My original plan was to write about Tomb Towers yesterday, but I ended up obsessively playing through the entire thing—always a good sign—and then realizing that I forgot to set my recordings back to 30 FPS. Since this game has that choppy retro feel to it (which might sound like a bad thing, but isn’t), 60 frames per second is laughably inefficient, and I spent a large part of the day paring the videos back down to 30. As for the game itself, it’s incredibly fun despite just releasing into Early Access. There are three towers made up by connected rooms of increasingly difficult bite-sized puzzles, with three sets of extra hard “nightmare” levels once you beat the normal ones, and while I don’t personally care for a few of the design quirks, the content here is good enough overall to already be well worth the price.
Some gameplay stuff
Tomb Towers’ store page claims that it’s a “nostalgic gaming experience” with a “pixel-art style reminiscent of MSX-era games,” and both of those things are immediately apparent. The visuals are simple and brimming with personality, while the physics are much more predictable than those in most games; rather then the constant motion of a jump arc, the main character’s jump allows them to float at the height of their jump, and the easiest way of describing this is to compare it to how Princess Peach floats for a short time in Mario 2. This combines with movement that appears to snap to a grid and an adjustable game speed (which impacts the sound of the music) to make precise maneuvering possible, which is important because you can’t be touched by enemies or environmental hazards without losing a life.
Needless to say, this is a game that’s refreshingly unique compared to most indie games that get released these days, and new things are constantly being introduced to keep things fresh, though levels don’t ever drag on. As mentioned earlier, I played through the whole game yesterday, and doing so took about two and a half hours. That’d be an indictment against most genres, but puzzle games tend to be at their best when they do something unique, explore it a bit, and then end once they’ve taught you how to deal with their tricks. That’s exactly how Tomb Towers plays out.
One of the things that I didn’t care for at first (but that can’t be changed without trivializing certain sections) is how moving platforms are handled. Standing still on moving platforms in most games allows them to move you around, whereas here you have to actively move with them to avoid falling off. These platforms are also incredibly dangerous because hitting their sides means losing a life, and this makes moving platforms one of the most consistently tricky stage elements throughout the game. As frustrating as they can be, they definitely grew on me after awhile.
This, on the other hand, is something I hate without reservations. Tomb Towers has some rules that you pick up while playing, like the fact that doors can only be unlocked and blocks can only be pushed when you’re standing next to them. If you try to jump up and unlock a door, it won’t work. If you try to push a block in midair, it won’t budge. I’ve tried pushing blocks in the air enough to know that you don’t lose a life trying, though, which makes it all the more peculiar that you can lose a life by jumping up and pushing against one when there’s not enough room to jump over it.
A note about a collectible
I’m trying to avoid posting too many videos to avoid spoiling some of the more clever stages, but there’s one thing that needs to be addressed. Each tower has a certain number of collectible seals in addition to a single diamond, and while the seals are always plainly visible, diamonds are hidden where you wouldn’t normally think to look. The first two towers’ diamonds have visual cues that make it possible to find them once you know to look, though, whereas the third tower’s diamond gives you no clue that it’s there. I had to look up its location, and it was frustrating to realize that obtaining it meant jumping into a pit lined with spikes to hit an invisible warp.
This video also covers what happens when you run out of lives. Basically, you’re given 5 new lives and sent back to the beginning of the tower you’re in (whereas the non-tower nightmare stages give you unlimited lives), with all of the doors you unlocked remaining so. That means that the only penalty is one of inconvenience as you’re forced to hike back to where you died, with this striking a good balance between creating stakes and keeping player frustration to a minimum.
Some final thoughts
All in all, I’m impressed by how enjoyable Tomb Towers ended up being, especially since the only MSX game I’ve ever actually played is the original Metal Gear (and even then, only because it was packaged into a release of Metal Gear Solid 3 for the Playstation 2). Nostalgia is clearly not required to have fun with this. It’ll be interesting to see how some of the levels end up being tweaked as Tomb Towers barrels closer to release; the store page claims that it’ll only be in Early Access for a few months if all goes according to plan, so it shouldn’t be a particularly long wait.
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