Narrative heavy physics based puzzle games don’t come around too often… I feel like I type that far too often, which must mean it’s wrong. With barely a week since I got through a different game about moving boxes that bend the rules of the natural world, it’s time to put my brain through another workout with Relicta. Coming from Mighty Polygon studios this is a take on what should really be referred to as the Portal genre where you need to take part in experimental testing to uncover a mystery in a sci-fi setting. However, movable cubes and science gimmicks aside, can Relicta stand out on its own and offer depth and breadth to the first person puzzler? Or will it leave you feeling abandoned and left out in the cold of space?
Set on the Moon in the 22nd Century, you’re squeezed into the spacesuit of Dr. Angelica Patel, a scientist who’s been working up there on deciphering the research and tech of the mysterious Aegir Labs who were doing all sorts weird stuff without oversight. One of those secret projects was creating a giant base and terraforming sections of it to make it habitable for humans. Patel’s primary job at Chandra Base is understanding and developing antigrav kit, and of course the only way of doing that is through the use of – you guessed it – puzzle courses. All is good in making the impressive magnetism and gravity altering gloves have practical applications, until something is discovered buried under the lunar surface. Something alien. As it starts to go pear-shaped with power surges across the station that put the crew at risk, as well as the approaching transport shuttle with Patel’s daughter aboard; the only way to save the day is make it through the various biomes and turn the transport and communication systems back on. Of course, any sensible person would ask the overlord AI to switch of the puzzles and simply take a hike to the goal, but no… ‘cos… reasons (aside from that fact that would turn this into a walking simulator).
The core principles in Relicta will be fairly familiar ones – switches are activated by blocks, and solving the puzzle is a matter of opening the gate at the opposite end to the entrance. There are barriers in play that will allow the player through but not cubes, or cubes but not players, or restrict both, and the aim is really to find a way to get past the constraints. Its pièce de résistance though is the fact that each block can have its gravity turned on or off at will, as well as positively or negatively charging the cubes so they attract or push away from each other, and anything else that can be charged. This turns simply carrying a unit around into sliding them frictionlessly through the air so they pass over, under or through barriers. It’s all very straightforward to begin with, yet it does increase the complexity quite quickly and can cause some real head-scratching moments. It’s the first game in a long while where I’ve had to switch it off and go and think about what I’m missing to solve an area.
What Relicta does very well is take the gravity and magnetism concepts and ramp them up to an insane level. It doesn’t take too long before the single gate/switch/cube setup is swapped out for many gates, multiple switches, limited cubes and open 3D spaces to move things around in. It can present scenarios that are tightly confined and look basic, or massively complicated ones that once you’ve got the logic down are a lot of fun to work through. It also as that knack of making you feel like a genius for following a pre-defined solution, something that must be pretty difficult to deliberately design into a game. Occasionally it even allows a freeform approach. This might be accidental and need some small tweaking in a patch, but I was able to solve some puzzles clearly outside the proper solution. It’s not broken, it just feels like it doesn’t restrict alternate thinking some of the time. That can’t be said of the semi-invisible barriers that direct the routes between stages.
Each biome Patel visits is unique in its environment and will introduce new puzzle mechanics that are layered on top of what’s been doled out initially. Relicta’s structure is usually entering a challenge area, completing it, take a nice walk along a path with beautiful scenery that looks more open that it is and accompanied by some exposition, then enter another area. Rinse and repeat. All of the leg work is done in the biomes, though there’s the interior of the Moon base that links them all together. That’s a nice space to explore and hunt for data logs and collectables, though it’s there to serve the story rather than the gameplay. Outside the sci-fi heavy setting, there’s a tale of a broken marriage and a fractious mother/daughter relationship, and hidden in the PDA archives is enough to flesh out the type of politically driven future we might have ahead of us. It’s grounding enough to make you care about what’s going on, and the story unveils itself at a nice pace, managing to keep the intrigue throughout.
Graphically it’s a beaut. With distinct styles to each area, the “outdoors” looking picturesque and the indoors looking suitably subterranean; the blend works to wrong foot you. The Moon shouldn’t have beaches and jungles, but here they are. The overall look and feel reminds me quite a lot of The Talos Principle too which felt more cerebral in its approach to design, and there are definitely plenty of moments in Relicta where you step back and work through what you’re trying to do. With the story being portrayed 95% through dialogue during walking sections, the voice acting needs to be good, and it is. There’s just the right amount of playfulness in the characters to steer this away from horror because, let’s face it, how many times does it end up going to hell when you’re wandering a deserted structure in space? The relationships are well defined through the conversations and there are some genuinely laugh out loud moments between characters, as well as some good references to classic sci-fi and pop culture.
Relicta is a nearly perfect example of how this genre should be presented – clean, clear and with just enough rope to hang yourself. Whilst it doesn’t point in the wrong direction, it does make sure it’s possible to balls it up, and sometimes a full puzzle reset is the only option. However, it manages to stick to the basics whilst elaborating on the mechanisms all around, so keeping it simple and not trying to boil the ocean pays dividends. There are a few issues, the main ones being around polish and consistency in the rules in the environments (like some bits of rock can be used, some can’t), or the subtitles activating if you pause; though nothing that stops it all from working. For the gameplay it’s offering you really won’t worry about any of the foibles – the reward is in the solution discovery and it’s got some very cool “Eureka!” moments buried within. Buyer beware: it will make your brain hurt and you’ll dream of floating cubes and red/blue circles for days. Probably.
A PS4 review copy of Relicta was provided by Mighty Polygon’s PR team, and the game is available now on PS4, Xbox One, PC and Stadia for around £16 depending on the platform.