Indie Platformer Marathon: Snapshot

The next game in the Marathon is Snapshot, by the two-man team known as Retro Affect (and otherwise known as Kyle Pulver and David Carrigg). Kyle Pulver has been developing indie platformers for some time, starting with Bonesaw: The Game which got a brief mention in my round-up of indie platformer classics. But he’s better known for his later work, including Jottobots (with J. Otto Seibold) and Offspring Fling. For David Carrigg, however, Snapshot is (I believe) his first platformer, as he was previously working on MMOs (that’s Massively Multiplayer Online games, for those who don’t know; think World of Warcraft). And apparently there was a third member of the team, Peter Jones, who has since departed but did some art and animation work for Snapshot.

Snapshot’s premise is simple and immediately intriguing. The player character, a small robot named PIC, has the ability to capture certain objects by taking a photograph of them. It can then drop these items again in a different location, sometimes after rotating them first. The early stages start with simply moving boxes around, as any good platformer should, but things quickly become more complex as the variety of objects (and creatures) that can be captured grows. Springboards, projectiles, doors, flying platforms, magnets… all of these things can be captured and used in interesting ways.

With so many different elements involved, Snapshot could have easily become overwhelming, but it avoids such a fate through tight design and controls. The player moves PIC around with the keyboard while controlling the camera with the mouse, a nice separation that let me guide PIC through an area while performing some fancy object manipulation with the camera at the same time. PIC’s movement did feel awkward at first, but once I got the hang of it I was performing tricky maneuvers with ease. And the three-photo limit on the camera, along with generally small levels, meant there were never too many photos to keep track of. I was actually surprised at how small the levels were, although they get a little bigger later on. But there are plenty of them: four chapters with nine levels each, and each of those is split into three sub-levels. What’s really impressive is that each of these 3-part levels introduces a new idea or mechanic, right up until the end of the game. Some of these crop up again and again in later levels, but others are just one-offs (or three-offs?). And they’re all great bits of design. Like the previous entry in the Marathon, Nimbus, Snapshot thoroughly explores its central mechanic to great effect.

It’s also unashamedly game-like. While there is a simple story (told through a series of photographs, naturally), the actual levels are straight platforming. Each sub-level has a special, hidden object to find and photograph, as well as a bunch of stars to collect and a par time for speedrunning. There’s even an appropriate medal awarded for each of these things, conveniently displayed in each chapter’s hub. Merely finishing a level might be straightforward, but nabbing every star and finding the special object is often much trickier. It’s a nice way to handle difficulty; those wishing for an easier time can simply try to finish the levels, and can even skip troublesome ones as new levels and chapters are unlocked early. But, if you’re like me, you’re stubborn and won’t be able to move on after seeing that you missed some stars, or didn’t get the special photograph you were looking for. It’s when going for these optional challenges that Snapshot gets really, really hard.

I probably shouldn’t be surprised by this, given the difficulty of Bonesaw: The Game, but everything else about Snapshot makes it feel like it should be a less taxing experience. Actually, many levels are quite tranquil, and I was able to solve them at my own pace while marveling at how visually and aurally beautiful it all is. I know I’ve been praising soundtracks a lot in the Marathon, but this one really is fantastic, and promotes a general feeling of wonder. Graphically, the hand-drawn sprites are pretty enough, but it’s the lighting effects and several-layer parallax scrolling that really bring the visuals to life, often creating scenery I wanted to stop and admire. So it was a bit of a shock when some of the optional challenges were maddeningly tough. Dying, which happens easily in these cases, means starting the whole sub-level over again, a frustrating prospect when the tricky bit is right at the end. The worst offenders are in the third chapter, which focuses on fiddly mechanics like wind and floating platforms, and which punishes failure with plummets to one’s death. It didn’t help that the white collectible stars were often indistinguishable from the clouds in the background. Finally pulling off a tricky level only to find I’d missed one star was not fun. Fortunately, the fourth chapter was a significant improvement; more straightforward and far more enjoyable. And I should stress that simply playing through the chapters rather than going for all the optional stuff would result in a far less aggravating experience. I was worried that there would be something special unlocked only when all challenges were completed, but was happy to discover that’s not the case. Having no interest in speedruns, I was able to avoid them and miss out on nothing more than the aforementioned medals.

In the end I quite enjoyed Snapshot, and I did manage to get every star and secret photo. I wasn’t sure about the game at first, because it starts slowly with very simple levels that feel much too small, but it grew on me. I got more comfortable controlling PIC and its camera just as the levels became a bit larger and more interesting, and by the end I was thoroughly charmed. Be warned that completionists will find a stiff challenge, but it’s also a rare game that doesn’t force any of that on the player. Go for them if you want, if not, just move on; they can be safely ignored, and you can always come back for them later if you change your mind. I should mention that I did have one small technical issue: I could not get vsync (that’s vertical synchronization for those unfamiliar) to work when running the game in fullscreen mode, leading to a lot of screen tearing. Running in windowed mode fixed the tearing, but I preferred having the game fill the whole screen. Fortunately, this was easily solved by using ShiftWindow, a free program that resizes windows so they completely fill the screen, looking exactly like fullscreen mode. Once done, I quickly forgot about it, and almost neglected to mention it here. It does seem to be a common issue with the game, however, so be forewarned.

Interested parties can purchase Snapshot on Steam or through the Humble Store, which nets you a DRM-free copy as well as a Steam key. Which probably makes it the better deal. Both sources also feature the excellent soundtrack, although here the Humble Store wins on price, provided you get it bundled with the game. There’s no demo, sadly, but if I’ve managed to intrigue you at all, go ahead and pick it up. I’m sure you’ll be happily snapping away in no time.

EDIT: The Indie Platformer Marathon is now complete! See all the posts here.

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