The following article is not a game review, but a public service announcement. Gateways is, hands down, the single most brain-meltingly difficult game that I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. I thought I’d played some pretty tricky ones in the past, but this latest title from Adventures of Shuggy developer Smudged Cat Games goes above and beyond what most people, myself included, would consider a “hard game”. Should you attempt to play Gateways, your brain will end up leaking from your nostrils into a soggy pile of neural mush, while you tear your hair out and scratch the skin off your face with your stumpy fingertips (you’ve already chewed through your nails). Don’t get me mixed up, Gateways isn’t hard in the same sense as the Mega Man series, in which the difficulty lies in carefully timed jumps and acrobatic D-pad control – rather, it’s a puzzler at heart, with a Metroid-esque overall feel to give you continuity between the puzzles, as well as a justifiable reason to present you with powerups. And it’s got portals.
You control the stereotypical old man scientist Ed, whose numerous inventions seem to have gone haywire and forced him to evacuate his laboratory. Unfortunately, his lab was designed by an architectural consultancy firm of three-toed sloths, and is one of the most complex and confusing two-dimensional maps in gaming. Making your way through the pixellated area of science, you gradually collect Ed’s lost equipment, trying desperately to find your way out of the labyrinthine laboratory. The first tool you’ll find is the “gateway gun”, which can be used to place portals on walls that are inexplicably linked together, allowing free passage from one portal to the other. Yep, for the first half hour, Gateways is essentially a two-dimensional Portal.
That comparison can only really last for the very first part of the game, though, as you’ll soon collect the resizing gateway gun, which adds a second level of complication by requiring you to either boost or hinder your size in order to complete certain puzzles. That’s not all, though – as well as the not-quite-gateway-gun power ups of the torch and the mirror, it’s when you collect the time travel gateway gun that things really start heating up. And by heating up I mean your brain, as it melts. Soon after picking up the time travel gateway gun, you’re expected to wrap your relatively tiny head around ball-breaking puzzles in which four or even five copies of Ed are required at specific points on the map at specific times, and it’s up to you to get them there.
Believe it or not, after the addition of the rotation gateway gun and the ability to use all four gateway guns simultaneously, Gateways becomes more ridiculously difficult with as each minute passes. Puzzles progress from fiendishly difficult to downright impossible. Thankfully, as you explore the lab, you’ll find collectible blue orbs scattered about the place. Each puzzle possesses a unique “help point” – spending 5 orbs at a puzzle’s help point will tell you whether or not that puzzle is solvable with your current equipment. If it is, then expending a further 40 orbs will play you the solution to the puzzle, depositing you where you’d be had you done it by yourself. While I’m usually a purist when it comes to puzzle games, I can’t consider this a negative point - everyone will use feature this at some stage. It’s just that hard, and rather than being perpetually stuck on a single puzzle (which will likely be the main cause of people not completing Gateways), it’s nice to have an acceptable way of progressing, save being a genius.
It’s not so prevalent towards the beginning of the game, but as you start to make your way through the story the puzzles become more dependent on precision timing and platforming, as well as simply knowing where to put the portals. This can be alienating for those gamers who are in it for the brainteasing, preferring to leave reflex tests to pure platformers. Only aggravating this issue is the sloppy, unresponsive controls – if puzzles are going to rely so heavily on speed and precision, the controls have to be crisp to ensure that the player never feels like a failure is the game’s fault. Frustrated, I blamed the game on multiple occasions, and a couple of them were even justified.
While charming for a couple of minutes, both the soundtrack and the visuals will start to grate if you spend too long in Gateways at a time. Environments are bland and largely devoid of decoration, save different coloured walls to differentiate between areas of the lab, and a couple of posters of other Smudged Cat games. This lack of style is not a major crime, however, having nowhere near as much impact on your overall enjoyment as the clumsy controls. But despite these misgivings, Gateways is a superb example of how a one-man team can produce amazing amounts of innovation and creativity. There’s surface comparisons to Portal, but they cease being relevant once you’ve picked up your second power-up. If you’re a fan of having your brain abused, are willing to trudge through the shortcomings, and don’t mind feeling belittled and stupid, then Gateways is the game for you. Good luck, and be careful. I don’t want to clean up brain mush.
Select Start Media was provided with a copy of Gateways by Smudged Cat Games.