Ageless PC Review
Puzzle platformers are common in this day and age thanks to indie developers. The genre is full of quality choices from the oldies such as Braid, Limbo and Fez, to newer titles like Little Nightmares and Celeste, the latter having quite the influence on Ageless‘ Malaysian developer, One More Dream Studios. Ageless has the beautiful, stylish pixel look and a decent musical score, just like what inspired it, but importantly, this game is thankfully more than a dead ringer of Celeste. Ageless happily shouts out its unique twist; the heroine of the game has the power to manipulate the age of animals and plants in the level to help her progress each challenging area.
I would imagine a few people will understand the state the game’s heroine, Kiara, finds herself in. Kiara is at a point in her life where she feels lost and stuck, she is floating along for the ride without a real sense of purpose. No matter what she tries to do to get her life moving forward it always ends in a mistake, and this is getting the poor girl down. Ageless introduces Kiara while she is exploring a dark cave in search for something called the “Gate of Gifts”. She has spent the last three years trying to discover this myth. The rumours about this powerful shrine are that it grants a person “the gift you need” and Kiara wants this to hopefully give her purpose in life. Things are not as straightforward as it seems when Kiara receives her gift near the start of the game, a special power to change the age of living things, which begins Kiara on a journey of self discovery and how to put her new found powers to good use.
Kiara has all her tools available as soon as the gift becomes hers. This includes the extraordinary bow, which enables Kiara to shoot in a 360 degree aiming cycle with two arrow types based on which trigger is pressed on the controller – aiming is performed pushing a direction on the left stick while the trigger is held. One arrow will age the target, while the other will de-age. I used the Xbox One controller to play Ageless on PC and it seemed suited well, although, the mouse and keyboard is decent enough too, thanks to aiming relating to a mouse cursor, but having a pad in hand felt more natural to me for a game like this.
The gift has also given Kiara the ability to switch into an ‘ageless‘ state that inverts her colour and pauses the game world, enabling Kiara to move around while things are frozen for a limited time. This ageless state allows the use of any life form that can be manipulated with the bow to offer energy to perform a dash in exchange of de-ageing that life form. Along with Kiara’s ability to jump and wall jump, all these elements are used throughout the game’s puzzle designs to offer some clever, challenging platform solving. The ageless mode is also how the game hides its hidden collectibles, only revealed and able to collect when in this alternative state.
Games that offer all their abilities to the player from the get go can sometimes find themselves in a predicament. This often happens when the longer the game goes on the chance that the mechanics becoming stretched and repetitive increases, especially without any newly introduced gameplay elements to freshen up the experience. Ageless manages to mostly avoid this problem by having different living objects in each of the five environments behaviour in unique ways. These objects bring in new ways to solve a problem, even if they are still based on the game’s key ageing mechanic, and at times I think people will be genuinely surprised at some of the ideas the developers have come up with.
Some early examples from the first two environments, the cave and the forest, involve animals and plants, but in contrasting ways. The cave’s animal is the rhino that has five phases of age. The first involves the rhino in an egg, the second is a baby that will walk towards nourished plants to eat them, the third makes the rhino angry and will charge at the player once in its line of sight. Ageing again makes the rhino old, big and heavy, and the fifth is death, which is often the case for many fauna in the game.
Putting the animal into context, an early puzzle example involves abusing the angriness of a rhino to use its power to charge through breakable walls or ride it to travel distances much faster than normal. That overweight grandpa rhino? Well that is great for breaking through weak ground to create a gap to fall through. Sometimes these need mixing together, such as one puzzle that requires the rhino to be in an egg state, so that doing an ageless dash launches the egg over a gap, then ageing the rhino by one to get it to walk to a plant, but must be aged again to grandpa stage once it walks over the crumbling floor to break an opening to progress.
Now if we take that above example and move to the the forest area where that animal is the orca. Similar to the rhino, the orca begins life as an egg, then will become a baby orca, which swims around with an oxygen bubble. When in the third stage it becomes an adult orca that can be used to ride in water and up waterfalls. The orca’s next age makes it larger and now uses its blowhole to launch Kiara into the air. There is a section in the forest that requires swimming to the bottom to grab the oxygen bubble on a orca to refill Kiara’s oxygen – she has three hearts before drowning – then Kiara must shoot the orca to age it so she can ride it to a gap between the water and air to refill oxygen, then swim to the other side of the water cave, swim up the waterfall and then shoot an arrow at a plant to make it grow, age the orca so that it blows Kiara into the air, then use ageless state to dash from the plant that was aged to exit that section of the stage.
Those two early game examples should give an idea how creative Ageless can become. One thing to note is the game has a friendly checkpoint system. After every small section has been overcome there is a checkpoint, which cuts down the lost time to failure. This is important in keeping people wanting to progress, because the game becomes challenging and losing a ton of progress to failure, especially with how often it happens, would drain someone’s enjoyment. Death is one hit – falling down gaps, touching an enemy, running out of oxygen – but also sometimes death is a product of experimentation, trying to find ways to solve the puzzle as their solutions become more eccentric.
The only time when checkpoints are not so friendly is during the boss fights. I understand why, since it would feel like save scumming the game if after every screen a checkpoint activated. Boss fights showcase the game’s accumulation of that environment’s puzzles that lead up to each boss. The cave fight is a chase in which Kiara must escape from a mystical beast. This involves lots of ageless dashing and riding rhinos over bottomless pits. In the forest area, a sort of tree snake wraps itself in layers as Kiara must climb up the tree to reach the top before it gets to her. This takes everything that was learnt from the forest area and has the player manipulating enemies to launch Kiara upwards, along with riding orcas, using their blowholes, ageless dashing and Kiara’s ability to wall jump until the peak of the tree is reached. Prepare to repeat the processes due to the limited boss checkpoints, but they do make up for some of the more exciting moments in Ageless.
It is a shame I have to say that with all these neat puzzle ideas the controls do let the game down somewhat – they do not feel adequate to put up with the precision the game is asking for at times. Aiming at targets at the other end of the screen can be fiddly, due to the oversensitive reticle. There is something slightly off with the jumping, too. Maybe it’s the lack of animation that makes it appear off, but compared to some platformers with tighter controls the way jumping is performed in Ageless leaves no way to control height and the ability to alter in the air after jumping is a little loose. Jumping is something that takes a bit of time to get used to, so some deaths come from getting the hang of the controls rather then the difficulty of the puzzle. Glitches also bring issues to the controls, more so when speed is key to getting through a section. Frustrations arise when clicking a button, say to sit on the orca, does not always respond on the first click, sometimes taking three or four to activate. I looked around to see if anyone else had this issue, and sure enough the Steam forums mentioned it. Turns out that it is something to do with running the game above 60 frames per second, so a locked frame rate needs to be set to get around this problem.
In the end, Ageless has the signs of many great puzzle platformers. It has the colour, the beautiful and stylish pixel art, and it simply is an endearing puzzle platformer. Just like its protagonist, who is trying to give her life something of a meaning, the developers have kept focus on a single gameplay mechanic and fleshed it out to make it meaningful. The game has a solid concept that it sticks to and evolves with new ways to play with its ageing mechanics that some players will be genuinely surprised at how smart the puzzles become. But, I cannot help but feel the game is missing that final polish, that spark that puts it on the same pedestal as Celeste and a few others. There are some irritating issues with the controls, which spoil what would otherwise be a quality puzzle platformer. I can say that fans of the genre will entertain with what Ageless delivers, and anyone who enjoys a challenging game, if sometimes frustrating, will find something to like here.