Monday 18 April 2022

Kombinera Review (Steam)


Written by Thomas G.J. Sharpe

This hardcore shape-concerned puzzler fits neatly into the return of Atari as a publisher. They’ve been pulling from classic IPs to make some remasters of late, and Kombinera is a clever modern descendant that brings enjoyment and enragement. Dependant on taste.

My first impression was the most serious looking epilepsy warning splash screen I’ve ever seen in a computer game. I sent a strongly worded letter of concern to my editor about my retinas. CDPR could have taken some tips on due diligence from Graphite Labs/Joystick on this aspect before triggering fits with Cyberpunk 2077. Kombinera’s visual aesthetic is striking, fun, neon, and flashing. A minimalist, abstract world of balls traversing puzzle-traps, where the player is trying to merge them all together. Each coloured ball has a differing interaction with the components of the levels, be it red spikes that the red ball is immune to or green balls that block green lasers, for instance. The hook is that all the balls move as one. You move the balls left and right and have a strong jump and a weak jump. These 300 levels of headscratchers will test your lateral thinking, with a mild part of platform-y deftness.

Created from a game jam, and through its popularity with various prototypes and the developers iterating it further, this has ended up a fully-fledged game. Game jams manage to generate incredible purity in gameplay loops, as the time constraints require design to be focussed to succeed. The collective movement of the balls is one such hook. Everything in Kombinera is built on this premise, and, as a proof of a good primary loop, it has extensive flexibility and staying power. The story and much of the art and music is in service to the singular purpose you have. These elements are effective in different amounts; the story of a world torn asunder, where the player is trying to reunite all the balls is (I feel) knowingly functionary. The music is more of an attempt to relax the player with its bleep-y electronic chill. The art and colours, stark backgrounds, aid the clarity of the puzzle. Notably the grid in the play area that while not out of place aesthetically, is a way to judge jumping.

While Kombinera shares some DNA with Thomas Was Alone, ibb and obb, or English Country Tune, it manages to be distinct like them rather than an imitator. It seems appropriate that this has been picked up or had some stickiness beyond the morass of puzzle-platformers. It has that thing, and speaking personally, I usually bounce right off stuff like this. The activity of joinin’ yer balls together is supported by a well-managed and creative level design. The building of puzzle complexity is considered carefully, as within each movement puzzle, further actions are slotted in, one at a time, to increase the internal steps to success. Each level develops you to see the solution that is just outside of instant comprehension. There is a fine balance between testing an idea and outright understanding of what the level wants. This element of the puzzle is crucial, because if this is out of balance the player may become frustrated. Get it straight away and you’re going to get bored. Thrashing about trying red herrings, you’re resenting the game. Kombinera is savvy and keenly designed, raising it above an arbitrarily “punishing” experience. This is especially pertinent as the traps are one-hit-killers.

For fans of any shape based, jumping, pixel judging, just-one-more-try, neon-soaked puzzling, epilepsy responsible games this is a winner.

Overall 9/10

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