Taking a Lovely Stroll Through Tulpa’s Dark, Symbolic World

Ophelia has a problem.  She’s alone in a dark world with unknown rules, and survival isn’t an option if she doesn’t get some help.  So Opehlia does what anyone would do when trapped in a mystic/symbolic land- she creates a tulpa to be her helpful companion.  A tulpa is a Buddhist concept, defined as a spirit created either by mystical processes or willpower, and it can effect the physical world.  Ophelia’s tulpa is a blond male named Oliver, and the two of them will have to use their individual abilities to get through the darkly beautiful land that makes up Tulpa’s 2D side-scrolling puzzle platforming levels.

I’ve just finished playing a very early build comprising what looks to be the first two levels of the game and the overall impression is of a game divided between two parts.  On the gameplay front you’ve got a fairly standard puzzle/platformer where you can switch between two characters at will.  Ophelia is a normal person bound by the usual restrictions, in that she can’t fall too far or take too much damage before dying.  She can push and pull objects, jump a little bit, clamber up onto ledges, and create a mystical helper out of thin air, although that last ability is a one-off.  Oliver, on the other hand, is imaginary, so he can fly about and manipulate objects from a distance.  Unfortunately Ophelia’s sanity is tied very closely to Oliver’s presence, so while she’ll follow along when possible, if Oliver flies away her sanity shatters.  “Death” isn’t really dying in Tulpa, but rather a collapse of sanity in a world of symbolism, so whether Ophelia falls into a pit of spikes or simply sticks around in a disturbing area too long, she’ll explode in a shower of bouncing white pixels.  She’s not exactly the poster woman for “strong female heroine”, at least in the first couple levels, because they generally don’t explode when upset.  As for the platforming, it was ok.  If you’ve moved a box so you’ve got a safe place to stand in a pit of spikes, or spun a dial on a machine to access the key to an elevator, you’ll be right at home.  It’s not bad, but very familiar.

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The other half of Tulpa, however, is where the game shines.  Tulpa has a clear artistic vision that every screen shows off to the fullest.  Solid colors behind crisp blacks, sharp lines, and clean geometry show off every detail of the world.  The foreground is in silhouette, for the most part, and the backgrounds do all the heavy lifting for the color.  Tulpa is a very colorful game, which is quite the accomplishment when the foreground is mostly black and the backgrounds are rendered in shades of a single primary color.  As the levels progress (and there were only two in this build) the set pieces get progressively more ornate, and the payout comes not from feeling clever at throwing a shackle off a giant floating skeletal hand, but rather watching it float down and animate as it beckons Ophelia to step into its palm.  Simple, sure, and you’ve seen something similar in many other games, but the art design makes it engaging despite its familiarity.

Rising Star Games’ Tulpa is shaping up to be an art game, treading familiar ground but doing it with an irresistible sense of style.  It’s a bit too early to get a sense of the story, which is heavily dependent on symbolism conveyed through both gameplay obstacles and background details, but seeing as Oliver first shows up crucified against the wall of a house painted with strange eldritch circles it’s a fair guess that Tulpa is going through some dark places.  It’s a strange game with familiar mechanics in a bizarre world where everything means something, and half the fun should be figuring out just what it all means.  If that doesn’t work out, then at the very least Tulpa is an amazingly pretty way to spend a while with a weird girl and her spiritual servant.