One of the key notes from Albert Einstein’s famed Theory of Relativity is the constant speed of light, approximately 300,000 kilometers per second. The idea of breaking the “light barrier” has since become something of a sci-fi hallmark, the basis for many sci-fi subtopics like time travel or cross-dimensional exploration. It’s been challenged in media all over the world, from film to TV to games. Constant C, a fresh new game from International Games System, brings us back into the fray of relativity. Featuring a robot who explores a time-frozen space station, Constant C presents itself as a puzzle-platformer with a keen eye for physics. However, Constant C’s smart use of gravity is buried under punishing difficulty and puzzles that are too open-ended to offer the satisfaction of discovering their solution.
Constant C follows one adorable little robot who awakens to find that the space station he’s in is trapped in a time stasis. After befriending a chipper AI program on a giant monitor, the robot discovers that despite the time stasis, he is still able to move around the station and even affect frozen objects when approaching them. Guided by the AI, the robot explores the station to obtain energy drives to repair the station’s condition, while also learning about what caused the accident that left the station as a time-trapped prison. After obtaining special abilities to change gravity, the robot and AI discover that they’re not alone on the station and someone is aiming to sabotage their plans to reach safety. The story has a few memorable moments, and as you progress, you can watch video logs that tell the background tale of a group of scientists who aimed to break the light barrier. Despite the cartoonish designs of its characters, Constant C takes itself quite seriously, adding a layer of unneeded density to what initially appears to be a rather lighthearted adventure. Its cute aesthetic hides dark and surprisingly depressing subject matter that seems pretty out of place in this kind of game.
Constant C’s most notable gameplay mechanic is changing gravity. Using the X, Y, and B buttons on the controller, the stage will rotate to adjust to a change in gravity. Pressing X or B changes the gravity 90 degrees counterclockwise and clockwise respectively, while Y reverses the gravitational pull. While it does take a while to get used to the gravity functions (especially if there are multiple objects or floors to navigate around), the gravity element makes each stage quite layered. You never really associate a stage with a top or bottom since you’re exploring every side you can in order to solve the environmental puzzles and obtain the energy drives. You can also examine the stage without moving with the right analog stick and you can zoom in and out with the D-pad. You always seem to have a solid access to your bearings in Constant C, which is important, because the gravity is sure to offer at least a bit of disorientation.
The puzzles in Constant C are built around objects in the environment, which you can control by changing gravity and using certain physics actions. Also, because you are not bound in the time stasis, any object that enters your immediate area will be affected by your “time field” and will move normally as well. Things like momentum and inertia are especially important, as inverting or rotating gravity will cause a vertical drop to change course or even reverse entirely. In that regard, the gravity is very neat, but conflicts severely with the other half of Constant C’s gameplay: platforming. Your robot avatar can run and jump, but he’s also significantly susceptible to the dark hand of physics. Being able to move so freely while still having to coordinate the physics puzzles adds a frustrating level of looseness to the puzzles. There is rarely only one way to solve the puzzles, but that open-endedness prevents a level of satisfaction in completing them. Most of the time randomly messing with gravity and moving at the right time just happened to solve the puzzles for me, and there were a number of times where I feel like I completed a puzzle in a way that the developers did not intend me to. It’s ironic that a game named Constant C would offer so many variables that are so easy to manipulate, all for a single goal that rarely ever delivers a sense of relief and reward.
The open-ended puzzle design also makes Constant C a very difficult game. While you can usually move to each level without much trouble, the main goal is to obtain the energy drives, which are absurdly difficult to get to. The puzzles may not have many insane solutions to figure out, but coordinating each placement of boxes, platforms and hatches is a nightmare. Your robot pal is also extremely fragile, as anything from lasers to gears to a slightly high drop will instantly kill him, forcing you to start the level from the beginning. With the loose puzzle design and cumbersome manner of moving objects, getting a sense of legitimate control over a stage’s solution is very hard to do (especially with a difficulty curve that’s all over the place). Near the end of the game, more complex techniques are introduced, including a new item that’s just plain annoying to use. The end result is a game that rarely uses its interesting mechanic in a way that gives the player full control and satisfaction in using that mechanic properly.
The art design takes a straight-ahead approach with its characters. The robot has a charming design, with the typical futuristic Tron style, but with an oversized head. The AI’s monitor display uses computer-speak emoticons and is equally expressive. The humans from the video logs are a mix of Nintendo Miis and gingerbread people, adding another layer of charm. However, the game’s serious story tends to clash with the cute character models. Environments are usually bathed in the neon blue you’d expect from a futuristic puzzler, but the music backs up the aesthetics with both upbeat and ambient electronic themes when appropriate. It doesn’t do too many new things, but the presentation in Constant C is very approachable and rarely unappealing.
The gravity mechanic in Constant C adds plenty of new dimensions to puzzle design, but the lack of resilient command over how the puzzles are solved makes the game a frustrating guessing game. The idea of changing gravity expands level design to creative new levels — it’s a smart way to make a simple stage into something unexpectedly complex — but solving the puzzles is a fight all its own and not in a good way. The solutions are ambiguous and the controls are loose, leaving the player with much less input for how a puzzle is completed; the whole game feels undirected. Combine that with extremely difficult puzzle design and a fluctuating difficulty curve and Constant C proves to be a very unrefined endeavor. Controlling gravity is fun and the game’s charming art design is well worth noting, but Constant C never gives the player a sense of command over its design, leaving puzzles that rely more on careless experimentation than thought-provoking logic to solve.
Version Reviewed: Xbox 360