Sym Review (PC)
Going into Sym was a very unique experience. It’s an interesting little indie title from Atrax Games. At the outset, you’re told to guide this character known as Josh through a puzzle-platform adventure that explores social anxiety disorder. From this little description blossoms a game that wants to be a very graceful and meaningful entity. It does a very good job of accomplishing that goal for a while. However, what starts out as a pretty good game is marred later on by technical faltering that asks too much of limited mechanics. It ends up turning something awesome into a somewhat unreasonably frustrating experience.
Everything starts out simple. Josh is guided by directional input, pressing up to jump, with the only exception being a button used to open doors at the end of a level. The levels are split between a light world and a dark world. The dark world is any area within the “walls” of the game, and if at any time Josh has two blocks of space beneath his feet within the dark world, the player can press down and Josh can shift through the ground into the dark space. In this form, you can explore all that space where gravity is reversed (including pressing down to jump). Pressing up on a dark space with two lighted blocks beneath the darkened Josh’s feet take him back to the light world. It allows for an ingenious form of puzzle platforming where one can really take advantage of these light and dark spaces.
As the player progresses, new obstacles are introduced such as arrow blocks which change the light to dark and the dark to light, buzzsaws that can destroy Josh in the dark and plants that will eat Josh if he steps on them in the light. Meticulous consideration and planning are a must as you carefully shift Josh through the light and dark worlds in order to escape through the doors of each level, but the game does a good job of introducing you to each threat and a death simply respawns you back at the beginning of the level instantly. The levels generally aren’t long, so failing to avoid an obstacle isn’t really heartbreaking.
Each set of seven levels is introduced by a title and short cutscene that sets the tone for that particular segment. There is a wealth of abstract visuals in the cutscenes and levels that give the overall aesthetic of the game a very cool minimalist look. As you progress through each level, there are short lines of words scattered around the background. The words read almost like a strange poetry in the way they are scattered, and their content adds an unsettling element that really does feel like an intimate look at a socially disturbed person’s diary. Though they speak to the level design or the threats present, there’s a clear meta-narrative to them that really adds to the overall effect of the game. The macabre soundtrack that accompanies each set of levels also helps amplify the mood to great effect.
Unfortunately, the game, for all its beauty, is not without technical clumsiness and hiccups that really hinder appreciation of what it tries to accomplish. First off, if a ceiling is too low and you collide with it trying to jump over an obstacle, you sometimes get stuck on the ceiling and end up dropping right into the pitfall. Another frustrating thing is that there are points where you need to use the arrow blocks to change light to dark in order to elevate yourself up to a higher location, but sometimes if Josh isn’t perfectly centered atop the block which will elevate him, it will instead shove him to the left or right. Later in the game when you need to get onto a certain spot set between two traps and the puzzles get longer, it’s super frustrating to die due to a technical difficulty shoving you right into the jaws of death. There’s also the occasional error of collision detection that keeps you from dropping down a tunnel or ends up with you dying due to the somewhat sensitive context of the obstacles. The game does a beautiful job of guiding you to solutions early and even in the middle, but later, the obstacles become a gauntlet and these technical hiccups will have you fighting to avoid numerous cheap deaths.
Once you are done with the forty-four levels that make up Josh’s adventure, there is a level editor that allows you to create and explore your own worlds. It’s slightly awkward at first, but once you learn what tools do what and how, it’s a little amusing to put your own puzzles together. That said, the level creator was definitely the buggiest part of the whole thing. It would occasionally allow me to place things that did not belong in one space or another based on the rules of the game and even just doing it as I was supposed to occasionally produced bugs which would not allow me to save or upload a level. When I tried levels that had been successfully created and uploaded, sometimes other bugs would occur that did not appear in the core game, such as reaching the end of a level and using the door, only to be stuck in that screen unable to do anything besides quit to the main menu.
I really love the ideas that Sym tried to go for. It’s a very interesting set of rules that make up Josh’s frightening little world and I was awed by the minimalist art style and the tragic nature of the whole experience when things played smoothly. That said, as the mechanics became more complex, the game seemed to fight against itself. I wanted to appreciate it all the way to the end, but it was incredibly distracting to have to concentrate so hard on following the rules to succeed while desperately attempting to avoid the technical hiccups. The world of Sym is very cool, but the flaws that don’t belong really hurt the overall beauty of the game.
This review is based on a download code of Sym provided by the publisher for PC.