We all know the saying, ‘opposites attract,’ but when an independent game developer takes such a simple, blatantly overused concept and transforms it into an effective and unexpectedly brilliant central gameplay mechanic, I’m willing to bet that was unlikely to cross your mind.
And yet this is the very feat accomplished by Moondrop in their creation of Degrees of Separation, a heartfelt puzzle platformer whose release was criminally smothered by a landslide of triple-A titles launched in the same week. Yes, beneath the long-awaited Far Cry New Dawn and the critically acclaimed Metro Exodus is buried this tiny treasure, awaiting only the players who are willing to dig a little deeper to discover it.
In this short adventure game, the ‘Degrees’ of Separation is to be taken quite literally as you utilise the temperatures of warmth and coldness personified as Ember and Rime, two controllable characters who must work together to solve the various puzzles scattered around each level. While the two meet under vague circumstances, it doesn’t take long for you to learn that neither can traverse the mysterious land alone. From Rime’s icy aura that freezes over basins of water to Ember’s warmth that thaws it, you quickly learn the many ways these two opposing elements can manipulate the world around them.
This basic gameplay mechanic is not only easy to grasp, but an immensely clever premise for establishing the most integral aspect of the game: the bond between Ember and Rime. Watching their relationship gradually build throughout the course of the story is genuinely charming to see unfold, as their strong sense of mutual reliance becomes emphasised the further you progress.
So where does this all get you? There are five main levels to explore and within them are scattered dozens of mysterious collectables simply referred to as ‘scarves’. These scarves can be obtained once you solve the puzzle keeping them out of your immediate reach, and once you manage to gather a certain amount, the next available level will become unlocked and accessible in the home region known only as ‘The Castle’.
Phew. Sounds simple, right? Unfortunately, the methods required to reach these essential scarves are anything but.
In an enticing twist, each level is characterised by its own unique ability granted to Ember and Rime. For instance, in one, the ‘boundary’ line that keeps the duo separated can be formed into a solid, walk-able surface adjusted by the angle of the ‘split’ between them. In another, they acquire a cloak that conceals either Rime or Ember’s element to allow full occupancy of the other. These additional features give plenty of substance for more varied puzzles, encouraging you to constantly discover new ways to utilise Ember and Rime’s elements and reshape the environment in your favour.
Each level is quite literally a straight, open path allowing you to virtually walk from the starting door on one end to the other without encountering a single puzzle. While the main route is essentially linear, the path will branch off into further areas that you may explore, from cavernous mines beneath the surface to great man-made structures that tower above the ground. It is within these areas where the puzzles await, granting you a sense of freedom as you solve them at your own pace, explore at your own will and continue with your integrity still intact when you decide to throw your controller into your cushion and give up on a seemingly unreachable bugger of a scarf.
Much to my obvious delight, Degrees of Separation offers several opportunities to skip those puzzles that, shall we say, appear to offer a little more than a mere ‘challenge’. As someone who you would not expect to be playing any game with the word ‘puzzle’ in its list of genres, I appreciated the opportunity to temporarily walk away (no, not ‘give up’) from a select few scarves I couldn’t find the solution to, and still have enough by the end to advance to the next level.
In saying that, every puzzle is still its own isolated quest, with some noticeably more difficult than others. The sheer number of them was enough to keep me on a single level for up to a couple of hours (although that amount of time is also in consideration of my slower-than-average mental capacity for problem solving). The complexity and intricate design of the solutions had me more than impressed with Moondrop’s consistently satisfying challenges. On multiple occasions I was required to think outside of the box and use Rime and Ember’s elements in ways I hadn’t previously, experimenting with new tactics until I was eventually rewarded with the satisfying gleam of another scarf being added to my collection.
However, as much as I enjoyed most of the puzzles and temporary abilities on their own, I still longed to see more variation, more distinguishing features between Ember and Rime, and more diversity of each world’s layout. I understand that Degrees of Separation thrives on fewer mechanics and simpler controls, but I have to admit that going through each level almost became a chore after a time due to the repetitive and formulaic nature of their design, with tragically few features that made each of them stand out.
On the visual front, however, the graphics do not cease to impress. Guiding Ember and Rime across the beautifully illustrated landscapes is as delightful as solving a difficult puzzle, and the art style perfectly achieves the gentle ambience which is central to Degrees of Separation’s tone. Perhaps the most striking element is, ironically, the actual elements. Ember and Rime’s contrast is cleverly emphasised by the constant barrier that positions the warm, saturated colours directly against the paler, colder hues, accompanying a sense of their inevitable conflict and the duo’s bittersweet inability to coexist. This very concept becomes a central theme for the game, and I adored how the 2D design so seamlessly managed to represent it in a visual way.
The sound also dutifully contributes to the platformer’s aesthetic, with a charming musical score that was impressively cinematic and moving at times. While the voice narration added a new depth to Ember and Rime’s journey and effectively depicted a narrative that is easy to otherwise overlook, the ‘fuzzy’ audio noise that consistently underscored the narrator’s voice unfortunately rendered the sound quality as disappointingly average. However, this issue is minor to say the least, and only truly noticeable to headphone users.
While Degrees of Separation is undoubtedly ideal for co-op play, it features a single-player mode that works surprisingly well. While manually swapping between Ember and Rime required some extra skill and patience, I managed to impress even myself when I finally pulled off some effective maneuvering. However, my sense of satisfaction was quickly dulled every time a computer-controlled Ember or Rime found themselves inevitably trapped within a cave below me, unable to fathom the use of a rope hanging right beside them.
Interestingly, I also came across a frequent number of puzzles that seemed specifically designed for two players, which I unfortunately tended to discover only after wasting ten minutes attempting to solve them. However, I’m willing to admit that with the lack of single-player guides so far, there is the possibility that I could be proven wrong.
Degrees of Separation surprised me in many ways, from the intricate design of its puzzles to the vibrant and detailed visuals. As much as I treasured the companionship between Ember and Rime and found myself immediately hooked from the beginning, however, there was little more than that to keep me on the line. Simply, I think that this game shines more as a multiplayer experience than a single-player, as various elements characterising the latter (such as the story, unique level design, etc.) are sadly just not strong or distinctive enough to make this game really stand out in the market. However, what Degrees of Separation may lack in diverse gameplay it more than makes up for with its enchantingly ambient tone and intriguing central mechanic, and I guarantee that giving it your time will not leave you disappointed.
Despite a stunning art style and puzzles as gratifying as they are numerous, a disappointing lack of features prevent Degrees of Separation from outshining others in its genre. When you're willing to overlook the repetition in favour of its intriguing central mechanic, however, this charming title will prove itself worthy of your time.