aka Rhombus the Kid
Well, it's finally here.
After playing through the brief-yet-amazing Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving, the third game has arrived. Don't be fooled, though -- Quadrilateral Cowboy stands alone in what it accomplishes. Not only does it stand alone from the other two games, but it stands alone from pretty much anything else in the industry.
Quadrilateral Cowboy (PC)
Developer: Blendo Games
Publisher: Blendo Games
MSRP: $19.99 (Standard Edition), $29.99 (Deluxe Edition)
Released: July 25, 2016
While Quadrilateral Cowboy is very similar to Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving in many ways, it differs in perhaps the biggest aspect: gameplay. The previous two games were exclusively story-driven affairs with little agency from the player; they were more about succinct storytelling. Quadrilateral Cowboy has that same charm and utilizes many of the same storytelling devices that have worked so well for Blendo Games in the past, yet is still the biggest departure from that style.
This is also a much longer affair, considering the first set of missions will likely take most people longer than the playtime of Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights combined. My total playtime took just over four hours, which will vary slightly for each player depending on how efficient they are. The levels themselves are often rather short, ideally at least, and are solved rather linearly. Early levels teach the player about certain mechanics, while the ending levels are larger and utilize a variety of skills together.
If anything, I wish there were more of these bigger, more diverse missions. They are definitely the best experiences that Quadrilateral Cowboy has to offer since they make the mission truly feel like it’s a heist. The last missions are great tests of skill, but it just feels like there’s so much more room for experimentation. That being said, there is a story to be told, and the missions are structured around that story. There is mod support too, so hopefully users will come up with their own ideas in the future.
If you’ve played the past two games, you’ll know what to expect with the storytelling in Quadrilateral Cowboy. And no, you don’t need to play Gravity Bone or Thirty Flights of Loving to enjoy this one (though you totally should). There’s no spoken dialogue or any cutscenes that you might see in a traditional story. A lot of information is gleaned from the environment: reading the papers that are lying around, looking at pictures, and observing what characters are doing.
As for the story itself, it’s absolutely wonderful. Trust me when I say that some of the “moments” in Quadrilateral Cowboy are crazy, surprising, heartbreaking, or even all of the above. Somehow Blendo Games keeps managing these big moments from using so little. This is a product of someone who truly understands how to convey information in a video game. Thankfully, this also translates to easy-to-understand mechanics.
Gameplay consists of typing in lines of code into a portable virtual computer. Don’t fret about never having coded something before, since you'll be gently eased into each mechanic. Plus, typing “help” at any time brings up a list of commands. Every time a new device is introduced into the player’s arsenal, there is an opportunity to experiment with it in a stress-free setting that can be ended at their leisure. In general, the game does a masterful job of taking mechanics that would seem to be very obtuse and making them accessible for everyone. Even if it is too difficult, there is a “Tourist Mode” where it is impossible to fail and all doors are open.
Mission objectives generally have players infiltrating an area, performing an action (like stealing documents or a safe), and then escaping. Naturally though, doors are locked, security cameras are on, buttons needs to be pushed, and plenty of other hazards stand in the way. That’s where the coding comes into play. Certain entities will have a specific name, like “door3” or “camera2” that players can see while looking at them. Typing the name into the computer will bring up a list of commands. From there, it’s up to the player to decide what will work best.
Many objects have very simple commands like “open(x)” or “off(x),” where x is the amount of time, in seconds, to execute the command for. If that door needs to be open, players would type “door3.open(3),” execute the command, and go through the now-opened door. Many objects have alarms attached to them that will sound if the x value is greater than three, which starts to make things a little tricky later on.
Coding isn’t the only solution, however. As the player gains new equipment, the focus shies away from simply typing in commands and leans more towards how to use the various tools available. It all seems obvious in the early stages, but once levels start opening up, the onus falls on the player to really use their noggin’. The typing terminal is still the crux of the gameplay, but Quadrilateral Cowboy doesn't take long to move away from simply turning things off and on, open or closed. It's best if you experience those things for yourself, though.
The structure of missions never truly changes; players will always be getting into places they shouldn’t be and taking something that isn’t theirs. But that doesn’t mean things get stale. Looking back, I’d say there are three acts. The first is all about learning. Players will learn the basics and how to use the new tools that are unlocked as they progress. The second act is all about teamwork, but saying any more would give too much away. This was probably my favorite set of missions, which is a shame because it's also the shortest-lived. The third act takes both of the earlier acts and makes a sweet, delicious gumbo out of them.
Quadrilateral Cowboy uses the same visual style and game engine (the Doom 3 engine) as Blendo’s past titles, for better or worse. I adore the blockhead people and overall visual style used, but man if there aren’t plenty of bugs to run into. Luckily, I’ve never encountered a bug that made me crash or lose progress, though I know others have. The engine definitely has some overall jank to it that can’t be ignored. Since there is way more experimentation this time around, players are bound to run into unintended bugs or unintended graphical glitches.
That being said, most everything is still very refined. The music choices are beautiful and fit the game’s themes perfectly. The set pieces are simply amazing. All of the mechanics work flawlessly and blend together incredibly well. The issue is that when something technical does go wrong, it feels much more significant, contrasted against everything else.
There are no other games like Quadrilateral Cowboy, and it will likely stay that way. It’s a unique blend of computer science, puzzles, and beautiful storytelling that could only come from Blendo Games. The engine is a bit worse for wear and I definitely wish there were more to play, but damn if this isn’t one of the coolest games out there. Plus, there’s mod support built in, so who knows what the future has in store for this title. Like Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving before it, this is a game that cannot be missed by fans of the medium.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Quadrilateral Cowboy reviewed by Patrick Hancock
A hallmark of excellence. It may have some flaws, but they are negligible to what is otherwise a supreme title.
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