Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Chaos Theory Review

Chaos Theory, developed and published by blurredVision.
The Good: Unique combination of strategy and reflexes, numerous puzzle elements, inventive level designs, can skip one tough level, informative tutorials, level editor, uses Steam achievements
The Not So Good: Can get stuck if you don’t hit things exactly right, limited to one skipped level, no online scoreboard
What say you? A neat and distinctive magnetism-based puzzle game: 6/8

One of the great things about the Internet is that you can distribute your game to a wide audience without needed a huge publishing deal. In fact, most casual games are distributed exclusively in digital format, cutting down significantly on costs. An example of this is Chaos Theory, a magnetism-based (when was the last time you heard that?) puzzle game by German developer blurredVision now available on Steam. Does this unique approach result in an entertaining game?

The presentation of Chaos Theory is minimalist but effective. The game takes place in a simple 3-D world: just a grid against a black background. Your view can be rotated so that you can see everything and the puzzle elements don't necessarily look bad, but Chaos Theory certainly won't win any graphical excellence awards. It is surprising, then, that Chaos Theory requires Pixel Shaders 2.0 (which prevented me from running the game on my laptop), because the game is not demanding at all on your system. While you don't need a modern system to run Chaos Theory, you will need a somewhat modern graphics card (meaning no on-board Intel chips, please). The haunting music fits the game well: although it's repetitive, you'll never really notice since its in the background. The instructions are voiced, which is a nice touch that a lot of big titles lack. So while nobody will be impressed by the graphics and sound in Chaos Theory, they don't impede the gameplay.

Chaos Theory is a puzzle game that plays out over 40 or so levels where you must guide color-coded magnetic particles to color-coded collectors. The game introduces a new puzzle element every level or two and the short explanation of each new item is voiced and sufficient. If the amount of content isn’t enough, you can edit your own levels by pressing control-F1; the game doesn’t mention this anywhere and there isn’t a menu item for it (I e-mailed the developer asking how to access this feature), but it does allow you to replicate any of the detailed puzzles in the game and subsequently manufacture your own crazy creations. While the game can fly by, the addition of a level editor will prolong the action, at least for a little while longer.

As I mentioned in the last paragraph (you were paying attention, weren’t you?), you need to guide numerous particles to their appropriate destination. They appear at regular intervals from particle generators that show the color that is spewing out next. So, how do you guide them? Chaos Theory comes with a number of physics-based tools. The first is the magnetic core, which can be turned on to attract or repel specific colors. For example, turning the core green will attract red particles (because, as Paula Abdul says, opposites attract) and repel green particles. It takes a couple of levels to realize that choosing green will repel the green particles, but it becomes intuitive enough after a while. Other game items include a polarity inverter that changes the color of the particles, distributors that can load and shoot particles, dipoles that require one red and one green, rotating bars, teleports, and multipliers.

The puzzles of Chaos Theory become interesting since you have to launch things at a minimum velocity in order to make them “stick.” This not only goes for the collectors, but also for the distributors (which require an indicated number of particles to be fully charged) and dipoles, so a lot of the strategy is to fill them up so that the particles leaving them will be traveling at top speed. Once particles are captured by an object, they will rotate at set intervals, making aiming easier. The level designer has complete control on the directions available to shoot towards: some distributors might allow for all 360 degrees, while others may restrict you to only four tracks. This makes aiming a whole lot easier, and also gives you subtle hints on how the developer wants you to tackle the particular challenge.

Overall, Chaos Theory features an assortment of very well-designed puzzles. Some puzzles require good aiming, others quick reflexes, and others superb timing. Despite the relatively low number of puzzle elements, the developers have made the game interesting thanks to the wide variety of strategies you must employ in the game. Some of the levels have a “time limit” of sorts, because you must move particles before new particles spawn. You can get stuck if you don’t hit things exactly right and completely mess up your plan: floating particles (caused by them not sticking to something) is a common source of restarts. The game allows you to skip only one level, an arbitrary restriction I don’t find necessary. I always like to have access to all of the content in the game, especially near the end when you’ve learned all of the components to the title. There are some especially tricky puzzles that require more luck than skill, and it would be nice to just skip past the irritating levels to see all of what the game has to offer. Chaos Theory keeps scores that are very accurate (I know I need ten-thousandths of a second accuracy) but there is no online scoreboard to compare against other players. Chaos Theory does incorporate Steam achievements that offer some sort of incentive, I suppose, although they don’t give you any in-game bonuses. But the game certainly delivers $10 worth of enjoyment thanks to its unique and varied design.

Chaos Theory offers inimitable (yeah, I ran out of synonyms for “unique”) challenges thanks to its magnetic puzzles. Guiding your particles to the goals involves a variety of skills, from overall strategy to timing and reflexes. It’s this level of diversity that makes Chaos Theory a notable puzzle title. And for $10, why not? The game might not have all of the features you’d want, as the 40-or-so levels go by quickly and there is no online scoreboard, but the hidden level editor (remember, kids: control-F1!) makes up for these shortcomings somewhat. The puzzles are very well designed with only a couple that I would consider annoying or luck-based. The flexibility of the game design shines through and makes Chaos Theory a strong puzzle game.