Couch co-op is sadly rare these days. Although I grew up playing games locally throughout my entire childhood, more often than not, split- or same-screen play is axed in favor of packing in more online features. Whether it's by way of "conserving resources" or pure laziness, it's becoming increasingly difficult to entertain a room full of people with videogames.
Thankfully, Spearhead Games' Tiny Brains opts for the best of both worlds, with both local and online play capabilities. Oh, and it's also a ton of fun -- with or without friends.
Tiny Brains (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360)
Developer: Spearhead Games
Publisher: 505 Games
Release Date: December 3, 2013 (PS4) / TBA (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
The concept of Tiny Brains is rather simple -- a (mostly) mad scientist has created what he refers to as the "ultimate life forms," called the "Tiny Brains," who each tout a unique super-power. There's Dax the bat with the ability to push objects; Stew the rabbit with a vacuum ability; Minsc the hamster who can create platforms to jump on; and Pad the mouse with the curious ability to switch places with any object. You'll start the game inside of a miniature testing center, tasked with solving your overlord's devious danger rooms, and things unhinge from there. At first, puzzles are simple enough to solve by using one, or maybe two critters per room -- but the difficulty slowly ramps up to the point where you'll need to consistently use all four.
What I love most about the game is the fact that it's all action oriented. For instance, you may need to switch to Minsc to create a platform, then jump on it as Dax, and push it off a platform with his force powers. If you're playing solo you can switch between each character with the L1/R1 buttons, and the puzzles will adjust themselves automatically to suit a one-player experience -- it even goes so far as to adjust in real time to accommodate for drop-in/drop-out co-op, which is a very cool feature. But the real draw of the game is playing it with friends, which you can do either off or online in any combination up to four players.
Party play is where Tiny Brains really shines, as it presents the ability to solve puzzles in pretty much any manner you can dream up. For the purposes of this review I tested both the solo campaign and local co-op, and found both of them to be vastly different experiences even though the game technically offers the same rooms. When playing with friends, I had co-op partners deduce new ways to solve each room that I hadn't even thought of -- an experience that happened consistently. I was immediately reminded of some of the more genius puzzles in the Portal series, which similarly had a host of different ways to approach the same problem.
Tiny Brains has a really odd story that's not laugh-out-loud funny, but it's interesting, nonetheless. As your ragtag group of creatures heads further down into the scientists' secret lab, you'll uncover new secrets, hidden Easter eggs, and a plot that would suit a typical Saturday morning cartoon -- with a slice of the macabre and a dash of "disturbing." It teeters the edge of cute and terrifying, and it's an interesting mix of styles that's worth watching.
The visuals don't exactly look like they're taking full advantage of the PS4's power, but I enjoyed the interesting color scheme that pretty much uses every hue in the book. Although I didn't encounter any game-breaking issues per se, there is a slight hiccup in the multiplayer mode. Specifically, the game freezes for a few seconds while collecting a piece of cheese (Tiny Brain's hidden collectible) -- it's not a huge deal, just something to be aware of.
Control-wise Tiny Brains is essentially perfect, with a simple scheme that only involves jumping, switching characters, and using your one power, with the added ability to use the touchpad to "mark" parts of the map. Switching is instantaneous, and allows you to have pinpoint accuracy when tackling the game's puzzles. To be clear, not once did I feel like it was the game's fault for failure. As an added bonus, the Vita can be used as a controller -- which really helps alleviate a lack of additional DualShock 4s for the brand new PS4.
The story is short at a mere three hours in length, but there's lots of content to keep you busy, including challenge maps (which really shine in multiplayer), some of which are skewed towards score-attack goals. After you complete the campaign you'll have access to two more modes: "Troll," which lets you attack your co-op partners, and "Jules," which puts you in the shoes of a single character that can use every power at once. There's also a soccer mini-game that's strictly multiplayer, and 20 collectibles to find throughout the game. Should you have some partners in crime at your disposal, your playtime will be lengthened considerably.
Although its core campaign is far too short, the game is a blast with other players, and the wide variety of challenges should keep you playing for hours. Despite the fact that my time with these tiny adora-creepy critters was rather brief, I'd love to see them again in a sequel someday.