A few hours in
Yeah, it turns out it didn’t actually take me all that long to beat all of Polarity’s twelve levels. I blew through most of them in the span of two afternoons. Partially because I enjoyed playing it, and partially because the puzzles weren’t actually that hard: I found myself spending more time on walking and busywork than I did on actual brain prowess. But more on that in a little bit.
Beating the normal campaign, to the tune of 36 data fragments, gave me the immensely satisfying ending you see up there. It also unlocked the ‘bonus campaign’ — I think? — which is really just a second set of levels by any other name. Playing those netted me another afternoon. They’re trickier, that’s for sure, particularly due to the inclusion of some new gameplay elements. But not much trickier. And, amusingly, beating that second campaign got me… an exact retread of the first campaign’s ending.
After that, I played a little of the coop campaign. Alone. Which is actually easier than you’d think: the coop campaign is split-screen only, as far as I can tell, and at least the first level isn’t really designed with cooperative play in mind. I was able to beat it by piloting the first character through the whole maze, and then resetting and re-running the whole thing with the second character.
And between all of that, and playing a little of the competitive multiplayer ‘DDOS’ mode…
…I think I have a fairly expansive handle on Polarity at this point.
The slightly anticlimactic truth of Polarity is that everything it does, it does a little half-heartedly. And this goes for both the good and the bad. So the core mechanics are interesting enough, and the puzzle design is fairly solid, but a little uninspiring. The levels are poorly put together, mechanically and graphically both, but not so poorly that it really impacts the experience. And while I ran into a handful of sloppy-design glitches while playing, none of them really put me out of the experience overmuch. Even the music and sound effects are only half-there, generic electronic beeps and wooshes that still manage to improve the experience over that of a mute block-throwing fest. And this all results in a game that I find myself giving that most shaky of tentative recommendations: ‘it’s alright… I guess?‘
On its Steam store page, Polarity claims to “[demand] all of your wits and reflexes“. And, er… I’m sorry, but this claim is just outright untrue. At least, it was for me. Maybe if you’re a particularly clumsy and slow-witted person, or maybe some species of sapient houseplant, playing Polarity would tax all of your faculties. For most other people, though, the level of mental effort Polarity imposes isn’t much above that of a particularly active podcast. Or watching a swarm of birds outside your bedroom window.
Rather than high-stakes reflex tests, Polarity’s levels are better described as slow-burning exploration puzzles. Every level has the same basic structure: a start, an exit, a path from the one to the other, and three data fragments, ‘hidden’ to a greater or lesser degree on the map. Most levels are large in size, and packed with moving objects and puzzle objects, so the challenge comes from figuring out how to combine all elements together in a path to the exit. There’s no intrinsic time pressure of any sort, save an end-of-level ‘completion time’ that doesn’t seem to feed into anything, so I honestly can’t imagine where the ‘reflexes’ claim even comes from.
Unless you want to claim that the occasional hilariously-slow-moving laser avoidance puzzle counts as a ‘reflex test’. In which case I refer you back to my previous ‘sapient houseplant’ comment.
Okay, now I’m just being contrary for the sake of it. Polarity does have a certain degree of quick-thinking embedded into its design. Particularly the conceit of ‘quickly shifting colours to pass through alternating wall colours’ makes semi-frequent appearances. I never felt like these challenges required much in the way of manual dexterity, but this may genuinely be a situation where individual mileage may vary.
Polarity fares better on the wits front, in that its puzzles do actually make you think. And as I’ve mentioned, on paper, the game’s core mechanics seem to lend themselves well to some interesting mindfuckery. Some examples I can think of: figuring out how to shift your polarity to get through laser walls without also falling through platforms. Getting coloured cubes to the right power sockets to activate a next part of the level. Finding out where those cubes and power sockets even are. Dynamically adapting the level layout to get certain objects-in-motion safely to their destination. And so on, and so forth.
And Polarity does actually do all of this. And more! In keeping with genre conventions, later levels introduce advanced new puzzle mechanics: green lasers you can never safely pass through, rotating jump ramps, and yellow energy walls that shift the colour of any cube that passes through them.
This interplay of elements is what makes Polarity actually fun to play through. As Portal has taught us, the combination of ‘relatively free exploration’ and ‘figuring out how simple mechanics combine in novel ways’ makes for an interesting and engaging gameplay experience. And, to a certain extent, Polarity shows that it understands this lesson: levels often feel large and sprawling, exploration is required to work out solutions and to find data fragments, and (as mentioned) the game does throw you some curve balls in later levels.
Simultaneously, Polarity never quite manages to reach the lofty heights of immersion set by its predecessor. And it took me a while to figure out why this is, but I think it’s because of this:
Throughout the course of the game, Portal actually changes up the core assumptions underlying its mechanics and level design. This is most immediately visible in the ‘post-incinerator’ second set of levels, which recontextualize everything the player has been doing up until that point by suddenly placing them in a new and alien environment. Still the same basic mode of operation, but it feels different. But even on a smaller level, Portal plays with the way its players view the rules: every level is essentially about ‘using portals to get to the exit’, but every level also tries to redefine what that concept means.
Polarity never really does this. This game hands you a set of mechanical rules and elements inside of the first two levels, and then never meaningfully changes them up. Every level is esssentially about ‘using polarity and colour cubes to get to the exit’, and that concept is more or less exactly the same in each level. Lasers to shift through and to get cubes around. Vertical walls and horizontal platforms. Jumping ramps, woo! But slightly less woo the tenth-or-so time your core goal is to activate one of those. Even the later-added elements, like the cube-colour-shifting walls, don’t really serve as anything more than extra roadblocks to that core goal. That initially-interesting, now-retreated, Jesus-are-we-still-on-this goal.
And this unchanging set of mechanical elements, guided by an unchanging list of core assumptions, is set inside an unchanging style of level design. There is no real change in aesthetic or design philosophy from one level to the next. Ever. Not even the bonus campaign gets so much as a visual overhaul. Once you’ve seen on Polarity level, style-wise, you’ve seen them all.
And speaking of level design…
Polarity’s level design is… confusing. I want to say ‘two-sided’. On the one hand, it’s perfectly functional: as I said, most levels manage to feel large and sprawling, and they support their inherent puzzles well enough. Little complaints on that front, sure enough. But on the other hand, the whole thing feels…
…man, I don’t really know how to put it. ‘Amateur-hour’?
I’ll tell you what Polarity’s levels most remind me of: they remind me of my own first foray into level design. Duke Nukem 3D’s Build engine, man, those were the days. You can probably imagine what my Baby’s First Level Designs looked like: bland, uninteresting boxes, focused on providing minimal gameplay support, and not really doing anything interesting with space, flow, and texture. And at the risk of throwing some serious shade, I see a lot of this in Polarity’s levels too.
Homework exercise for the interested reader: scroll back up through this page, and the previous one, and look at level screenshots. Mark the number of times you see levels that are shaped like big rectangular boxes, and that are textured using repeating patterns of blue or grey squares of hexagons. Are any of the screenshots like that? Are… all of them, perhaps, like that?
It’s not just the aesthetic that gets me, though, but also the larger design. Lighting, for instance, is all over the place: those two earlier screenshots of sudden unexplained Black Surfaces were by no means cherry-picked. Height levels occasionally fluctuate without rhyme or reason, really impacting your walking flow when an almost-invisible boundary is just high enough to require jumping. And on more than one occasion, I found myself walking on level geometry elements that I’m fairly certain I shouldn’t have been able to access.
Although even here, flashes of intentional design brilliance shine through. Not two levels later, for instance, I ran into this particular situation:
If you think that it feels a little petty to complain about level geometry in a puzzle game, then… you’re right. It feels petty to me, too. But these things are important to point out for the combined effect they have on the overall experience. Repetitive puzzle design can be obfuscated through clever and interesting levels. And repetitive level design is swiftly ignored when the puzzles presented within are genuinely brain-teasing. But when a predictable string of rarely-changing puzzle elements is placed inside an endless procession of identi-kit rooms… Well, the effect becomes akin to living inside the world’s dullest toy box.
Not a bad toy box, mind, a toy box filled with a lot of interesting bits and bobs that you can mash together in a dozen fun ways. But there’s only so many times you can throw the red block at the red circle inside the grey room before you start wishing for something else. Some out-of-the-box thinking, if you will.
And for all its store page bluster, Polarity never quite manages to deliver that.
In closing, let me tell you a little story about how one Polarity level captured both the best and the worst things about this game.
One of the later bonus campaign levels is this interesting boxed-in affair, combining rotating bounce pads and two colour cubes into a celebration of both careful planning and cursing at finicky physics engines. When I first approached the exit, however, I found that I only grabbed two of the level’s three data fragments. It’s not necessary to get them all to proceed — which is a whole different can of design worms I haven’t even touched — but obviously, my Nerd Pride wouldn’t allow me to leave in anything but the perfect manner.
I tore that level apart looking for the final fragment. Up and down and all around. And I just couldn’t find it! For the longest time, I found myself getting more and more frustrated; unsure if I was overlooking something basic, if the last fragment glitched out of existence somehow, or if the game was just outsmarting me. It wasn’t until the very last moment that I suddenly realized it was the third one: I figured out where the last fragment was five seconds before rage-quitting, and I felt really good about finally being meaningfully challenged in an in-retrospect entirely fair way.
Of course, the flipside of getting this final, hidden fragment was finding the first fragment… which was just sitting off in a corner, literally right outside the starting gate.
These things, both of them, are Polarity. On the one hand, a game of interesting puzzle mechanics, applied in occasionally brain-teasing ways, that reward clever thinking and — alright — a measure of quick reflexes. On the other hand, a big grey box that just throws elements at you, with little rhyme, reason, or overarching design philosophy. It’s a game that alternates moments of ‘wow, I’m really clever for having worked that out!’ with moments of ‘ugh, another one of these?’. And as a result, the overall experience is never quite as high or as low as it could have been; rather, it’s… alright.
I had reasonable fun with Polarity. However, and this harkens back to very beginning: I also only paid €0.19 for Polarity. In stark contrast, the current Steam purchase price is €5.00, or local equivalent. And I find it hard, in good conscience, to unambiguously recommend Polarity for that amount of money. If you’re really hurting for a first-person puzzle fix, and you’ve already played Portal, Portal 2, Q.U.B.E., Quantum Conundrum, and Antichamber, I guess Polarity is not a bad addition to that list. For everyone else, though… consider waiting until the next 95%-off-sale.
Jarenth hasn’t even mentioned how Polarity’s opening screen is essentially physics-enabled, and that you can jump from the bonus campaign level selection to the normal campaign just due to weird camera placement. Congratulate his clever way of working that little tidbit into his footer text on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?