One of the best indies of 2018 was Celeste, a large pixel platformer that was hard as nails, but with polished intuitive controls, a heartfelt story, and poignant music, it was a joy to play. Celeste was a high point for the indie scene, and it was always going to spawn some imitators.
Imitation is a sincere form of flattery, so I get it, and I’d love more games as good as Celeste, but imitation also comes with pitfalls. Without the charm and polish of the game you are imitating, what are you left with?
Ageless is also a large pixel platformer that is hard as nails, but not for the right reasons. It does not have the story, heart or polish to compete against the game it is so clearly imitating. What it does have are controls and design choices that make it exceptionally hard to perform the gymnastics necessary to get through its levels, regardless of the skill of the player.
Kiara is a young woman who feels like her life isn’t going anywhere, and that she has no direction. To find something, anything, that will draw her out of her depression, she sets out to find the Gate of Gifts; a shrine that imparts a magical skill to those in need. There is little to no explanation of who Kiara is, where she came from, where this world is, or any of the myth around the gate. It just is. All we really piece together is that Kiara is fed up with her lack of direction in life. She says so right off the bat. There’s not much showing here, but some very unsubtle telling.
For some reason it’s taken her three years of searching, before she meets a guy called Vi, who has found the gate, and then stumbles across it five seconds later. If you have played Celeste, tell me I’m the only one seeing parallels. A girl grappling with depression uses a journey to clear her head, and meets a guy on the same journey, and it’s all in large pixels, and it’s 2D and it’s only the colour scheme that’s different. Just me? Alright, carrying on. Kiara finds the gate moments later, and the gift she receives isn’t one she expected even if she expected very little. It is the gift of being able to age and de-age (youngerfy?) flora and fauna. More on this in a minute, but for now I have no idea how that will help her achieve anything except platforming puzzles.
Pass through the gate and survive the quest through Pandora and you get to keep your gift. Great, I can use it to make lots of cute baby lambs out of adult sheep? No, even better, I’ll age the plants and create great forests and repopulate the planet with trees? Well, no. That might have been cool. What’s actually available to you is making beanstalks bigger or smaller, or making rhinos or fish of different sizes to solve puzzles.
Platforming in Ageless is a little odd. I know there’s no way plumbers can bounce like they seem to in games, but Kiara seems to be made of rubber. She literally stretches and squashes as you jump, stretching as you take off, and then squashing as you land. It looks bizarre, like she’s not human at all, but maybe made of cheesestring. There’s also no real change in animation as you bounce from wall to wall, you simply move like a pinball, with only the tiniest indication that she has touched any surface.
The graphics can be nice in places but overall I found them inexpressive and cumbersome. The high point is a beautifully drawn crescent moon-shaped hub map which you will progress through as you play.
Your task as with many a platformer is to move from left to right mostly, leaping and bouncing over obstacles, and solving puzzles with the aid of your new aging and de-aging powers. This comes in the form of a bow, with two types of arrows, and boils down to making vines bigger or smaller, or cycling a cast of literally just a couple of animals through birth, prime, fat old age, and then death. And bizarrely the rhinos are born from eggs. Magical world, fine. For a game advertising itself as manipulating flora and fauna, there is a remarkable lack of species to manipulate. There are more species in Mario, what with Koopas, Goombas, Toad people, plumber eating plants, and whatever Yoshi is.
Maybe this is just me, but when I stopped to think about the aging of the few creatures in Ageless, I felt a little guilty. I’d age a rhino from baby to angry young prime, use it to solve a quick smashing block puzzle, then age it to a fat older rhino whose weight would then break another block. Then I’d move on. But later when I was driving, or trying get to sleep on these warm evenings, my wandering mind would circle back to that rhino.
I robbed him of not only his childhood, but his prime years too, leaving him in old age, my own selfish purposes complete. He will never experience life, play catch with his dad in the yard, or have a career, just because I needed him to move through a small platforming block. It got so that if ever I could, I’d de-age the creatures I could still reach, and give them back their childhoods. Maybe with a second go at life they can pursue a different career path, one that wasn’t so tragically shortened, or they won’t let that other nice rhino relationship get away from them. It lessened the guilt a lot. Then I realised they would then relive childhood, with the knowledge of adulthood, and old age, and I felt guilty all over again. Maybe I thought about this too much.
If Ageless were just a simple game that played well, then I could get past the shallow gameplay and strange platforming. However it’s got a lot of other issues in the control department. To start with, the platforming forces a particular jump distance from you when you jump off a wall, but this pushed me over ledges and down into deadly falls a lot. Usually, you can direct your jump a little, such as in The Messenger, but here it was like hitting a trampoline on every wall, and careering off without any control, invariably into a pit. It takes a lot of getting used to, and could have easily been coded differently.
After a short while experimenting with the two arrows, you get another power; a boost jump that looks uncannily like the one in Celeste. It’s called becoming Ageless and means you can transcend time and space and achieve enlightenment. No, not really, it just means you can use a boost function when you come into contact with flora or fauna. But instead of an intuitive hold and release scheme like Celeste or the Ori games, becoming Ageless pauses the action (or half the action), let’s you choose a direction and then press a different button to get out of it again.
Pausing time, making the selection and then boosting, robs the process of any fluidity and fun, but it’s worse than that because this pause function only applies to the animals and plants, not a particular chase boss that ran me out of Pandora after a few hours of play. The sequence demands lightning-fast use of the Ageless mechanic to boost off rhinos, beanstalks and such, but the chasing boss ignores the Ageless function and continues on regardless, as well as almost being rubber-banded to you like an Onrush race. Some may say this is entirely deliberate, and I should git gud, but even if it’s a design choice, its coupled with the most unforgiving and un-fluid control system I’ve played in a platformer for a while.
Levels also don’t feel like they’ve been properly play-tested. I got stuck on one section throwing a rhino about for 20 minutes, because the spacing of the platforms was so precise and the rhino de-ages again every time you boost off it, yet you need him in a certain place.
Then to add insult, if you messed up and dropped the rhino, which is incredibly easy, you had no way of getting back out of the pit you were in and had to either restart from the checkpoint or kill yourself in order to try again.
There are bouncing flowers in the second jungle-type world, that bounce you left if you hit them from the left, or right if you hit them right, which sounds fine, however you can’t control the distance of the bounce like the aforementioned walls, and you will often be approaching the bounce flower from the left, but wanting to go right, up onto a ledge for example. I lost count of the amount of times just the tiniest discrepancy in my jump had me thrown off left back onto the previous screen. When you finally do hit the right side, you better not hit a direction button, the game will do the required distance automatically, which can be a hard difference from most games to unlearn.
Ageless demands the patience of an immortal to get past it’s tricky and unforgiving gameplay and control systems, and the strange lack of intuitive design on show. If you like platformers, there are a few things to like, but you need to be prepared for the punishing controls, that make it an unintentionally difficult game. If the controls and design had been better, the game actually isn’t terribly hard or long. But with how it is now, it’s frustrating for all the wrong reasons.
I love platformers, I recently sunk many hours into The Messenger and Ori 2. Celeste is among my favourite games of all time, but Ageless does not compare. It suffers from its clear desire to be something it is not, and would have benefitted from an overhauled control system, closer to that of Celeste. With the fluidity of that game, I could have been chucking rhinos around all day and probably had a lot more fun doing it.
Ageless is a passable but uninspired platformer, that copies aspects from the best, only forgetting to copy the polished and fun gameplay. That is a tale as old as time.
Ageless is launching on PC (review platform) and Nintendo Switch on July 28th, 2020.
Developer: One More Dream
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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