Something, a chute it looks like, activates with a glowing ring of light. Some ugly pieces of machinery come tumbling out along with a soot-covered fur-ball. Is it alive? It has eyes. The furball is alive. It is kind of cute. It blinks with innocent, kind of sad-looking eyes. Then it hits you – you are that soot-covered ball of fluff. So much for getting to know yourself! You flap your appendages, sending yourself into the air momentary before plopping softly back to planet earth. Those appendages are wings, or are they springy legs? Or both? You are not alone. All around you, you hear nothing but the sound of birds chirping. Perhaps you are a bird, a very dark one at that. You flap some more, doing so seems to send you cavorting forward. Soon you hear ugly, dull clanks. You run into giant cogs which propel you right into a tree. Why are they so seemingly misplaced? Is there a place where nature and the artificial come together? Even though the foreground world around you is blackened just like you are, you can make out the shapes. Far off are hills and vines lit softly by the sun through industrial haze. A rabbit in the background, shadowed under gnarled roots, stares out with flat, forlorn eyes – much like your own.
Look out! A net of rocks comes crashing down the place you were a moment ago. A Ferris-wheel of blades nearly slices you apart! You fly directly into another chute. You are sucked in and thrown out on the other side: a whole new region completely unique from the last one. With a bit of hesitation, you fly onwards. You race against the world itself as it tries to overrun you and squeeze you off the screen. You come across your brothers and sisters – your clones. Together, in a team effort, you must proceed through the perilous world of a machine-logged nature tableau of which you have no memories. You must continue flying forward. It is the only direction that will take you further away from this muck you were born into and out into the real world. Welcome to Badland.
Badland really does not give you much instruction on what to do and where to go. The player “controls one of the forest’s inhabitants to discover what’s going on,” Badland’s developer, Frogmind, says. You set off on your own into a brave new world which becomes harsher as the levels progress, and as a result, you envision the story behind it (hence the incredibly extended opening to this review, a description of the thoughts that swam through my mind as I played).
The first thing you will probably notice about the game is that the foreground, where the bird-like character (we wll call him “Sooty”) you control moves through, is completely black. The background, however, is in full color clueing you that you are in a forest. All foreground objects like trees, tunnels, stalagmites, boulders and swinging blades (yes, swinging blades) are mere silhouettes but pose as obstacles for you to avoid. Colliding into one of them can cause you to be slowed, pinned down or disintegrated. Like I mentioned earlier, everything – even the screen of you device – will try to kill you. You can slow little Sooty down, but the scenery continues to scroll at the same speed. Once you slip off the left side of the screen, you have slipped into oblivion. Game over. You are reloaded to the last checkpoint (which is usually before an obstacle).
Along the way, you pick up “clones” of yourself which appear as balled up piles black fluff. Soon, you will be flying a flock of Sootys in which each bird moves in the same rhythmic pattern to your command. The game has no “lives system,” so technically, the more clones you pick up the more lives you have. These clones are also useful for times when the environment gets tricky. Sometimes a puzzling obstacle gets in your way. You may be required to fly one clone into a tunnel to push a lever in order to open gates for the others, sacrificing that one clone in the process. “One for all, but not quite “…all for one!” I suppose that kind of teamwork works in one form or another.
Other pick-ups include stones which shrink or grow, speed up or slow down or increase the bounciness, stickiness or clumsiness of Sooty. In situations where you must fly your flock through narrow passages, especially when the passage is comprised of running buzz saws, it helps to slow down and size down. The pick-up that causes Sooty to become spiky makes him easily stick to the environment (like a burr) which can make maneuvering cumbersome. At the same time, it also makes him insusceptible to damage by saws and blades. Getting through the levels with these various pick-ups is greatly dependent on how thoughtfully you choose to utilize them.
Eventually, the levels go from joyride, or rather “joyflight,” to nightmarish. You will get a taste of just how bad Badland can treat you. Exploding mines can be set off at the slightest touch throwing Sooty into hellish piston-run crushing devices. Touch a growth-inducing pick-up at the wrong moment and Sooty will inflate to a point where he gets STUCK trying to fly out of a crevice. Horribly turn a flock of Sootys into Sooty seasoning when you steer them straight into a wall of buzz saws. Stumped? With a bit of luck, you can overcome even the most gut-wrenching of puzzles, even if it means getting shredded over and over again. If you started laughing uncontrollably in these moments like I admittedly did, do not feel too bad. You do not really get your sick kicks from watching a contraptions-ridden forest beat the living daylights out of poor, ashen animals. Let us hope not anyways. We have a long ways to go in discovering the bigger picture of Sooty’s grotesque world through the terrors that lie ahead.
Written by DMITRI PUH