The most iconic work of MC Escher is Relativity, or as Stewie Griffin calls it, “Crazy Stairs”. The iconic image image was created in 1953, depicting gravity-defying pedestrians traversing an intersection of staircases coming from above, below and sideways. For most, the work is simply something to be admired, or an easy referential shorthand for a distorted reality. If anyone were to look at the iconic image and think “but how are those people actually getting around?”, they’d probably be the person responsible for Manifold Garden.
Here’s what I liked:
Climbing the alls – Manifold Garden lets you walk all over it, and I mean that literally. Just walk up to any wall and you can step right on it, flipping the entire world 90 degrees. Since everything in the game is at a right angle, that makes six planes of gravity that can be traversed. Every plane has its own color, easing the confusion you might get while navigating the topsy-turvy hallways. The coloring also highlights what you can currently interact with, as only objects on the same plane as you are available for use. Objects will become grayed out the moment you switch gravity, freezing them in place. While the type of puzzle tasks are familiar, from putting boxes on buttons to forging new pathways, having the solutions spread among six interconnected yet discrete floors really mixes up that formula. Juggling so much freedom at all times can be daunting, but the learning curve is gradual enough that you’re never left at a loss. Some puzzles are in huge open areas that focus more on navigation, while those that require more complex tinkering are contained in rooms just big enough to fit the idea it’s going for. Puzzle design is varied and compelling, capable enough to keep things engaging throughout a surprisingly meaty runtime.
Recursion – As if being able to walk on every inch of a level wasn’t enough, there’s also an infinitely repeating void to explore. The very ground you stand on also exists above, below, in front of, behind, and beside you ad infinitum. Walk off the edge of the world, and you’ll fall right back where you started. The game lacks a jump button, but any gap can be crossed with careful aim and a long fall; in moments where you’re locked into one gravitational plane this skill is vital in getting around. Between the infinite loop and gravity switching, there are so many unique avenues of navigation that you’ll need to completely rethink your approach to seemingly basic platforming challenges.
Infinity and beyond – The game’s ideas would mean nothing if not paired with the unique art direction. The game is rendered with crisp cel-shading and a mostly grey palette, beautifully evoking its artistic inspiration. The sharp, minimalist direction also makes levels incredibly easy to read, with sparse coloring only used to highlight important information. Everything you need to know is clearly presented in the environment; there’s no dialogue, writing or story of any sort. The game fully relies on its world and level design to keep players engaged, and those aspects are easily strong enough to support the entire experience.
Here’s what I didn’t like:
Hall of mirrors – Due to the finite constraints of hardware a game obviously cannot generate infinity, and the game buckles under the pressure of making you believe it can. Moving too fast can catch the game off-guard; areas beyond doors won’t appear until you’re close and long falls can be paused mid-air to load the levels below. Manifold Garden is such a beautiful illusion so it’s a shame that it can’t always keep up the façade.
Playing through Manifold Garden is a lot like examining an MC Escher work, admiring its beautifully impossible architecture while parsing the complexity of the world. It’s undoubtedly confusing at first, but look close enough and you’ll get a grasp of the mechanics holding this reality together. I’ve played my fair share of first-person puzzle games, and I can’t remember the last time I played something this unique, intelligent and downright beautiful.
Score: Must Buy
Manifold Garden was developed and published on Xbox One by William Chyr Studio. It was released August 20, 2020 for $19.99. A copy was provided for review purposes.