Usually there’s some sort of debate as to what the best game at a given show is. Let’s face it, whenever we go to a convention, hundreds of games are vying for our attention, hoping that they’ll make a good enough impression to become the next cult hit. Even though I spent an hour with Final Fantasy XV, played Titan Souls until my eyes bled and experienced Drinkbox’s superb upcoming Vita exclusive, one game stood out as the clear victor. I found myself bringing up my experience in nearly every conversation I had with fans, fellow press members and developers. I’m sure that someone out there was secretly begging me to shut up about the most mind-bending puzzle platformer I’ve played in years. The thing is, Four Sided Fantasy, a game that had never been shown off at an event until it found itself lurking in the corner of the Curve Digital booth, is so damn good that it’s impossible to stop thinking about it.
My guide into one of the strangest games I’ve played in some time was Logan Fieth, a soft-spoken, note-taking design genius who seemed to understand that he clearly had something special on his hands. We conversed about everything from Four Sided Fantasy‘s eventual narrative focus to how puzzle-platformers need to combine puzzling and platforming in smart ways instead of simply alternating between two design strategies. Fieth was easily the most humble developer I encountered at PAX, but his consistent smile indicated that this was the exact game he wanted to make. One of the biggest red flags for a game is when the developers don’t seem to be passionate about their own project. If the person who is dedicating their life to a project doesn’t seem to be thrilled about it, how can players possibly get excited themselves? Fieth’s understated joy for the current state of Four Sided Fantasy indicated that this was more than just a game to him, which helped make my experience with the deliberately glitchy side-scroller feel all the more entertaining.
By now you’re probably wondering what Four Sided Fantasy actually is. After all, I did just spend the first two paragraphs hyping up a spectacular game without directly explaining it (let’s be real, who wants to read a preview that sounds exactly like a press release?). In short, Four Sided Fantasy allows players to glitch out each of the four sides of the screen, thus creating a situation in which the player character can enter and exit opposite sides of the display. Yes, this is extremely confusing, but think of it this way: if you lock the screen with the right trigger and walk through the left side of the display, you’ll emerge on the right side. Basically, if you were to take this effect from Pac-Man and apply it to a user-defined frame, you’d have Four Sided Fantasy.
This weird screen-locking mechanic plays a central role in every one of Four Sided Fantasy‘s puzzles. For instance, if you were to jump up and lock the screen, there’s a chance that the floor below you will essentially be non-existent, causing you to fall from the top of the display over and over. Whenever the screen is glitched out, the only recognized area on the display is, well, what’s on the display. This allows players to access areas that seem inaccessible, reach platforms that are too far away or too high up, and pass through walls with ease. Make no mistake about it, Four Sided Fantasy is a challenging game, but each of its puzzles encourages experimentation and feels intuitive. This is the way a puzzle-platformer should be made, with clearly defined rules, problem-solving and precision blended into one, and a fair bit of non-linearity to keep players engaged even when they’re stuck.
The single most fascinating aspect of Four Sided Fantasy isn’t the fact that one can turn off scrolling progression, nor is it the camera tweaks or the screen-cracking that appears in different stages. No, the coolest aspect of my time with Fieth and Curve Digital was the notion that this is the type of game that’s going to be a nightmare to QA test. When you think about it, how are testers going to accurately determine what an actual glitch is and what is simply a game mechanic? Four Sided Fantasy is set for a January 2016 release, so it makes sense that the occasional bug would pop up in its first show build. There was a moment where I felt like I solved a puzzle on my own merit, only to see Fieth scribble something in his black composition book. I’m officially the king of breaking pre-release demos, with five or six games (including a Vita game, oddly enough) completely crashing on me. It’s safe to say that I’ve seen my fair share of pre-release bugs, so the fact that I couldn’t tell what was broken and what wasn’t speaks to Four Sided Fantasy‘s uniqueness. It’s worth noting that my demo felt spectacular from a technical standpoint, so if you think that Four Sided Fantasy is loaded with secret bugs, think again.
Once Ludo Land gives their unique title a quality narrative, the world could be looking at the next Limbo or Braid. Yes, this is some lofty praise, as those two titles are some of the best puzzle-platformers of the last decade, but the central mechanics of Four Sided Fantasy are a wonderful foundation. Fieth and I both agreed that for a narrative to succeed in this type of title, it would have to be subtle and symbolic. Because Four Sided Fantasy has one of the strangest central mechanics we’ve seen in quite some time, it would need a story that compliments its exploratory nature. Constant dialogue boxes and frequent cutscenes don’t feel like elements that should be included here, and it’s a positive sign that one of the central development figures seems to agree with this.
If the thirty minutes I spent with Four Sided Fantasy are emblematic of what the finished product will be like, the gaming world is going to receive a superb title in ten months. The idea of locking the screen to manipulate perspective is a wonderful idea, and we all know that coming up with a good idea is one of the toughest parts of any creative project. The foundation has been set, the mechanics are sound and the gameplay is gripping. If Ludo Land and Curve Digital are able to deliver a total package once the narrative has been developed, the next great indie darling will arrive. If not, at least I can rest easy knowing that Four Sided Fantasy provided me with the best gaming experience of PAX East 2015.