They might not be lookers, but at least you can’t accuse Dave Johnston’s catalogue of 2D platformers of style over substance. That’d be good news for Johnston’s sales figures, if only the substance in question wasn’t likely to leave massmarket focus groups frothing on the floor with their eyes rolling back into their rapidly melting brainpans.
Ruthlessly clever and pedantically demanding in its platforming trials, Gateways takes Portal’s central conceit of player-placed interspatial pathways and twists it into a series of challenges more elaborate (and often cruel) than anything Valve’s games have touched. Despite the limitations of 2D, it is perhaps more structurally ambitious too, rejecting the steady linear progression of test chambers for exploration of a sprawling complex, its distant reaches made accessible only through the slow accrual of extra powers.
Oddly, these extensions to your quantum tunnelling device feel a more cohesive fit with Portal’s world than the propulsion gels ever did: later toys let you enter one space-hole and emerge from its smaller sibling suitably resized, or with the environment’s gravity realigned. But most fiendish of all are the portals that allow you to play with time.
Fire your first portal and you create a timeline, which you can then invade as a duplicate self, leaping through your exit portal to enter once more with the clock reset. Touching a clone creates a paradox that resets the puzzle, and so the skill is not just in duplicating yourself five times, but in plotting a route that allows your several selves to weave around each other unharmed.
This is often an absolute bastard to do and, frankly, beyond my meagre intellect. Luckily, Gateways is full of collectible orbs that can be spent to cheat your way past frustrating problems. A small sum of orbs will clue you into whether a puzzle is even possible with your current equipment, and a further payment plays through a prerecorded solution to the puzzle, leaving you safely on its other side. This is both expensive, sometimes humiliating and, I found, depressingly necessary.
Even if you are an imperturbable polymath with a penchant for precise platforming, you may find some of the to-ing and fro-ing rather a chore. Although solving puzzles mostly streamlines your route back through them, it doesn’t make the journey any more interesting, and the environments are entirely charmless. Some annoying bottlenecks force you to solve the same fiddly problem with every pass, and not every challenge is uniquely interesting.
The platforming itself, meanwhile, doesn’t feel deftly defined. However, forgive all this and you’ll find a game of formidable ideas made doubly so in their twitchsome execution. Fugly and frustrating? Guilty as charged. But Gateways is a game of rare and rarely compromised ingenuity, and that alone makes its challenge worth accepting
Not a feast for the eyes, but there’s more than a meal here if you’re a glutton for clever, cruel puzzle-based punishment.