PAX East First Impressions – Project Totem

Totem_Screenshot_02When you think of puzzlers and brain teasers in this day and age, the majority of games people are playing these days are on mobile devices. It makes sense, given that the portability of smartphones and tablets lends itself well to a few quick rounds of Cut the Rope or Where’s my Water? But what about bringing some of those brain teasers to the console space? While titles like Portal certainly come to mind, I’m thinking more along the lines of those same quick, mobile-minded experiences, perhaps with the addition of crisper graphics and, dare I dream, co-op. Press Play, the team who recently released Max: The Curse of Brotherhood on the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, are working on a new type of puzzle experience currently labeled as Project Totem (working title).

First, just to get it out of the way, Press Play is in fact a first-party Microsoft developer. And while having Microsoft as a publisher would seemingly disqualify the small team from being considered “indie”, the studio assured me that their partnership with the platform holder is what’s known as a “light-touch acquisition”, meaning Press Play is allowed to retain full creative control over its projects. Considering the heavy emphasis the game’s lead creators, the Strandby brothers, place on creativity instead of by-the-numbers profit margins, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say Press Play hasn’t lost their indie spirit.

Totem_Screenshot_04Getting back the game itself, Project Totem puts players in control of two different-colored totem pieces. The pieces can swap colors on the fly, but neither totem can ever be the same color as the other. The object of the game is to reach the end of the stage while overcoming the various platforming obstacles and color-centric hazards. The demo at PAX put players in control of blue and red totems, which had to navigate through lava-esque hazards. Matching the totem’s color with that of the hazard allows the player to progress, which begins to get more difficult once platforming elements enter the mix, assuring quick reflexes will be needed to swap colors at a moment’s notice. I have to compliment Press Play here for their puzzle design, as the difficulty ramped up at an even curve and the levels were constructed in a way that intuitively taught newcomers how to play without any hand-holdy tutorials. Performance anxiety tends to be a gameplay factor when demoing a game live while simultaneously chatting with developers, especially when it comes to brain teasers (game show contestants will know this feeling as well), so it’s a testament to the team that I was able to successfully complete the entire demo – including a few bonus, increasingly difficult secret stages – during my brief play session/interview.

On the subject of creative ingenuity, one last important note about Project Totem in regards to the aforementioned co-op play, is that it works incredibly well. When playing with a partner, each player again is allowed control over two totems (so four in total), only this time the totems each player has are the same color; meaning that Player One controls a couple of blue totems, while Player Two commands a pair of red totems. Puzzles this time around are designed to reflect the additional totems on screen (single screen co-op by the way, but it’s not an issue as there isn’t far to travel between hazards, and both players are always needed to progress), and so hazards will get just a little bit taller, and platforming requires quite a bit of coordination in order to succeed. The local co-op is a wonderful addition to the puzzle space, and really compliments the overall experience. I found it just as enjoyable, if not more so, to reach the end goal with a partner; although, it may have helped that I was in good company, and playing with a member of the team who knew what they were doing. (Thanks Forest!) In any case, the co-op works well and is definitely worth giving a whirl.

Totem_Screenshot_05Project TotemĀ is scheduled for release this fall exclusively on Xbox 360 and Xbox One. More information about the game, which is still early in development, can be found on the team’s official website. For those who think puzzle games on mobile are only for casual gamers, I encourage you to let Project Totem‘s twitch gameplay and color-swapping puzzle mechanics test your skills. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Vinny Parisi graduated from the Ramapo College of New Jersey with a degree in Journalism. No stranger to the industry, Vinny first picked up an NES controller at the tender age of two-years-old and hasn't stopped gaming since. RPG and Action-adventure are his genres of choice, but there isn't much he hasn't played. His thoughts and shenanigans are displayed for all the world to see @Vincent_Parisi