Duality: Split Reality, Conserve Momentum, And Die Trying
A salad is only as good as the sum of its ingredients, and we like to digest a wide variety of videogame fare here. To date, we’ve covered RPGs, Side-Scrollers, and Indie Horror, and now we’ve decided to put our wit (and sanity) to the test with a Puzzle-Platformer. Specifically, we played Duality. If you’re one of 20ish lucky chefs, you got to see us play Duality on our own twitch channel, sadly the recording has been lost to time as someone forgot to save it. Oh well, live and learn.
Reality Jumping and Puzzle Thunking in Duality
Duality, developed by Bondo Games (now known as Whiteout Studios) and Essency Studios, places you in the role of a silent, body-less protagonist blessed with the ability to switch realities. Though the game itself is light on narrative, the world has apparently diverged along two dimensions, one yellow and the other blue — which you can handily traverse.
To be honest, I’m not a puzzle-platformer enthusiast. I tend to avoid these titles, and my muscle memory built by years of RPG and FPS titles translates poorly to digital obstacle courses and critical thinking. My lack of experience with the genre was showcased during the live stream, and evidenced by the frequent grunts, swears, and mortifying deaths… during the tutorial.
However, I’ve learned not to judge a book, or game, by its cover. Some of my most cherished experiences come from Portal 1 and 2, where the pursuit of accented robots and a glorious turret symphony (spoilers to Portal 2) drove me ever onward. Duality definitely deserved the same chance.
Luckily, Duality served as a pleasant reminder of why people play these games, myself included. While I must admit that they’re a bit more fun with friends, Duality exhibited the best qualities of the genre, such as:
- Challenging Gameplay
- Rate of Progression
- A Pleasing Aesthetic
Per the norm, here is the part where I let you know that I haven’t beaten Duality yet in its entirety but have played long enough to form an opinion.
Double the reality, Double the challenge
Puzzle enthusiasts might smile or scoff at how challenging Duality is, I wouldn’t know — I’m a puzzle-platformer scrub. Though I wager a couple obstacles might make even elite Rubix cube wielders scratch their heads for a moment. Before we streamed the game, we were actually worried whether the game could fill a two-hour time block… we were fools.
Gameplay consists of momentary study, assessing the dual realities and obstacles, whilst racking your brain for solutions. On several occasions, my streaming partner and I (hi Jared) had to cease all movement and just survey the level’s entirety.
Duality adds an interesting (and difficult) dynamic that many games lacked: memory. Since many puzzles require rapid shifting between realities coupled with well-timed jumps, you must remember where platforms and objects are, lest you risk sudden death. This study and memory are essential to Duality’s core gameplay loop:
- Study room in both realities
- Map out your pathway
- Attack the obstacle course
- Iterate until you succeed.
Each reality will swap out different colored platforms and even generate puzzle-solving objects, terrain, and beams. On the fly maneuvering, while critical at certain junctures, is not recommended for long life in Duality.
For some players, this might seem like a hassle that disrupts otherwise fluid gameplay. While not the biggest Mirror’s Edge fan, I too understand the importance of flow. The constant “stop and observe” can get tedious, and downright repetitive — but that comes with the territory.
Puzzle games are about taking in information and then using those clues to forge a solution. It’s akin to the long pauses that open world games often encourage, where players just gaze at a pretty view for a moment. Except that our pause serves a mechanical purpose, not just the aesthetic.
Duality peppers in these pauses aplenty, as we often roamed the corridor waiting for something we missed to call out to us. On reflection, this made the experience grander, and gave a greater sense of satisfaction when the light bulb finally flicked on (typically followed by a groan at one’s own stupidity). The game would be much shorter and far less memorable if it didn’t stump us from time to time.
Progression: AKA A Proven Path to Pleasant Playtime
Duality ramps pleasingly, building upon each level and bolstering the player’s skill. In case you’re wondering why this isn’t in the “gameplay” segment of the review, allow me to make myself clear. “Difficulty” is a more granular term, often dealing with the short gameplay loop, rather than the arc of a game itself. Dark Souls is a great example of a “difficult” game that presents quick challenges, but actually gets easier the more you play and enhance your character.
“Progression” is the meta-view of that difficulty, and deals more with player expectation and level design. A game like Super Meat Boy also presents you with hard, unforgiving gameplay; however, your character does not level up or gain abilities… you either “git gud” or you quit playing. Luckily, the game carefully introduces challenges in a “ramp” or “progression” that allows players to get comfortable with one obstacle, master it, then face the next.
This progressive difficulty paired with instructive level design represents a (good or bad) sense of progression, which I think Duality nails. Playing Duality feels like a natural ramp from room to room, my logical lexicon grows precisely as the game asks more of me. I don’t feel “hand-held,” nor do I feel abandoned.
Each new level builds upon the last. Layers of different mechanics are added, and the game expands upon the ones already in play. Platforms shift more frequently, surfaces are harder to see, switches and buttons become active, and even turrets sprout from the wall and fling laser beams all over the place. On one level, during an unexpected turn, one puzzle ended up being a giant pachinko machine, a brief solace from the normal types of encounters we normally saw and perhaps one of the coolest parts of the game.
The fine line between overwhelming the player and gently guiding them through the game is one that the team behind Duality walked with precision. Duality succeeds in achieving a balance that even AAA companies struggle with today.
Nice Lights, Good Beats, Chill Vibes
As I have mentioned in a previous review, it’s easy to overlook or downright under-appreciate video game music. Therefore, I have been actively attempting to give in-game music the attention and praise it so rightly deserves.
The combination of Duality’s soft synth/techno music paired with the dark but vibrant glowing atmosphere leaves you with a glued-to-the-screen experience. Everything about the game’s aesthetic just works.The gameplay, design, art, and music go hand in hand…in hand in hand.
An appropriate comparison would be a symphony that systematically comes together to form a grand synchronized event. Each piece of the game, each specific style of expression, complements one another and fuels the player’s desire to follow the game through to the end.
Duality’s beautiful display and sound leave you in a “puzzle-solving” trance, or in our case a “puzzle-attempting” trance. What further complements this overall aesthetic is the lack of in-game interruptions you’ll face. Death was never a spectacle and failing never gives you a big red obnoxious “FAILURE” screen that reminds us of our real lives.
The transition between failing and starting over is seamless, as the game places you at the nearest checkpoint without so much as a minor wait time. Instead, the music elegantly continues, and the vibrant world maintains its delightful cascade of colors. Duality can almost pass off as an absolutely peaceful game, if it not for the inevitable profanity and fist-pounding.
Duality Can Be Rough Around The Edges
Contrary to what my high opinion of Duality tells you, the game still has a handful of issues that need to be addressed. The most prominent of which can be seen in the:
- Clunky Controls
- Lack of Instructions
- No narrative/story-line
Right away the controls feel sluggish and stagnant. Movement felt hindered and not as flexible as one would hope. Many times while trying to solve a puzzle, it felt like I had a backpack full of heavy objects weighing me down. Imagine the training scene from Empire where Yoda straps himself to Luke’s back, but replace our favorite green alien with a 350lbs linebacker who’s currently doing bicep curls with a minivan.
The game introduces a few puzzles without much of an explanation. It’s important to note that not all levels were like this, just a few. One example was an obstacle in which we had to push a wall while quickly swapping between realities to maintain the wall’s momentum. Unfortunately, as plain as it seems now, the solution was found only after a few choice words and minimal tears being shed. This mechanic felt strange to us in particular, considering the character does not carry their momentum between jumps.
Some folks enjoy playing games specifically for the story, but Duality contains no semblance of a linear narrative or plot. For all intents and purposes, you’re just a faceless entity who likes to solve puzzles with luminescent cubes. This isn’t really a big issue for me personally, but worth mentioning due to other famous platformers being renowned for their engaging story.
People may dive into this game expecting the same wit and humor as its inspiration, but they’ll be disappointed. What Duality may lack in wit and humor, it makes up for in charm…and pretty colored lasers.
Should you Play Duality? Salad Says: Is it not Obvious…?
With confidence, I can say Duality is worth playing. Puzzle-platformers were once an enemy of mine, serving as a reminder that I’m not as good at video games as I think. Duality changed that by showing me the fun side of a puzzle-game type and being a rewarding, well-paced game.
Despite the flaws found within the game, Duality is full of excitement and entertainment to match, doubly-so with a crowd of friends acting as an audience. We can chalk the most obvious issues of clunky controls and lack of instructions as an overarching problem that all indie-developers make.
Indie-developers aren’t known for having the assets to give their games the extra coat of paint we normally see in the widely renowned titles. Restraints on both time and budget can cripple even the best of games, but larger companies are much more equipped to handle those types of problems.
With just a bit more polish, Duality could easily become a recognizable franchise across the gaming universe. So, that begs the question: Duality 2 — when?
Check out Duality on steam for $9.99 or find it on the Salad carousel for $4.99.
By Brandon Tepner and Jared Carpenter