Gateways wears its influence on its sleeve. To be more precise, the main character in Gateways wears it. It’s the main tool used throughout the game and it’s a device that is in no small way an imitation of the portal gun from the Portal series. The gateway gun is worn in the same way, covering up part of the arm, has similar prongs protruding at its front, and creates physics-breaking gateways on particular surfaces. It’s a brazen move to so closely imitate one of this generation’s most beloved series, but developer Smudged Cat Games understands the adage of “great artists steal’ and ends up making a great title because of it.
Often amongst the player community, I see knee-jerk reactions to decry games with similar mechanics and aesthetics as “rip offs.” While the claim is sometimes warranted, it belies the fact that creative mediums are constantly informing each other. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” couldn’t exist without the Bible and Shakespeare. Post-modernism couldn’t have existed without the Formalism that strictly defined critical interpretation. Modern hipster attire wouldn’t exist without the clearly defined eras of fashion that came before. Before the trees get in the way of the forest, my point is that the imitation doesn’t mean duplication, and Gateways approaches the portal mechanic in a different way.
The game places players in the shoes of a scientist named Ed who suddenly finds that his experiments have been scattered across his lab. Intent on finding out what’s going on, he sets out to find the various versions of his gateway gun and take out his monkey-robot hybrids. The game takes place on a 2D plane and is composed of the pixel art that pays reverence to the style without sticking to the early console era’s visual limitations.
While the game would appear to take most of its cues from Portal with its signature mechanic, the open-world nature of the map actually makes it closer to a metroidvania. On a basic level, the game plays much like a traditional platformer, with jumping on top of enemies, collecting orbs, and jumping to move through areas as essential components. Like games designed in that style, areas are blocked off until Ed gains the proper tools. The difference between a great metroidvania game and Gateways though, is that tools become useful in all areas of the game in the former. Sure, the different types of gateway guns are used throughout, but smaller items like the mirror that reflects lasers and the flashlight don’t get much attention past the initial areas they are found in.
Often, the tools that need to be discovered are just simple upgrades that either extend the amount of echoes created when bending time or allow for higher jumps. It’s unfortunate, as when the mirror and laser are used, they provide a refreshing twist beyond just setting up gateways. The map also has a convenient shortcut system where certain buttons will open up permanent gateways to the starting area, which acts as a hub for accessing all the map.
Jumping around aside, Gateways is first and foremost a puzzle game. This is done through the gateway guns that I’ve mentioned a few times but have yet to explain. The first gun Ed receives works very much like the portal gun. It works only on specific surfaces, maintains momentum of things moving through it, and gravity always affects you when you come out the other side. But where Portal gives you a gun with one function and then lets the environment determine its use, Gateways give you three more guns with different effects. One ignores gravity and aligns the world’s orientation with how you exit the gateway, another allows you to either shrink or grow depending on which gateway you enter, and the last one allows you to create character loops when messing with time. It makes sense that Gateways went this route, as Portal has the ability to be a physics-based puzzler while this game is much more of a space exploration experience (a fine distinction, but an important one).
The puzzles are uneven, with the ones using the basic gateway gun and size changer being fairly simple. This is due to the fact that you can’t mix and match gun abilities, so once you figure out which gun you should be using, the possible routes to the solution limit themselves to one. The puzzles using the orientation gun have a nice balance, as moving the portals around provides a proper challenge. I had the most trouble with the time gun puzzles though, and I was only able to solve a handful of them without the hint system. When I received the gun, I didn’t get a space to play around with it. The directions on how to use it weren’t quite clear, and though I could’ve found somewhere to mess with it, I’m of the mind that the puzzles should’ve been designed to ramp me up to the obtuse conundrums I felt pushed into. That being said, the complexity of the challenges are a bold step that I really admired and enjoyed working through.
As with many platformers, collectibles lying around are included in Gateways, but they have a useful purpose here. Ed will collect blue orbs laying around the world which act as a sort of currency for receiving help. Each puzzle has a solution station where an initial toll of five orbs will tell you if you’re equipped to solve the obstacle, and a further investment of forty orbs will straight out solve the puzzle for you by placing Ed in a video that shows the solution. While there aren’t enough orbs to just purchase your way through the game, it is generous enough that you can bypass quite a few of the harder ones.
Despite the rough around the edges design of the puzzles, Gateways goes beyond just being an alternative to Portal. It’s 2D plane, metroidvania-esque map, and space-exploration puzzles instead of physics based ones differentiate this little indie title in important ways. So before throwing out the knee-jerk reaction of “rip off,” make sure to give this game a chance.
Here’s the Rundown:
+ Effective hint system
+ Neat gateway mechanic
+ Difficult puzzles…
– …but some really difficult puzzles.
– Difficulty ramp is steep
– Tools beyond gateway guns don’t get used often enough
7 and 7.5 represent a game that overall manages to be worth a playthrough, just not worth the full price at launch. These scores are for games that are relatively good or even really good, but generally worth waiting for a sale or picking up as a rental when possible.
Gateways was developed and published by Smudged Cat Games. It’s available on Steam for $4.99 and XBLIG for 240 MSP. A copy of the game was provided to RipTen for the purposes of review.