REVIEW: Manifold Garden

Oct
23

REVIEW: Manifold Garden

A singular vision realized. The impossible made possible. Jump into the infinite. Jump into Manifold Garden.

Released: Epic Store
Genre: Adventure, Puzzle
Developer: William Chyr Studio
Publisher: William Chyr Studio
Release Date: 18th October, 2019

Manifold Garden is a game that reimagines the laws of physics.

Rediscover gravity and explore an Escher-esque world of impossible architecture. Witness infinity in first-person, and master its rules to solve physics-defying puzzles. Cultivate a garden to open new paths forward, where an eternal expanse awaits.

A unique gravity-manipulation mechanic that allows players to walk on any visible surface.

An expansive and beautiful world filled with secrets for players to explore.

Enter the Garden

Some games take a long time to develop and bring to market. Some are worth the wait. Some bear the scars of their tortuous path with muddled disjointed gameplay concepts. It’s been a long road for William Chyr. Back in 2012, the game started to take form and was originally called Relativity. Slowly the design took shape and in 2015 the project was backed by the indie fund. This allowed more time to fine-tune the unique gameplay ideas into a coherent and playable form. Fast forward to 2019 and the game is finally finished.

I can’t remember the first time I set eyes on Manifold Garden, but I was instantly impressed with the architecture and free form gameplay. Obviously, the game was a little rough around the edges but the nature of the core mechanic had me hooked straight away. The idea of an infinite world wrapping around itself is groundbreaking. I hate the constraints of invisible walls in games. Even some of today’s AAA truly massive open-world games have their artificial boundaries. These break the immersion within the space and make it all too clear you are in a game not another realm of reality.

Worlds within worlds

Manifold Garden is a puzzle game at heart and trying to describe its mind-bending world it which it is set is quite the challenge. I could easily end up in an endless word loop if not careful. The best way I can illustrate this is by comparing the games inventive use of gravity to the very famous scene in Christopher Nolan’s Inception movie. The key part is the Paris city sequence where the streets bend in on themselves and the actors traverse from one plane to the next where the roads intersect. The normal laws of physics don’t apply to this dreamspace. Manifold Garden takes this one step further and gives each plane within the three-dimensional space its own local gravitational field.

This switching of gravity would soon become confusing if not for some very clever and beautifully simple colour coding. Each plane is given a bold colour when it is active. By walking towards another plane the cursor (represented by a dot) changes to that colour. This indicates that you can flip the gravity to the chosen plane /colour. It’s a very clean and transparent way of labeling planes, within a world where terms like up and down are meaningless.

To acclimate to the world and its unique bending of physics, you start off in a basic room with only a trigger plinth to activate to progress. The only problem is that is situated on the ceiling! This encourages the player to traverse the wall by using the gravity flip button. Each flip rotates the scene 90 degrees and before long you are on the ceiling which is now the floor. A series of colour triggers places along connecting corridors allows players time to get used to this vital mechanic.

Once these few steps have been mastered you encounter your first real puzzle room. Anyone familiar with games like Portal or Q.U.B.E. will immediately understand the basic logic required to progress. Two colour coded blocks are situated in the area. By navigating and placing the blocks on the same cloured floor triggers you unlock the door barring the way to the next zone. The key to this exercise is to show that the blocks are only moveable whilst on the same coloured plane. Switching the gravity freezes them in position. The next few puzzle rooms build on this concept by increasing the complexity and steps required to unlock further doors.

The opening sequence is intentionally linear and doesn’t throw too much at the player. Traversing the corridors you can catch glimpses of the world outside which looks like an impossible “etch a sketch” rendering. The final room in the starter zone is a large space with floor to ceiling windows and a cuboid style tree. Placing one of the cubes in trigger receptacle unlocks the door to the outside. Taking the remaining cube you venture forth and are hit with an awe-inspiring exterior view. In every direction, the geometry is repeated into the infinite. Across this impossible scene, you discover a new door with a trigger holder. The only thing barring your progress is the yawning void between the two structures. A leap of faith is required and soon you are sky diving into what you think is oblivion. But as the world wraps around itself you see the same architecture repeating as you fall. With the subtle air movement controls, you can slowly guide your character to the new building and continue your adventure.

Unlocking further zones introduces new gameplay mechanics such as water wheels and streams. By rotating blocks you can alter the course of the water as it flows in a flat ribbon across the surface of the arena. The idea is to guide the stream to power up the water wheels and thus unlocking a gateway to the next area. Later levels add more layers of complexity. Requiring not only course changing but also gravitational shifts to proceed. All these new additions to the core logic loop are fantastic and really add to the depth of the puzzle-solving soup. None of them seems out of place or tacted on just for the sake of it. It’s a wonderfully cohesive game design elegantly executed.

Manifold garden is much more than a usual run of the mill first-person experience. It goes way beyond that genre in terms of sheer scope and grandeur. Each new room or area not only presents a new logic challenge but also a new place to explore and absorb. Even before attempting any solutions I would stop and take in the breathtaking views. To speedrun this game would be a disservice to all the hard work required to construct and design such scenery.

I’ll admit I’m not the smartest guy on the planet and some times puzzle games leave me frustrated with obtuse and convoluted conundrums. To hit the sweet spot in terms of difficulty is extremely hard. Especially without a widespread scope of QA testing. I’m happy to report that I had no real roadblocks during my playthrough. They were times where a particular puzzle would stump me for a spell. I’d take a step back and survey the scene. Taking a moment to recollect my logical thoughts and suddenly get an “Aha Moment”. There’s nothing more satisfying than finding a solution to what you thought was an impossible paradox.

Form over texture.

William has gone for a pristine aesthetic. The usual baggage that adorns most current titles is missing. No PBR textures, no bloom and no volumetric fog. It’s a refreshing change and the game looks all the better for it. This unfussy design is vital for the visual language of the game to be conveyed to the player. Architecture and form take president.

The obvious inspiration for the graphic style is MC Escher. His groundbreaking line art has been built upon and unleashed into the digital realm. Impossible architecture and spiraling views are here and now. Once only available as drawings in art history books are now worlds which can enjoy from the comfort of your PC. What a time to be alive!

Basic shapes have been given a few extra touches to give them character. Custom Phong and edge detection shader effects have been added to the prefabs. This gives the whole experience an extra graphical flourish. It’s restrained and not overbearing, Very much in keeping with the overall tone of the project.

After the opening tutorial-style rooms, the game allows the player to venture “outside”. This is where the Unity engine shows its chops. Infinite vistas of repeating architecture greet the viewer. It’s both a technically outstanding and awe-inspiring at the same time. I’ve played around with the Unity engine whilst working on a project of my own. So I’m familiar with the capabilities of the codebase. How the lead programmer has managed to achieve this instancing effect of infinite meshes is beyond me. Its pure sorcery in digital form.

A place between sight and sound

In keeping with the rest of the project, the soundtrack is suitably understated. Composer Laryssa Okada has created an ambient based sonicscape. Clever use of layered synth pads and drones gives the pieces a dense tonal quality yet still retain a lush nature. Good use of Unity’s audio triggers helps sync the sound with the visuals at key moments in the game. Crescendos and pitch bend slides embellish the infinite geometry vistas.

Along with the sometimes sparse soundtrack are a number of spot FX. Footfalls and landing thunks sound weighty and give the player good feedback as you wander around the world. Picking up and drop blocks into trigger switch devices activities a satisfying electronic clunk. ambient sounds also feature in the audio mix. flowing water and bird song resonate to breathe life into the scenes.

Verdict

Manifold Garden is a monument to William and his small team’s tenacity and staying power. Lesser devs would have thrown the towel in long before the game was in any serviceable shape. I have to admire anybody’s ambition not only to think of such a complex concept for a game design but to actually finish the darn project and produce such a compelling experience.

I’ve played many of the recent batch of first-person puzzlers but none have hit the heady heights of the imperious Portal 2 in terms of innovation and sheer scope. Manifold garden has both the design and unique rendering technology to stand beside such a classic game. It’s a technical and visual marvel. Jump into the infinite.

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