all in 2-D so you don’t have to worry about such things and I’ve found that very refreshing. I can really sit back and relax and just play these games without overextending myself and physically tiring myself out. The only thing that gets a workout with these games is my brain and that’s the way it should be. So I hope some people find this roundup useful. Remember all of these games have free demos available so if this article isn’t enough for you to know whether you can play them or not you can try them out for yourself. Game on!