When I finished playing Portal 2 last year I thought that portals had gone about as far as they could go as a concept. Once we were seeing things like gel I thought it was stretching it a bit and that it was maybe time to explore other avenues of cool things to have in puzzle games. Then Gateways came by and proved me so staggeringly wrong.
The briefest synopsis I could give of Gateways is that it’s what would happen if Portal, Metroid and Braid were involved in some sordid love triangle. There’s a baby, but nobody’s quite sure whose it is.
Gateways is a 2D platformer featuring Ed, an inventor who is stuck in his own laboratory following a strange sequence of events. Exploring these strange events form the basis of the plot all the way through the game. In the beginning you are bare with a distinct lack of items and equipment, simple WASD movement and jumping is all you can manage. The art style and the movement took me back to old Apogee games I used to play even before my teens, games like Alien Carnage which I have such fond memories of. That’s a pretty good first impression to make.
It isn’t long before you get the gateway gun, which at first glance is the least apologetic ripoff of the Portal gun ever. However, that’s not to say that we should be tarring and feathering Gateways and branding it as ‘lazy’ and that’s down to a couple of reasons:
First, it’s one thing to copy the Portal system, it’s another thing to make use of it for your own means. This is difficult to pull off without just re-releasing Portal. The whole aesthetic of Gateways aids it in giving it a more unique identity, stopping itself from plagiarising a single game by crafting a unique identity from elements of several different products. The initial Gateways puzzles are fun, if a bit pedestrian, though luckily it isn’t too long until you get your next pieces of equipment.
This brings us to the second reason for Gateways earning my kudos. It would have been easy to just make a Portal knockoff and not add anything beyond the standard mechanics that most of us know and love, but this is so much more than that. After earning the gateway gun you get a torch, which is used for activating light panels to gain access to more places. After that, you get a resizing gun, which you fire two portals from and, depending on which one you enter, either come out of the other side as a micro man or a giant. Again, there are a lot of puzzles tailored towards this mechanic. You can get a mirror too, which is used for laser deflection puzzles and a gravity manipulation gun, but my favourite item was also the most confusing one; the time travel gun.
The time travel gun allows you to encounter earlier versions of yourself by jumping through your placed portals. This is when Gateways truly enters hard mode, it’s completely mental and at first I thought it was just too complicated to get to grips with. After a while though and after completing a few basic puzzles with it, it slowly started to make sense. Soon I was completing puzzles while hopping over old versions of me, like overtaking a ghost car in a time trial lap.
Exploration plays a big part in Gateways. There are no separate phased levels, just one big stage similar to Metroid – even the map is designed in a similar fashion. At any given point you can look up where you’re supposed to go next for your main objective as well as find any unsolved puzzles, which is very handy because you’ll need to do a lot of back-tracking once you’ve gained the right items to solve puzzles with. Something that surprised me was how big the world seemed when looking at the map, but then how quickly I could travel a seemingly long distance. This was good to see because it doesn’t make the obligatory retracing of your steps as arduous as it might seem to be.
Some of the puzzles in Gateways can be fiendishly difficult, particularly once you get the time travel gun. What’s annoying is you can spend a long time on a puzzle and then realise that it’s impossible for you to solve with the items you currently have. This is fixable, but you have to spend 15 orbs (Gateways’ equivalent of coins) on that knowledge, which is a bit of a dick move especially considering that orbs are a fairly limited resource. Every puzzle can also be solved automatically by buying the solution for a further 35 orbs, although you have to establish whether its solvable first. In my playthrough I can only remember buying two solutions and running incredibly dry on orbs towards the end, barely scrambling enough together to find out that the puzzle I’d been trying to solve for 20 minutes was unsolvable without “some help”.
Where the puzzle help points are good, though, is when back-tracking because the puzzle you solved three hours ago may not exactly be fresh in the memory, so you can simply replay the solution and the game takes you through it to save yourself the headache.
As I’ve alluded to before, it’s easy to dismiss Gateways as a knockoff of pre-established greats within the puzzle/platformer genre. But in reality it’s an ambitious cocktail of everything that’s good about all the things it imitates plus a healthy shot of nostalgia, and at $10 from the Smudged Cat website it’s a bargain. I always applaud an indie game that shows ambition and separates itself from the crowd, and a lot of effort went into designing Gateways, so if it doesn’t earn your money, it definitely deserves your respect.