No need to fear this symmetry
Fearful Symmetry is yet another game on Steam that I bought on a whim and because it was only two bucks. It was developed by one person, an Italian game designer named Claudio Bozzotta, and released late last December. I didn’t know anything about Bozzotta or the game prior to purchasing it – all I knew was that it was an indie puzzle game on Steam, and those types of games always peak my interest. I’m a big fan of puzzle games; they’re a nice way to relax, even when a good puzzle game makes you want to tear your hair out in frustration sometimes when you can’t figure out the solution. In that regard, Fearful Symmetry definitely delivers – it’s a good, short puzzle game that’s challenging but not discouraging, and despite its pretty short length, it manages to be worth its very low price tag.
The game begins with a short cutscene that introduces the “plot” of the whole thing. The screen is split in two, showing us a character on the left and right (appropriately named Left Guy and Right Guy). Left Guy enters what looks like a temple and takes some scrolls inside, and then says something about a curse. Right Guy is told by a shady character in a dark forest to seek his salvation. And that’s really it for the plot. Like so many puzzle games, the plot takes a backseat through the whole affair. Until the end of the game, there’s no other story details introduced. While the game’s ending does provide a nice bookend that ties into the game’s theme of symmetry, it doesn’t go any further than that. And that’s fine by me. There’s a focus on puzzles rather than tell an in-depth story, which is what I’m really looking for in a game about puzzles. So it doesn’t bother me that the story itself wasn’t trying to be anything grand or epic, even though I’m sure it could have been done remarkably well.
Another thing that’s fairly simple is the game’s graphics and sound. The graphics are retro-styled pixel art, which works well enough. Everything is easily identifiable and clearly defined, so there’s no issues there. While it certainly isn’t the most spectacular thing I’ve seen done with the retro style, it’s good enough considering the game’s smaller status. There aren’t that many music tracks in the game, but what’s there isn’t that bad. I can’t exactly remember the compositions of the songs, but they fit the atmosphere of the levels they’re put in, so they do their job. Some of the choices of sound effects are a little bizarre, though – the sound for falling into a pitfall, for example, sounds more like a 16-bit fart than anything. Still, there’s nothing that’s completely discordant in the game as far as sounds go, so it’s not exactly a deal breaker.
As for the game itself, it’s a puzzle adventure game where you control both Left Guy and Right Guy as they attempt to navigate their way through each room, solving puzzles and avoiding traps along the way. The main gimmick of Fearful Symmetry is that you control both of these characters at the same time with the same keys. When one character moves forward, the other does, too. The difference between the two is that Left Guy needs to travel upwards, while Right Guy goes down. It reminded me initially of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, another game where you control two characters at once (though in that game, you controlled the characters separately using the left and right sticks on your controller). It’s an interesting idea that has the potential to make for some great puzzle design.
You’d think that controlling the game would be disorienting – and you’d be right. Or at least, they’re initially disorienting – it’s very hard to focus on both characters at once, so I would often keep my focus on Left Guy while glancing over to Right Guy to check on what I needed to do on his side. But I was surprised how quickly I was able to get used to the controls. I still had occasions where I would completely forget I was moving two characters and would send one of them marching right into a pitfall, but otherwise, the controls weren’t frustrating the whole way through. And the first few puzzles are easy enough so that you can spend time learning how to get past the initial awkwardness. The controls aren’t perfect – for instance, I honestly think there’s a bit of a delay when changing direction, which has killed me on a few occasions. But considering how disorienting the controls are initially, they could have been a lot worse.
The puzzle design is always the most important thing in a puzzle game, however. And as far as that goes, Fearful Symmetry is quite good. As I mentioned, the first few puzzles are fairly straightforward, but the game naturally gets harder as you go along. The Left Guy’s puzzles deal more with avoiding traps and pitfalls, while the Right Guy is more about solving riddles and mazes. Occasionally, Right Guy will have to activate a button that does something in Left Guy’s room, and Left Guy will have to be pressed up against the wall so Right Guy can move around on his own. I like this integration of both sides of the screen, as it feels like the game’s main gimmick is being used to it’s full potential and not just like a glorified maze game. The difficulty curve feels natural, and many of the puzzles are genuinely taxing on the brain – but in a way that feels satisfying rather than frustrating. There aren’t a whole lot of puzzles in the game, and I definitely think more could be added via patches, but the puzzles that we have now are really well designed.
It’s only when the game tries to change up the way you have to complete a puzzle that it becomes an issue. What I mean by this is that some of the puzzles aren’t based on figuring out the logic behind it and then getting to the exit. They instead test your reflexes and your ability to execute tight movement while also opening up the pathway and avoiding enemies. Fearful Symmetry is not something I can easily classify as a casual game like I can with most puzzle games because there are several instances where the game shifts focus to be about execution rather than puzzle-solving. These levels break the flow for me because they require me to think differently and have a different mindset while completing them, which really doesn’t gel well with the otherwise tight puzzle design. And remember the turning issue I mentioned above? These segments are where that problem becomes the most apparent.
Despite this, Fearful Symmetry is a game I recommend you pick up if you’re looking for a puzzle-adventure game with an interesting mechanic and some pretty well-designed challenges. While it’s incredibly short – maybe too short for its own good – the game has a tendency to shift focus away from puzzles and become too much like a runner; it’s still a game I think well earns its marginal price. It’s only two dollars on Steam, and for Mr. Bozzotta’s first project, I’m very impressed. It’s not the deepest game you’ll play this year, but it knows what it wants to do (most of the time, anyway) and it does it fairly well. If this game is a taste of what we can expect from Bozzotta in the future, then I can say I’m very much looking forward to what he’s going to do next.