PAX Prime 2014: Meet Project Totem, Microsoft’s Hidden First-Party Gem

One of the inherent flaws with a number of puzzle-platformers is the abrupt transition between puzzle segments and platforming sections. It takes a truly magnificent title to blend these two elements seamlessly, as the inherent conceptual clash makes this melding process difficult. Puzzles tend to require one to stop and think, while great platforming sequences encourage constant motion and rhythm. To maintain the fluidity of a platformer while also bending the player’s mind requires a sound concept and even sounder execution. We might see action-platformers with an overarching theme, a la Super Time Force, or titles that take force precise platforming into the background, like Fez. After playing about a third of Project Totem‘s campaign at PAX Prime 2014, I can report that Press Play’s upcoming puzzle-platformer is nothing short of a joy to experience.

Players take the role of numerous totem heads that move in unison with one another. Brilliantly easing the player into its admittedly strange mechanics, Project Totem‘s first level, like many of its stages, is divided into two parts, with one totem part in each lane. Not only does one have to ensure that both totems stay alive, but he or she is responsible for navigating each totem through color-coordinated gates through the use of a simple switch mechanic. While the first section of Project Totem is obviously easy, in order to illustrate the fundamental mechanics, things quickly fly off the rails once the stacking mechanism is thrown into play.

totems

Remember those later sections of Thomas Was Alone where certain blocks stacked on top of each other, while others react to gravity in opposite ways AKA the best part of Mike Bithell’s award winning title? Take those mechanics, build an entire game around them, make the art-style insanely charming, and add some unique flavor all its own and you have Project Totem. Brilliantly, the end of each level introduces a new mechanic and/or totem, increasing the difficulty organically without making things overwhelming. A brilliant balance is struct between increasing the challenge and keeping players firmly in control. Perhaps players will be able to reverse the gravitational pull in a given stage, forcing them to platform upside-down while platforming right-side-up. One might have to figure out the right time to swap totems in mid-air in order to avoid certain doom at the hands of a large color-gate. Every moment of Project Totem feels like a natural evolution of the amalgamation of the time before it, a clear testament to smart game design.

While having my eyes constantly dart around the screen in early stages was exciting, a later cannon-based level drove home just how great Project Totem is. Instead of constant color-gates that players can technically slow down to conquer, totems have to fly through colored cannon-portals resembling the dimensional gates in Guacamelee!. Obviously, red totems can only pass through red portals, and vice versa for blue. Because of the rapid acceleration caused by the cannon-portals, players have to figure out each puzzle in a matter of seconds, infusing a true layer of fun into puzzle-solving. Sure, one could stop and smell the roses for a few seconds while he or she solves the mystery of a given area, but accomplishing the precision platforming tasks required in later levels will take every bit of skill a player has at his or her disposal. Through the first three levels, I thought that Project Totem was simply a neat puzzle-platformer; after playing through the Earth Cannons level (and an insane co-op stage), I realized the sheer brilliance of Press Play’s concept.

totem jump

In Project Totem‘s cooperative stages, players take the role of either the red or blue totems (two heads each in the stage I played) with the switching mechanic disabled. It’s imperative for the two partners to figure out which combination of totems should go where, how each player should attack a platforming section, and how to combine wits to solve a puzzle. Once my partner, a member of the development team who clearly had all the answers, let me direct the two of us, I found myself experimenting and learning at a rapid pace. There was a true level of precision to the two-player teamwork in a section with a bouncy floor and stacked color gates, meaning we both had to be on our mental and physical games. We were able to slow down and tackle a complicated switch puzzle through some backwards logic that, I learned, had never been attempted before. Project Totem‘s co-op is frantic, yet controlled, and actually has the potential to win over the hardcore contingent and non-gamers alike.

Though Halo: Master Chief Collection is obviously the crown-jewel of Microsoft’s fall exclusive lineup, it’s not too big of a stretch to say Project Totem has put itself in position to be Number 2. This is very clearly a puzzle-platformer that understands the importance of evolving upon an already creative premise. It’s safe to say that out of all the platformers I spent time with at PAX Prime 2014, none was more impressive than Project Totem. After all, being able to blend precision platforming, intense puzzle elements, and straight-up joy should produce a title as exciting as this.