A Fold Apart Review
What happens if two people in a relationship are forced apart, unable to see each other and having to rely on technology to communicate? In a stunning stroke of timing, Lightning Rod Games’ indie puzzler A Fold Apart taps into the heart of what many separated couples are feeling right now. Instead of a global pandemic though, the cause of the split is… work.
Yes, the age-old question of “Which is more important: love or your dream job?” is asked here. Red is a teacher, Blue is an architect, and both have genders you determine from the start of the game. They are also both very much in love. When Blue gets offered the chance to construct a new building overseas, the opportunity is too good to pass up. In doing so, it forces the pair apart and though the separation is taken in good humour initially, loneliness and frustration slowly begin to seep in. And how best to represent separation anxiety than a series of puzzles?
The stage is the main mechanic here. Each level can be folded like paper, first horizontally or vertically, then from the corners in later chapters. You can flip both sides of the stage to join seemingly unlinked platforms together and allow Red or Blue to traverse otherwise impassable areas. The goal of each level is to reach a gold star by folding and flipping the page to allow you to move your character to it.
Early levels are straightforward enough and you’ll soon be introduced to unfolding which lets you move to a newly created folded platform, before unfolding it to flip you to the other side of the page. The result is a series of puzzles which require spatial reasoning and the ability to think on different planes, but a trial and error approach will also help you progress due to the small size of each level. Later chapters — of which there are five, offering around three hours of play in total — throw more elements into the mix. Crates can be moved and stood on to climb to higher platforms. Translucent ledges disappear when folded, dropping anything on them (including you) to whatever is below them. You can even rotate the entire page towards the end of the game, adding yet another dimension to the puzzles.
The compact nature, bright colours and characters that look like Wiimojis give A Fold Apart the look and feel of a Nintendo game. The accompanying music puts the piano at the forefront which tinkles out a series of heart-tugging refrains, one of which seems to riff on The Music of the Night. There is very little to criticise mechanically; a recent patch appears to have fixed a number of problems from the initial release and no crashes were experienced. Given the number of ways you can fold and unfold a level, the game caters for them all robustly. There’s also a sturdy hint system should you get stuck, making the whole package very accessible.
If anything, it’s the story that is likely to divide opinion. The flow of a level goes like this: a conversation starts, something is misunderstood or taken the wrong way, and clouds gather as one of the partners is thrust into a series of puzzles. They go back and forth in their own head about the meaning of the other partner’s response, then solve the puzzles at the same time as resolving their internal conflict. They realise they’re overreacting and things go back to normal before the next chapter, when the same thing happens again. Text appears in levels as well as in the vignettes between them, to hammer home the main point of each character’s miserable flight of fancy. Narratively, it’s as subtle as a meme of someone smashing their head into a table. Thematically though, it just about works thanks to some sweet dialogue which captures the loneliness and heartache of long-distance relationships in a believable way, even if the ending isn’t as satisfying as one might hope.
The biggest problem with the story is one which would unravel the entire experience if given a moment’s thought. Why do the pair never actually talk instead of texting? Because that would ruin the point of the game: misunderstanding the written word over the spoken. Move along, Captain Logic, there’s no place for you here. It also captures the evolution of 21st century relationships perfectly — it’s far easier to use a third party to distance yourself from your emotions, whether that’s a messaging app, social media, or email. There are so many different ways of not talking directly to people that it’s no wonder many countries are suffering a mental health crisis. The puzzles might slip from your mind as soon as you leave the PC, but by using the disadvantages of messaging as the crux of its story, A Fold Apart has inadvertently highlighted a bigger issue — that we need to learn to talk to each other again.
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