Review by David Valjalo
Unlike Portal, there’s no test-subject narrative behind Antichamber, an austerely intellectual first-person puzzler from indie dev Alexander Bruce - but that doesn’t mean you aren’t under the microscope. As you wander the blinding white corridors of a space-bending facility, unpicking the cryptic clues within, you’re encouraged to think that your own psychological state is the real barrier to progress in the game’s interweaving, claustrophobic tunnels.
Wall-mounted plaques punctuate each new area and challenge, delivering existential wisdom of a seemingly glib kind. "The path of least resistance is a valid option," says one. Another reads: "A few steps backwards may keep you moving forwards." But these are also crucial hints, some a good deal more opaque than they first appear, to puzzles which intentionally avoid conformity. One challenge might simply task you with following signs to the exit, another may secretly encourage you to ignore them, while others play with space and perspective in ways which defy traditional game logic: walk up to a window, fill your monitor with the world inside and, like magic, you’re in it.
The first section of the game is a breathless parade of new ideas that approach puzzling laterally, forcing you to muddle your way past non-euclidian geometry and other brain-bending architecture. The latter half introduces more traditional mechanics in the form of four handheld gun-things that fill in voids, pick up and shoot blocks, and clear matter out of your way. Even though these tools offer new methods of traversing earlier environments, it’s a somewhat anticlimactic transition from the relentless invention of the game’s opening - but that doesn’t make the tests here any less agonising to fathom or a triumph to conquer.
When you nail a solution - often best achieved by taking a time-out and drinking a cup of tea, very calmly, as your nails grow back - you feel like a cross between Hercule Poirot and Socrates. Hercules, if you will. That said, there are some puzzles in here guilty of simple obscurity, and this undermines the satisfaction of their completion as well as throwing off the pace of the game. Luckily a hub room (instantly accessible by a tap of ESC) allows re-entry to any of the game's main areas, alleviating the need to pummel yourself against the same puzzle, and allowing you to re-evaluate the messages you've encountered so far.
For some, Antichamber may prove a little draining. It's a title that aspires to challenge your way of thinking and problem-solving and it’s a slightly chilly and solitary experience with it. If that doesn't sound like much fun - there are certainly times it isn't - that's likely part of Bruce's point, suggesting life is a struggle in which you get out what you put in. But Antichamber isn’t all earnest chin-stroking theory - it also hosts moments of transcendent beauty and vignettes that engage your brain on a level few games attempt.
Price: $20 / £12.50
Release: Out Now
Publisher: Alexander Bruce
Developer: Alexander Bruce
Clever, but sometimes a little cold, this is an accomplished headscratcher of unusually philosophical ambition.