Date: May 16, 2023
If you were alive and gaming in the early 90s, you probably have at least a passing familiarity with a unique puzzle game called Lemmings. In it, you had to guide a group of lemmings through obstacles of ever-increasing complexity. If you were alive and gaming 10 years later, you almost certainly will be familiar with a completely RPG called Fable, developed by Lionhead Studios. How are these things related? Well, Tin Hearts, which releases tomorrow, is something of a spiritual successor to Lemmings, and the game’s development team Rogue Sun contains former Lionhead employees.
That’s all well and good, but this isn’t a Lemmings sequel, nor is it an RPG — what it is is a cleverly crafted puzzle game that sees you guiding adorable little wind-up soldiers through 3D levels that gradually become larger and trickier. You play as some kind of half-corporeal ghost, and make your way through a series of inviting rooms in a Victorian-era house, with most puzzles taking place in a new room. In between (and sometimes during) levels the story slowly unfolds as a series of cutscenes and you learn more about your character’s family and their surprisingly heavy past.
The meat of the game is the puzzles, which are arguably the games strongest aspect. Every few rooms, a new mechanic is introduced: you start out with the basics, placing triangle-shaped blocks to modify the path of the soldiers as you attempt to march them to the door that serves as each level’s end-goal. Later puzzles introduce movable trains, cannons, and various other contraptions that can be “possessed” and repositioned in order to facilitate your soldiers’ journey to the door. Many of the puzzle elements, like the trains and the blocks, can be placed anywhere in the environment, giving you an interesting degree of freedom in solving the puzzles — I suspect some of them may even have multiple solutions.
It’s a relatively smooth learning curve, as new tools and tricks come at a steady rate. However, there are a few points at which the difficulty jumps way up, like the first outdoor level that involves about twice as many steps as the preceding puzzle. Overall though, Tin Hearts generally gets puzzle difficulty right, with those “ah-hah!” moments coming before frustration sets in. If anything, the early levels are slightly too easy, with the challenge coming more from properly managing the tin soldiers rather than figuring out the solution.
This is really the biggest issue the gameplay has: it can sometimes be a hassle to get the little soldiers to group up in such a way that you can get them to continue through the puzzle, even when you’ve already figured out the solution — and corralling mindless tin soldiers isn’t exactly fun. This is generally mitigated by the ability to rewind and fast forward time that you get a few levels in, but if you forget to pause the game and leave the soldiers on a loop, and then realize you need them to return to your starting point, you’re better off restarting the level — except that cut scenes aren’t skippable, so sometimes restarting means sitting through a multiple-minute cutscene.
The controls can be equally frustrating at times. Although they’re probably perfect for VR (the game feels like it was designed with VR foremost in mind) but can be a real pain using mouse and keyboard or controller. It can be difficult to line up things like cannon shots, and getting a block placed properly feels finicky. But even with all these annoyances, solving the puzzles in Tin Hearts is still a lot of fun. Most importantly, it made me feel smart; any puzzle game that can do that has done its job.
Less successful is the game’s storytelling. Although it’s far from a failure, I would have skipped the cutscenes if I wasn’t playing the game to review it — and if cutscenes were skippable. The writing isn’t bad, but it takes a while to get going; Tin Heart’s starts off a tale of domestic bliss, with mommy and daddy and daughter Rose living it up in their improbably large house. (The game’s first few levels take place in a series of attic workshops, implying that either your character’s memory is faulty, or the house had half a dozen spare rooms dedicated to making the same half dozen toys). It’s fine to set the scene, but it didn’t feel necessary or interesting to see Rose playing happily in every room in the house.
The so-so start to the story is exacerbated by the strange and sometimes terrifying character models, which stand in stark contrast to the excellent design and graphics of the toys, and the pleasantly passable environments. The animations aren’t great, but it’s the actual 3D models that are the real issue — which is a shame, since the dialog writing and the voice acting are both solid. A picture is worth a thousand words, so if the image at the top of this review didn’t convince you, let’s take another look.
The wife isn’t so bad, but the dad’s face looks like a mannequin’s, and the daughter’s head looks like it’s about 92% of her body weight. Not being able to skip these scenes, especially if you quit a level partway through and are rewatching them against your will, make the issues with the creepy character designs all the more glaring. Fortunately, the story itself isn’t bad, it just suffers from a bit too much padding in the early acts — about half of the scenes could have been cut with no noticeable loss, and in fact doing so would have made the slow reveal of the game’s key plot points all the more engaging.
Despite the uncanny valley denizens that populate the game’s house, it’s still a cozy vibe. The rooms are pleasantly lit and nice to look at, with just enough detail to feel lived in. Again, it’s very clear that the game was developed with VR in mind, as you can freely wander around each room and inspect all the little details — the music sheets in one room are so detailed you could play from them, assuming you can read music. The graphics do look a bit dated, but not so much so that it detracts meaningfully from the experience.
The warm colors of the environments are complemented well by the music of composer Matthew Chastney, who creates a calm, soothing series of simple background tracks to keep you chilled out when the puzzles get tricky. In an amusing twist, the music gets kind of unsettling when you rewind time, which if you play like me, you’ll end up doing a lot.
All told, neither the frustrations with controls nor the unavoidable and creepy characters were enough to completely sour Tin Hearts for me. It’s a heartfelt, well-designed puzzle game that offers just the right amount of challenge, and if you’ve been waiting for another Lemmings, this just may be the game for you.