It’s not often I feel compelled to start a videogame review with a brief explanation of advanced physics, but here we are. In the world of physics, “C” often refers to the speed of light in a vacuum, which is a universal physical constant. Not many physics formulas make it into the hallowed halls of pop culture awareness, but E=MC2 is one such exception, and the C in that equation represents the same thing it does in the game I’m reviewing today. I guess “Constant Speed of Light in a Vacuum” was a bit too wordy for the title.
True to its namesake, Constant-C is a two-dimensional physics-based puzzle game set in a world where the speed of light has been broken, and doing so has resulted in a rather alarming situation. The game’s protagonist is a space station’s rescue robot that has been designed to activate in the case of an emergency, and time itself coming to a full-stop seems to qualify. When you begin Constant-C, time is completely frozen on the station. The only exceptions are yourself, and a small circular field that both surrounds and moves with you.
Constant-C is a smartly-designed puzzle platformer, similar to games such as Braid or Limbo. As you traverse the game-world, you’ll quickly notice that by being near an elevator, your presence will cause it to spring to life. Walk next to a crate that’s suspended in mid-air and watch as gravity takes effect and the crate begins to fall. Just when you start to become used to these basic gameplay elements, Constant-C presents its main attraction, gravity manipulation.
After a short while, you’re given the power to manipulate gravity at will, and the ability to turn a wall or ceiling into a floor at any given moment. Doing so can be hazardous for players who don’t pay attention to their surroundings, causing them to be crushed by a crate, incinerated by a laser, or simply fall too far to make a safe landing.
Each section of the space station is broken into a group of levels, and you need to reach the exit on each level before you’re able to progress to the next. Some levels just have an exit, but some also contain data files, which are usually a bit harder to reach than simple escaping.
The story in Constant-C is also told by collecting these files, which the space station’s supercomputer A.I. needs to repair the station itself. After collecting enough data tubes, the A.I. will occasionally be able to show you another video from the station’s crew, and you’ll begin to piece together what caused the tragic current situation. Solving puzzles and collecting data tubes also enables the AI to open more sections of the space station, which in turn leads to more puzzles and data tubes. It’s a nice cycle of thought, exploration, and discovery.
I was happy to see that Constant-C wisely implements some smart design choices that keep the focus on solving puzzles, and not fighting the game design. There is a quick restart button that allows you to restart any level without having to wait for any sort of load time. And once you’ve collected a level’s data tube, you won’t have to repeat that action should you fail the level. In fact, players can choose to exit to the hub-world moments after collecting a data tube, and it will still count as having been collected. Lastly, each section of the game has a list of levels that tells you which levels contain a data tube, and whether or not you have collected it.
The presentation is also fairly strong, with some nice lighting tricks and an effective-yet-moody soundtrack. It’s nothing you’ll find yourself absentmindedly humming, but it does support the game nicely. Although the game doesn’t feature voice acting, the dialogue is well-written throughout, and serves as a nice justification for the puzzles.
One of the hardest things to accomplish when developing a puzzle game is finding the right balance between challenge and frustration. Ideally, you want to give the player enough of an understanding to solve the puzzle, but not so much that they see the solution immediately. If you’re asking something of the player that requires the use of a game mechanic that hasn’t been properly introduced, it will often lead to aggravation. It’s here perhaps that Constant-C occasionally falters, however infrequently that might be.
The most egregious example of this for me was a rather frustrating introduction to a couple of very important gameplay elements. At least, it would have been an introduction, if the main gameplay elements weren’t introduced several levels earlier. In one case, a blue floor title allows you to fall from great heights without harm, while another teaches you about falling alongside a box in order to shield yourself from lasers. The problem is, both mechanics were introduced with such subtlety that I didn’t notice them. After I struggled with a puzzle that required me to employ both gameplay principles, I eventually broke down and resorted to a guide. Thankfully, the PC version has been available for a while longer than the recently released Xbox Live Arcade Version. Still, solving puzzles on your own gives a much greater sense of satisfaction, so I always suggest keeping that sort of thing to a minimum.
You should also be aware that although Constant-C is a puzzle game, it does have times when it touches upon traditional platforming gameplay, and as such, it will require some traditional platforming skills to complete. This was especially apparent in one section of the game that features an S-shaped hallway that is almost completely covered in spikes. The only way through is to switch gravity a couple times in the same jump, and once more for the landing. This section took many attempts before I finally succeeded. While it’s not necessarily a bad thing to require more twitch-based skill in a puzzle game, and variety is usually a good thing, these especially difficult sections are so few and far between that I question their inclusion in the first place.
Although the space station setting makes a good deal of sense for Constant-C‘s story, it also severely limits the variety when it comes to the environment. Aside from a few areas of the station that are seen in video recordings, there isn’t much variation when it comes to each location. Colored lighting helps a bit, but a change of scenery or two would have been nice, albeit not entirely necessary.
Other than those few slight objections, though, Constant-C is a pretty good game. Its gravity and time-based puzzles offer a unique twist on puzzle platforming, and the puzzles themselves usually strike a nice balance between fun and frustration. It’s not surprising that Constant-C contains hidden references to games such as Braid and Portal. The developers have clearly taken inspiration from some of the best titles in the genre, yet have still managed to create an original and entertaining experience of their own.
This review is based on the Xbox Live Arcade version of the game, which was provided to us.
Overall, I enjoyed my time with Constant-C and would recommend it to anyone who appreciates the puzzle platformer genre. While it can sometimes feel quite challenging, the refusal to hold your hand makes arriving at a solution all the more rewarding.