I hate commuting just as much as anyone. Whether that be standing on a cramped and overly priced train, sitting on a bus full of noisy school children, or driving through heavy traffic with road enraged motorists hastily causing deathly hazards. But, after playing The Plane Effect, I would rather spend all hours of the day doing any of these. Studio Kiku and Innovina Interactive's isometric puzzle game starts off as a lonely office worker stares out of the window at a cosmos anomaly just as he’s about to clock out, now he must traverse through a labyrinth dystopian cityscape to get home to his family.
From the intro, The Plane Effect gives off a strong first impression. It’s visually gorgeous, assisted by a minimalistic colour palette that helps spark some stunning visuals in this surreal landscape. Every scene looks like an abstract painting and I couldn’t keep my finger off the screenshot button. To match these striking visuals is an ambient soundtrack that really sets a mellow, yet dark tone as you wander around each beautiful level. If there’s one thing that The Plane Effect absolutely nails, it’s the atmosphere. It’s just a shame that everything else turns it into a frustrating mess.
Each level presents the player with an obstacle that must be overcome in order to progress. I love puzzles. I love being given a challenge and needing to use every corner of my brain to solve it, and that euphoric feeling that you get once you complete a puzzle makes it all worth it. You get none of this in The Plane Effect because each “puzzle” is completely nonsensical. You’re not out rightly told what the problem is or what your goal is, you’re just presented with the main character shaking his head and frowning when you try to interact with the wrong object. You’ve got to try and solve a puzzle when you don't know what you're trying to achieve.
Most of the time, you can’t pick up an object until you’ve encountered the problem, even when you come across an object that you know you need to pick up eventually, so this often involves a lot of painfully slow backtracking once you've located the problem. You can’t complete sections of the level in the order that you discover them as The Plane Effect basically micromanages your every move and won’t let you progress without doing things the way the game wants you to. So, if you’ve found a problem and found the object to solve it, you won’t be able to actually complete this unless you’ve done something else first.
There’s two easier game modes called ‘narrative hint’ and ‘guided’. 'Narrative hint' will give you a little image of the character’s goal if you press L1 (on PlayStation). The only problem is these are often hugely unhelpful, sometimes offering up something ridiculous like a symbol of a door - so not actually helping you work out what needs fixing first in the level but patronizingly informing you that, yes, you do need to use the door to exit the room. The ‘guided’ mode basically walks you through the level, which is helpful if you’re completely stuck.
To top it all off, the solutions to the problems are often ridiculous and so completely out of the box that you wouldn’t have worked it out without just interacting with random objects until you landed on the right solution. To paint a scene, in the chapter ‘City Lights’ you’re in a busy street which has interchanging lights to indicate when you can cross the road (though traffic won’t stop for you at the crossing). If you’re caught on the crossing at the wrong time, a droid will come and taser you (because having an unconscious body in the middle of a busy road is obviously a much preferable solution). You’ll come across a phone box where you can call a taxi and you’ll probably think this is the exit (if you’re not using the 'narrative hint' difficult level). So you’ll call a taxi and try to get in it, probably being tasered unconscious about twenty times until you realise that the real exit is a door at the end of the level being guarded by a droid. So instead of just getting a cab home, you must startle a bird which will knock off a sign to a newsagents, covering up a manhole which will cause another manhole underneath the taxi to explode (for some reason), and therefore distracting the droid. How is anybody supposed to draw up that conclusion themselves? That’s not a puzzle.
There is a simple change that could be made to improve not only this level but the game as a whole. By simply moving the camera across the map and over to the exit door as you enter the street, the game would be instantly informing the player of their exit. This way, the player knows a droid is blocking the exit and they can draw the conclusion that a distraction is required to solve the problem, rather than misleading them. Little pointers such as this work wonders in puzzle games, as you're first presenting the player with the problem and leaving it up to them to find a solution. That's how puzzles work.
In the chapter ‘Home Sweet Home’, you enter an eerie crime scene and your objective is to access the locked room at the back of the house. How will you unlock this room? Well, the solution is “simple”. All you have to do is notice that you can pick up a purple lampshade. Now that you have a purple lampshade, you must realise that another lamp is without a lampshade. But oh no, there’s an exposed wire so it can’t be turned on. You find some tape to patch it up, but can’t fix the wire without first turning it off. Do you go to a plug socket? No, you have to interact with the TV. And I tried going directly to the TV on numerous occasions, but to actually interact with it you must sit down on a specific chair and only then will the character turn it on, which turns off the exposed wire (for some reason). You can then fix it and turn the lamp back on, revealing that the purple lampshade creates a forensic light which reveals a secret passageway. Only now can you interact with the boiler that was blowing off steam and blocking the entrance to the cellar where a pickaxe is waiting for you use to knock down the wall to the secret passageway. In there is a lever to open the back door to the garden. There’s a swimming pool with a corrosive substance on the bottom and the keys are on the diving board, the character is going to clumsily drop the keys into the swimming pool. You can’t pick up the fishing rod next to it until you’ve gone back into the house and collected the magnet on the fridge, only then can you use the fishing rod to retrieve the keys (the game couldn’t let you attempt to use the rod and then realise you need a magnet, it expects you to work that out for yourself and then remember the magnet on the fridge).
It’s just silly and long-winded solutions to simple problems. Yes, occasionally there is a good puzzle. For example, the back room to this level has a safe, and you must use the crime scene evidence to work out the password. This is the kind of puzzle that I love, the one that required me to work out that the sizes of the circle drawn around the pieces of evidence indicate the order, and the numbers are on the evidence markers. This is the kind of gameplay that I was expecting throughout The Plane Effect and it’s a shame more intelligent puzzles such as this aren’t very frequent.
As an isometric puzzle game, I wasn’t expecting The Plane Effect to be particularly revolutionary in its controls. The character is very slow moving, with even his jog feeling heavy and sluggish. On top of this, the camera is very reluctant to move, almost being fixed. So, it’s a good thing that this is essentially a point and click adventure and you’re mostly just moving around the map from one item to another… or that’s what I thought. Some games just shouldn’t include platforming sections, and The Plane Effect is a shining prime example of such a game. So why, pray tell, does it expect you to complete action sequences and intricate platforming sections?
The silly, nonsensical puzzles I could have handled. They’re not particularly fun to complete, but with the beautiful imagery and ambient soundtrack, I could have just marched right on to the end with only the thought that 'The Plane Effect was kind of boring'. However, the platforming and chase sequences in The Plane Effect are excruciatingly torturous as the game simply was not built for these kinds of sections. At the end of the chapter 'The Car and the Spiders from Mars', you're brought back into the office, only it appears as a dream-like labyrinth of stairs (a not-so-subtle nod to M. C Escher's Relativity painting). You're out of supposed to climb up these twisting stairs and reach the top. Unfortunately, the camera is almost fixed, so the character isn't in sight half of the time and you've just got to pray that he remains on the narrow stairs as, if he falls off, it's a long way back up to the top. Not to mention that an isometric viewpoint really takes away your depth perception, which makes the platforming sequences incredibly difficult.
In the chapter ‘Wormhole’, you are swallowed up by a giant sandworm and must navigate your way back out. At the very end of this level you’re surfboarding on your suitcase through its stomach as tentacles lash out at you. Surfing sections rarely ever go down well in games, they’re often poorly designed and thrown in to generate some extra tension (Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order for example). This is exactly the case with The Plane Effect. Due to the game’s awkward and heavy controls, you can’t slide out of the way quick enough to avoid the tentacles and you certainly can’t do it without having died first so you know where they all are. One guide I watched featured the player sliding straight down the middle rather than dodging out of the way, and it was timed so that the tentacles were not hitting this player. In the end, I had to take the same approach, repeating the level time after time until one round I got just as lucky and managed to just slide straight through. After researching on the Steam forums, I found out that I wasn’t the only person to struggle horrendously on this level and it needs to be patched. Had I bought the game, this would have been the moment I would have returned it because I would rather surf my way through Dark Souls’ Bed of Chaos than through the stomach of that sandworm again.
The Plane Effect even has timed moments. Certain sections of the game require you to move quickly, for example when you're dodging moving trains whilst cross the tracks at the end of 'Home Sweet Home' and in 'Wormhole' you're purposely tapping on bubbles to make them explode so that you can release the instruments trapped inside, but you've got to move out of the way quickly to survive the blast. Again, The Plane Effect simply does not have the controls equipped for this. If you make a mistake and die, the character will respawn and repeat a slow animated expression such as looking around confused or shaking his head, further dragging things out so that you miss the next chance to move. He would also examine the stick he uses to tap on the bubbles once he's whacked them, taking his time before letting you run to safety as it explodes. These effects sound like a minor problem, but after repetitively failing due to the poor controls, you'll find that these sluggish animations only aggravate you further.
When I'm reviewing a game, I always try and review it as quickly as possible to get the article out in good time. However, I could only bear to play The Plane Effect in small amounts. With its gorgeous visuals and soothing soundtrack, it could have been great if only the gameplay had lived up to the same standards. Unfortunately, it's the puzzle aspects let The Plane Effect down as they are not so much puzzles but more steps that you must do some guesswork to do in the right order. The horribly forced platforming levels are just the cherry on top really. I do not recommend this game.