If there’s one thing I’ve always been a bit skeptical of, it’s humor in video games. Having grown up on classic adventure games like Leisure Suit Larry, Monkey Island, and Grim Fandango, it’s not too hard to explain what made those games so funny, or more importantly, why those games stand out from hundreds of other titles that have tried their hand at being comedic.
Simply put, humor in video games can’t be an afterthought, shoved in or drizzled over half-way through development in order to appeal to a wider audience, or to cover up for some other shortcoming. The funniest games out there are designed to be funny, as opposed to hastily throwing together a few jokes at the eleventh hour.
Maybe that’s why I’m a tad confused about Shiftlings, a puzzle-platformer from Sierra, the newly reformed publishing arm of Activision, which mostly deals in smaller, independent titles. While humor isn’t the main focus of Shiftlings, it does go out of its way to present a lighthearted story, replete with voice-acting and a narrative that tries to provide some context for the physics-based puzzling.
Unfortunately, said context takes the form of some rather gnarly flatulence.
You see, Shiftlings follows the antics of two ‘space janitors,’ whose day-to-day routines are (for some inexplicable reason) broadcast to the world via a reality TV show. After performing some maintenance at a carbonated beverage manufacturing plant, the duo find themselves in trouble after one of them downs the world’s fizziest drink. With both of them donning space suits that are connected by a single hose, problems begin to arise as the ‘gas’ produced by the fizzy drink begins to inhabit one of their suits.
At this point, you’re probably wondering just how immature this game is willing to go. While I would normally be at your side, Shiftlings does manage to redeem itself (somewhat). Flatulence jokes aside (of which there are plenty, seeing as that’s what the game is based on), Shiftlings does manage to keep things interesting with a reality TV commentator, ripped straight from your favorite 90s cartoon, and a story that slowly gives way to some more malicious motives.
Regardless of your stance of Shiftlings’ adherence to gas-based humor, it’s the puzzles that are the main draw of the game. With one of the janitor’s suits being filled with gas, the core mechanic for the span of the game draws on being able to shift said gas back and forth between each of them, in order to more easily maneuver around the environment. The hose connecting the janitors acts as a tether of sorts, preventing you from separating them too much, though there is a decent amount of wiggle room once you learn to move them in tandem.
Still, as interesting as its premise may seem, Shiftlings’ puzzles can end up feel a bit underwhelming, especially as you start out. Levels are fairly straightforward at the onset, usually requiring you to shift gas back and forth in order to navigate small passages, but over time, the game slowly introduces elevators, switches, and launchers. With over 50 levels to parse through, and optional collectibles which unlock boss stages, your experience with Shiftlings will mostly be dictated by how much you enjoy puzzle-platformers as a genre, or if you have a partner to bring along for the ride.
While Shiftlings can be completed solo, with you being able to swap gas and control characters individually or simultaneously, the game is much more enjoyable when playing alongside somebody, which you can do both locally or online. As expected, local co-op is the way to go, though online play is perfectly serviceable, albeit infinitely more manageable if you can get voice chat going, as there is a strong emphasis on teamwork and communication.
Visually, this new IP does manage to surprise with some strikingly detailed and varied worlds. Rather than relying on a drab and muted color palette, developer Rock Pocket Games consistently uses a wide array of bright and vibrant colors, which are used to create some rather detailed environments. For the most part, it also looks great in action, though there are times where the extra level of detail can be a bit distracting. Similarly (and perhaps this is a complaint that only I will have), it does take a minute to wrap your head around the idea that the puffed-up, gaseous janitor is the heavier of the two, despite him looking more buoyant, and by extension, lighter.
It’s hard to recommend Shiftlings to those who plan to brave it alone, but there is a definite appeal, even though that might vary from person to person. Genre preferences aside, its vibrant world and emphasis on co-op is just as likely to pull you in as its fairly standard puzzles and somewhat immature humor is likely to put you off.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with for review.
Shiftlings often ends up feeling like a by-the-numbers puzzle game, with its only redeeming factor coming in the form of co-operative play.