It is the first day of PAX East, and XBLA Fans is at our third appointment of the day. It’s with the Danish developer Press Play, which, just a couple hours before our meeting, announced its next contribution to Xbox, Project Totem. Little is known about the game, except that it’s a platformer involving totem poles. Arriving at the booth, I see two mini totem pieces moving along a world made up primarily of two colors corresponding to the totem pieces. Watching it, I think to myself, “Well, this looks simple enough.” But as it goes with most things in life that appear simple, reality is an entirely different scenario. Within minutes of sitting down to play the demo I was both equally addicted and frustrated.

Playing solo was challenging, but I had all the control. Enter co-op mode. Are you and a friend/loved one looking for that next classic two-player game that will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy inside like that fat plumber and his green-clad brother used to? Great, you should probably look elsewhere then. Project Totem‘s co-op mode requires a level of communication rarely found in games, which means it could make or break your friendships. You and your partner may realize that you make a great team and work well together — or you may end up never speaking to each other again, with one of you left with a bloody nose from the impact of the other’s Xbox controller.

If you build it, you will win


The goal in Project Totem is to rebuild a giant totem pole that is deconstructed in the beginning of the game. You do this by completing levels and collecting little light dots found throughout each level. As you collect the dots, a meter at the top of your screen fills up. If you die, you will lose a percentage of your dots. Bo Strandby, lead developer behind Project Totem, says that “the more dots that you collect and the less you die, the more awesome this piece will be looking.” Therefore, making the goal of each level to finish with a full bar.

Collecting these dots means navigating two different-colored totem pieces through a world designed with matching colors. The player controls both pieces, even though the pieces are separate and can be moved independent of one another. Strandby “thought it would be interesting to see what happened if we controlled two characters with one input at the same time.”

Maneuvering these two totem pieces in sync with one another is a real challenge. In order to advance through the level, the player has to flip the pieces to match up with the corresponding color on the board. You do this using only jump and the X button. It’s a simple enough concept, but Press Play has made it anything but simple for the player to execute. Players will be challenged with changing colors while falling, jumping, sliding and more. There is no room for error: miss the flip by a second and you will end up in a pit of lava or down a hole.

Trixels are for kids


Pixels are a thing of the past; they’re so 2013. The world of Project Totem eschews them and is instead made up of what the developers like to call “trixels.” The name is pretty self-explanatory, but just in case you’re not getting it, know that trixels are not a new kind of cereal but are in fact triangular pixels. Everything in the game is made of up these trixels, giving Press Play’s title a geometric look that feels both retro and modern at the same time.

Using these trixels, the studio has created two main totem pieces for players to start with: red and blue. These guys are the stars of the first area of the game, but more colors will be added to the mix as you progress through the worlds. According to Strandy, the current plan is to have three worlds with about 40 levels total.

Totems alone cannot make the game, of course. Strandby says that the final release will have enemies and even boss fights. Enemies will consist of basic back and forth enemies, as well as sneaking enemies. Boss fights will be won as they so often are: by hitting the boss “in his sweet spots. Classic boss fight stuff,” explains Strandby. How this will be accomplished with two square pieces that have no arms and legs is something we’ll have to wait to get the answer to.

Everything is better in pairs

Project Totem Screenshot

Four XBLA Fans staffers get to take Project Totem for a spin in single-player mode. Bo then looks at us with an almost menacing grin and asks if we would like to try the co-op mode. You can tell by his demeanor that this is something he feels is not only a strong selling point of the game, but really fun to watch people try to play successfully.

Nick DePetris and Nick Santangelo rise to the challenge. I stand behind them and watch. What happens next is almost painful to watch, but just like a bad accident on the side of the road, you can’t look away. In co-op mode you now have four pieces: two blue and two red. Each player takes control of one color. Just like in single player mode, you have to match up the different-colored totem pieces to the matching colors on the board to advance.

Now, though, enters the tricky part. Remember earlier when I stated that the player sometimes has to change colors in mid-jump or fall to advance? Well, how do you do that when you aren’t controlling both colors? The answer is communication. Both players are forced to communicate at almost every second of the game in order to move forward. Not only do pieces sometimes have to be switched at a moment’s notice, but sometimes they need to be split, with half left in one area while the other half moves forward to unlock the next part of the level. If your friend makes one false move, it’s back to the start of that obstacle for you. Imagine this happening 10, 20, maybe 50 times in a row. Now you understand why someone may leave the room suffering from a rage-fueled act of controller throwing.

After Nick and Nick finished trying out the co-op level, they got up and prepared to leave. But that wasn’t going to happen until I tried it for myself. I made Nick S. stay behind and play through the level one more time with me. We had a bit of an unfair advantage since he had already played through co-op with Nick D., but every relationship is different, so really no two teams will play the same. You can play with your brother and fight the whole time, and then play with your best friend and get through smoothly and with few problems. This is one of the most interesting aspects of Project Totem. It really is challenging you and your friends both on and off-screen. How well you communicate with each other will determine how successful you are in navigating the levels.

Is it fall yet?

Fall is one of the best times of the year. I love the pumpkin flavors, haunted houses, beautiful scenery as the leaves turn and the opportunity to prove to my boyfriend that he is a poor communicator. If everything goes as planned, that is exactly what I will get this upcoming autumn. Project Totem is expected to release in fall of this year for both Xbox 360 and Xbox One. Mark your calendars now and keep an eye out for an exact release date, this is definitely a game you want to keep an eye on. Who knows, maybe you won’t just build an “awesome” totem, but an “awesome” and more well-rounded friendship too.