Samsara Review

February 21, 2018
Also on: Xbox One
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Samsara is the closest thing you’ll get to a yoga workout for the mind. It’s a thoughtful puzzle game which utilises a simple mirror mechanic throughout each of its seventy-plus levels, and the combined effect of a gentle learning curve and a soothing presentation is a brief, but charming experience.

Inverting the level can help your brain click when you're stuck.

The premise is simple enough. You play Zee, a Red Riding Hood-esque girl. who chases a squirrel and ends up falling into an alternate dimension (no, really). All you need to do is get her from the starting portal of each level to the end portal. Each portal leads to the next level in the world, and after all the levels are completed, you move on to a new world. The twist is in the mechanic you use to guide her to the right place. Every level gives you a set number of blocks with which you can construct a means for Zee to escape. These may take the form of simple square blocks, or sets of staircases, and each can be rotated to provide different methods of placement. Every level is set over a reflection of the “true” world which often has a slightly altered landscape. However, every piece you place in the mirror world creates a reflected piece on the real world — your task is to find a way of making those pieces create an accessible path to the next portal.

Like in Lemmings, Zee will move forward in one direction until she either hits a wall and turns around, or plummets to her death. Pieces you place are affected by gravity too — balancing a staircase on its end will simply cause it to topple over, and it isn’t possible to place a piece which covers a part of the existing scenery. Even if it looks like it will fit fine in one world, a telltale red circle will soon let you know that you cannot put it where you want.

Those red dots mean you can't place a piece, even if the mirror version is fine.

The difficulty level ramps up surprisingly quickly after the first world, forcing you to get into the developer’s head at a rapid pace. You might think that three pieces which can only be manipulated in one of four cardinal directions should be easy enough to find a solution for, but the mirror aspect and the mismatched environment conspire to make you feel very stupid indeed.

One element of the gameplay which isn’t immediately obvious is that the asynchronicity itself can be used as a tool. A piece that might only fit on one side of the level due to a ledge being in the way may actually fit on the other too, if you allow gravity to take its course in the reflection and drop the mirror piece into a gap. The first time we encountered this mechanic, a light bulb came on immediately and the subsequent levels became a lot easier to figure out. It’s a shame that the use of asynchronous gravity isn’t included properly in the tutorial, as failing to discover it may put many players off initially.

Occasional cutscenes offer a modicum of story.

As you progress through the worlds, new challenges are thrown at you. Colour-coded portals offer entry and exit points at their respective positions, and add another level of complexity to your escape. When you reach the third world, you not only have to manage Zee’s escape, but also that of her shadow self. What might be a suitable path for her to follow may not be ideal for her shadow — and vice versa. And then there are one-use paths, which disappear after you’ve crossed them — unless Zee’s shadow touches them, in which case they reappear.

The gravity element becomes even more important in conjunction with these new obstacles; blocks which are placed on shadow paths can be made to drop down when one of the girls touches them, creating a route for the other. The level design may seem simple, but a lot of thought has gone into each puzzle and the minimal number of pieces in play make the experience feel far less stressful than other games of this nature. Rotating and slotting pieces into place gives you the same satisfaction as doing a jigsaw, but with far more interaction — and as you hit later stages, the complexity of your escape routes almost reach Rube Goldberg heights.

Portals add complexity to certain levels.

But even with new pieces, such as stone blocks which ignore gaps that wooden ones fall down, or gold blocks whose mirror versions fall in the opposite direction to normal, the puzzles are ultimately variations on a theme. There is a story of sorts told in a primitive comic-book style, but it’s as lightweight as you might expect given the game’s initial premise.

There’s no hint system, but an inverse option can prove useful by flipping the entire perspective for you to come at the challenge from the opposite angle. Achievement hunters will enjoy clicking around the environments to find the interactive points that trigger aesthetic effects, such as setting off sprinklers or prodding bats, but there’s little in the way of replay value given the nature of the game.

The environments are fun to play with, in a Hearthstone kind of way.

It’ll take you anywhere between two and six hours to work through all of Samsara’s puzzles, depending on how often you suffer from brain freeze. Aside from the challenging final level, a combination of trial and error and sheer persistence should see you progress at a decent rate. It’s not the most taxing puzzle game you’ll play, but the process for solving each level is truly cathartic.

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A short, sweet puzzle game with a Zen-like charm.
Rob Kershaw

I've been gaming since the days of the Amstrad. Huge RPG fan. Planescape: Torment tops my list, but if a game tells a good story, I'm interested. Absolutely not a fanboy of any specific console or PC - the proof is in the gaming pudding. Also, I like cake.