Review: Euclidean Skies25 Oct 2018 2
Review: Euclidean Skies
Released 26 Oct 2018
I don’t know if Erno Rubik would be proud or distraught if he ever laid his eyes on Euclidean Skies. It could not have existed without him, his dedication to mechanical logic puzzles, and the proliferation of his Cube into the '80s smart guy scene. But it doesn’t at all resemble the tactility of the Cube itself. To him, the Cube represented a more spiritual and elemental connection to nature’s perfection. The leyline between mathematics and the human condition lies in the Cube.
This extended past his puzzle box and eventual toy empire. Rubik believed that the geometric cube was a divine shape, and that his Cube was just an expression of something bigger. "The number three seems to have a particular significance," he once said of it, "relevant in some strange ways to the relation between man and nature."
Euclidean Lands, 2017’s clever prequel, represented these concepts more directly. Its echocrome/Monument Valley camera trickery and Rubik’s Cube puzzle principles were sound on their own. When met with the strategic combat of Chess or developer Square-Enix’s Go Series, the experience was next level. If the Cube is fundamentally anthropological, then is there a human complement to the furious combat raging on its surfaces?
Euclidean Lands maintained the sort of simple elegance of the primary subject matter, even as it expanded into its later, more extravagant stages. From almost the first stage, Euclidean Skies rejects that elegance. It resembles less of Rubik’s holy Cube, and more like every other puzzle on the shelf next to it. You know the ones - the Hanayama U-bolts wrapped around one another that you must disassemble, or Nier Bohr’s Tangaloids, or that weird thing that looks like a wire hanger wrapped around a piece of wood.
The concept is the same. By both shifting the land you stand on, and moving space by space on its surface, you must slay all the enemies and exit the stage. But almost every bit of that foundation is iterated on in Euclidean Skies.
Firstly, in the core conceit. Unlike in Lands, all of the bad guys are mobile. When you move, they move, creating that sort of turn-based call-and-response relationship that 1980’s Rogue introduced to the world. At once, you are both moving to avoid the enemies predetermined paths, and moving to intercept and destroy them. That tension between tapping spaces and spinning whole rows in order to dodge and corner foes is an engaging experience far beyond just trying to place yourself around static targets.
This added kinetic energy often clashes with the added scope and dimensions of each puzzle. No longer is every stage beholden to the cube shape. Now, they can meander into outstretched pathways, often not even connected by blocks. The axis that each row and column spin on aren’t always even, either. So what may appear to be a cube will actually unravel into an exploded mess after just a couple of turns.
This is a blessing and a curse. Not being attached to some predictable central core means that even puzzles that may start out in a similar arrangement can end dramatically differently. These can also create obstacles to block enemy movement, or set a hard point to swing an enemy into, destroying them like baseball bat might a glass vase.
These transformable platforms can be their own obstacles though. With this new range of transformation comes a camera that is free to move where ever you need it to go. But if that camera isn’t facing a particular way, moving the world the way you want can be impossible. It’s a war of position. A totally winnable war, but one that will be fought in little annoying battles more often than you’ll want.
If Euclidean Lands achieved a sort of tranquil state thanks to the sound, models, and color palettes relationship to that slower paced gameplay, Skies is a practice of staving off chaos. The pale warmth of the sunsets and blocks are replaced with scorchingly bold reds and greens and blues. Your character, a nameless woman with a large sword, is dripping with personality. Same with the enemy models, which are packed with details that you often fail to see because you’re never close enough to see them, or incentivized to stop and smell the trimmed cloaks and armor.
There is a sort of charm lost in the switch from the ultra-minimalist style to this new, more aggressive one. It’s not as dramatic as, say, Nidhogg to Nidhogg 2, but it still takes a period of adjustment. Ultimately, this new art direction allows for environmental details that really expand the sense of surrealism from stage to stage. Stone awnings curl around the play area in wide arcs. Skeletons of giant beasts drape themselves over branches, periodically serving as obstructions to prevent moving a row a certain way. Lush trees and waterfalls add a sense of adventure when traveling between doors or maneuvering around paths. While it feels less orderly, it’s absolutely more expressive.
All this new kinetic energy can make this almost feel like a race against time. Some moments of twisting and twirling may cause the images to look less polished, or force the animations to creak while the framerate catches up. While playing, more often than I like to admit, I would find myself completely out of sorts several minutes into a puzzle. Blocks had been rotated so much that I’d no idea how to get them back. Soldiers wedged in between each other, swapping positions ad nauseam. A quick tap of the reset button straightens you out, but when I’m stuck in Skies, I’m waaaaay more helpless than when I was in Lands.
The hints are vague, but the special objectives can serve to keep you focused, even if you can’t solve the puzzle with only one move, or other such feats of heroism. In maybe the most indulgent - and least effective - attempt at moving the formula forward, there’s a feature that lets you play a given puzzle in a digital version of your physical space. The augmented reality function is finicky, and the experience isn’t worth the effort at all.
Would old Erno appreciate this expansion away from the primal and sane simplicity of his Cube? Not sure. Elegance is traded for unabashed ambition, and for those not concerned with how it sits in the cosmic order of things, Euclidean Skies is a no-brainer to add to the collection. It finds a way to break every rule Euclidean Lands wrote, and with its own sort of rugged flair. It can’t be the holy Cube again, that’s trite and uninspired. This new thing may not be some perfect union of heaven and earth, but the rest of the shelf is great too.