Review: Last Voyage28 Apr 2015 0
Last Voyage is a puzzle game which trades just as heavily in mood and the suggestion of plot as it does in clever mind-benders. As the title suggests it's a journey of sorts—an abstract, seemingly space-faring trip in five parts. Each act centers around just a handful of mechanics, each different from the last, with the game's ghostly cosmic synth running throughout.
None of this is to say that Last Voyage has a story in any traditional sense, though there's a familiar, filmic quality to how the game presents certain puzzles—the monolith and psychedelic tunnel of 2001: A Space Odyssey are possible touchstones here, though the repeated images of a half-risen sun speak just as readily to The Twilight Zone's middle ground between fear and knowledge. These similarities don't stop at passing visuals, though. Varied though its sections may be there's a strong, mechanical, interactive framework which supports Last Voyage's thematic aspirations.
Each puzzle (though one could just as easily use “task,” “vignette,” “chapter,” or “riddle”) is two-fold. First, there's figuring out just what the puzzle is, followed by figuring out how to solve it—and you can trust that the former is often more difficult (or at least more frustrating) than the latter.
Here's an early one: you're presented with some towers, casting long shadows into the foreground and beyond, with that setting sun behind them (totally the Zone, yeah?). It's important to stress that there's no prompt here whatsoever, no text describing what to do or how to interact with the scene—and, again, like much in Last Voyage it does feel very close to a scene. Soon you discover you can move these towers up and down (later on in the act: left and right), and that they each have a red band, at different heights, across one side or more. So you twiddle around, move that thing so that these bands form a line and- oh. That was it. Huh? Huh.
You might add a third component to the above, and treat each puzzle and act of Last Voyage as tri-fold, if you assume that beyond the color and pattern matching segments, and beyond the eventual on-rails, reflex-testing obstacle segment (not as out-of-place as it sounds), the game's actually trying to say something. Minimalist aesthetics and ambient synth music are overused as shorthand for thematic depth, but Last Voyage (I mean, even the title right? Why's it the last one? Who's voyaging?) lands enough clever punches to earn those loaded stylistic trappings.
Without talking too much more about specific puzzles (a major blow to a game which leans on keeping players unsure of themselves), the conclusion of the game's fourth act is most illustrative of the mindset Last Voyage tries to engender. Here you're given a bright blue path to follow, one which occasionally zags sharply to either side—sort of a laid-back infinite runner, without the “infinite” part. Swipe left or right and you'll course-correct, otherwise you lose the beam and have to start again at the last checkpoint. Things get trickier when the background switches from black to those Space Odyssey psychedelics, and the path gets that much harder to track. Then, suddenly, the electric acid show drops out, and the path (which you've been following perfectly, just as the game and universe asked of you) starts to fade away. “Ah, ah, where's it going? Where did it go? Where am I going?”
This means you've finished the act, actually, and are to be rewarded not with a shower of sparkling stars and the congrats of some anthropomorphic cartoon raccoon but, rather, with a bit of a downer. Sound it out and, yeah, maybe it's painfully glib—you've lost the path you see, like, metaphorically and, like, literally—but in the moment it's surprisingly affecting. Really, it is. Ditto when you fail, and the game over screen calmly instructs you to “stay on the path.” “You mean the path of my life, right? Right? CAN WE LEAVE THE TOWN TOMORROW?”
Then there's the game-ending challenge, where you're meant to guide a small diamond (possibly a spacecraft) past a series of rapidly approaching obstacles. Swipe left or right to maneuver your craft as it travels, slightly tilted, past deadly contracting orbs and swirling triangles towards some unknown finish line, all while a star slowly appears from behind a nearby planet in the background.
But, oh, there are these pickups which slow time down briefly, and help you navigate the trickier series of obstacles that would surely be impossible to beat otherwise. Except, well, you know they're not impossible, because sometimes Last Voyage will ask you to navigate three exceptionally tricky hazards with the benefit of slow-mo and then give you the same three obstacles again, without the pickup, trusting that the player's muscle memory will kick in and spit out the same, quick, left-right-pause-left-right-LEFT. It's a dick move, for sure, Dad/Mom/sibling/whomever promising not to let go of the bike right before giving a hearty shove at the crest of Babybreak Hill, but it feels damn good (like a trick from a good, mean-spirited street illusionist) when it works the first time—which may in fact be the very first time you see this particular gag.
Last Voyage is a puzzle game which is uncharacteristically comfortable with—and perhaps cautiously optimistic about—the unknown. Though not traditionally tough (at least not until the aforementioned final act), the game excels at regularly shifting its terms of engagement, being at different times a puzzle game, a psychedelic finite runner, and a sub-orbital obstacle course. Some sections don't resonate quite as fiercely as those described above, coming off a bit too much like “regular” puzzles next to the best of Last Voyage's emotional abstractions. As a package, though, this one succeeds as both puzzle and parable.