What Lies in the Multiverse Review
The multiverse has become the trope du jour as of late. Spider-Men swing through time and space on the big screen, while shows like Stranger Things show us parallel dimensions from the comfort of our living rooms. So the biggest question I had upon starting Studio Voyager and Iguanabee’s What Lies in the Multiverse was this: how will this iteration of the multiverse concept try to distinguish itself from others? And, more importantly, will it succeed in doing so?
The conceit of the game is this: a young, unnamed boy accidentally stumbles into one of many alternate universes, where he meets the universe-hopping, Willy Wonka-esque wizard Everett. Everett reluctantly takes the boy on as his apprentice, and the two head off on wacky adventures through the multiverse – even as the boy begins to suspect that Everett may not be as innocent in the perils of the multiverse as he claims to be. It’s an interesting premise, and though the story and style might seem childish on the surface, it eventually delves into darker and more mature themes over the course of its 7-hour run time. Crucially, it also has a fantastic musical score, and some of the best, funniest dialogue of recent indie games. (One explicit, cat-related achievement card made me laugh so hard I nearly started coughing).
The side-scrolling pixel graphics of Multiverse are reminiscent of classic 90s platformers - or other contemporary indie game successes like Undertale and Lisa: The Painful. Points off for lack of originality there, but perhaps it can’t be helped. It’s an easy and popular style to emulate, after all. The most direct stylistic influence here, however, seems to be the Paper Mario series. The blocky stylisation of objects, the character design, and even the way the text pops up in the bubbles (often wiggling around or changing colour!) is often quite similar to the side-scrolling Nintendo venture.
The puzzle aspect is another place where Paper Mario’s influence on Multiverse becomes even clearer. I have fond memories of being a kid in 2007, playing Super Paper Mario on the Wii and giddily flipping back and forth between the side-scrolling 2D world and an alternate 3D view to solve puzzles and access new areas. What Lies in the Multiverse utilises almost exactly the same mechanical concept, and it might feel somewhat familiar to others who’ve played Super Paper Mario or similar games.
But, importantly, the new twists that Multiverse puts on its story and mechanics set it apart from its stylistic influences. The key “multiverse” mechanic here allows the player to seamlessly switch between universes on the fly. Said universes sometimes have completely different layouts and mechanical properties, and swapping back and forth is often the only way to solve a puzzle and advance forward. It’s a clever twist on both the multiverse trope and the “swap between worlds” mechanic, and it works in favour of both the game’s puzzles and storyline.
The level and puzzle design itself is simple but often ingenious – for example, I’m particularly delighted by a mechanic that physically slings you across wide swathes of space while also automatically swapping you between universes. I promise, it’s more intuitive than it sounds. The puzzles, for the most part, hit the sweet spot between too-easy and too-hard; it’s arguable that they get somewhat repetitive over time, but I certainly didn’t get bored.
The puzzle system certainly isn’t perfect, though. One issue I found when completing puzzles was the lack of an action button for certain interactions, like pushing items or climbing ladders. I can’t count how many times I was trying to jump on top of a box, but since there was no action button to alternatively push the box (you just run toward it), I accidentally pushed the box off the ledge and had to start the whole puzzle over again. Especially on the Switch, which has plenty of buttons on its controller to be mapped, the lack of an action button to push/pull an object (for example) was a mechanical oversight that was often much more frustrating than the puzzles themselves. But the biggest issue I had with the puzzles wasn’t the technical difficulty. Rather, it was that many of the puzzles rely less on creative problem-solving than the ability to click the right button at the right time. For example, there’s one particular world where every action you take is set to a timer – if it runs out, you die.
Needless to say, it’s a lot harder to think clearly about how to solve a puzzle if you only have about five seconds to solve it. There’s a time and a place for button-pressing precision, of course, but if I wanted that I’d be playing more Elden Ring. But, in all fairness, I’m nitpicking here. Overall, the puzzles are fun and creative, and they’re made totally worthwhile by the reward you get for completing them: the story.
Plot is what really sets Multiverse apart from its peers in the universe-hopping genre. It’s established pretty early on that there’s much more to the multiverses and to your companion Everett himself than is initially revealed to you; you always begin in a “light world” of sorts, where there are people, plants, and animals cheerfully going about their daily lives. But as soon as you swap to the parallel universe, you’re presented with a place that’s a sinister shell of its former self. Some universes seem to have been trapped in eternal, freezing winter; others have to contend with a zombie apocalypse. And the longer you continue through the game without hearing Everett comment on how and why reality itself seems to be rapidly fragmenting, the more suspicious of him the main character – and the player – becomes. This isn’t to mention the team of researchers who are trying to “kidnap” (or rather arrest and hold responsible) Everett for supposed crimes against the fabric of the multiverse. And through it all, Everett is tortured by grief over the death of his former assistant, which is supposedly what previously set the narrative into motion at all.
In juxtaposing its almost childlike visual and mechanical aesthetics against its mature overarching themes, What Lies in the Multiverse plays with our sense of nostalgia to great effect. Sure, the characters all look and act like they could have come straight out of a first-generation Pokémon game. But the circumstances they find themselves in are often much more dark and existential than those within anything we would have played as children. The game doesn’t offer much in the way of branching narratives that I’m aware of; I suppose that’s too many potential multiverses for even this game to handle. However, I’m always of the mind that one well-crafted narrative with no branches is always better than multiple branching narratives that are sloppily designed – and this game is certainly not the latter. To say more would be to dive into spoiler territory, and Multiverse is far too interesting to deserve that sort of treatment.
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