Metrico is a frustrating game. That's mostly meant as a compliment. This is a puzzle game, after all. You're supposed to pull your hair and swear once in a while.
Every puzzle game walks a fine line between the good kind of frustration and the bad kind, however. And when Metrico wavers into the bad territory, it gets really bad. Bad in a way that's unfairly difficult, meaning that it combines all the hair-pulling and swearing with the indignant realization that you've been wronged by a game that can't always teach its players how to actually play it.
Thankfully, the game makes up for these terrible moments. Because there's a real magic to discovering the solution to any given puzzle in Metrico. No matter how long it takes you to get there, I promise: it's worth the wait.
Let me give one small example. Early in the game, I came upon a seemingly typical jumping puzzle. I had to steer my tiny avatar across three floating platforms, then have him leap over a block standing in front of him. The only problem was: the final block shifted upwards ever time I jumped. So by the time I'd hopped across the three steps, the wall was towering in front of me.
I had no idea what to do for a long time. I took a break. I came back, and still couldn't figure it out. Finally, one morning last week I showed it to my colleague Evan. He looked at it for a moment, considering his options. Then it hit him.
"You don't actually have to jump every time," he said. Instead, he simply walked off the ledge. The wall remained low enough for my guy to hop over. And with that, it was onto the next stage. That is the challenge in Metrico: figuring out over and over again how to move through an abstract space with the fewest possible movements. Challenges often seem impossible at first in the same way I hit this first wall. Slowly but surely, you find a way to shave off an unnecessary jump or take fewer steps. And then everything falls into place.
These "aha!" moments are always incredible in puzzle games. They're especially rewarding in Metrico because of the ways that it uses the PlayStation Vita console's weirder features in surprising and inventive ways. Digital Dreams, the indie studio behind Metrico, describes its new Vita exclusive as an "infographics action game." That's a fancy title that means most of the levels look like various kinds of charts. Helpfully, many of its moving parts also come with percentage counters or fractions to show how far they've moved in one direction or another. Other than its aesthetic flourishes, the game feels a lot like Braid, another side-scrolling puzzle game that had a lot of unique ideas, some of which were almost too clever for its own good.
Similar to Braid, Metrico is divided into a number of different worlds, each of which is structured around a unique maneuver you lean on to solve the puzzles. These become increasingly complex as the game progresses. Early on, for instance, you have to start shooting projectiles using either the shoulder controls or the front touchscreen to eliminate swirling spiky balls that are scattered across levels. Soon after this is introduced, Metrico also tells you that you need to start using the back touchscreen to properly aim these shots.
Across all these different levels, the common challenge comes from a combination of delicate timing and hyper-focused accurate movement. Surfaces jump and shift as you traverse a given level, evading your grasp or forming ad hoc barriers to your proper exit. The game's soft color palette and ambient soundtrack add to its dreamy quality, leaving the player with a sensation the the entire world is humming and ticking with a mechanical sort of life. Once you get the hang of it, you'll find yourself counting the number of jumps you're taking and impulsively scanning the outer corners of each level to see if there's anything you've missed.
The Vita controls gets weirder and weirder with every new level as well. Before you know it, you're tilting the entire console to the left and right to raise and lower platforms. Or wobbling it back and forth. Advanced stages make you use the game's checkpoint system to teleport between different areas and leap between different platforms while you're clutching the Vita in an exaggerated upside-down position. There's no command quite as odd as blowing on the Wii U's GamePad in Super Mario 3D World, but Metrico gets close. Towards the end of the game, you have to start using the Vita's back-facing camera to register different types of light. When it picks up a green hue in one level, for example, one platform moves upwards in a puzzle that took me far to long to figure out. Seeing red, meanwhile, lowers another one.
At its best moments, Metrico transcends the gimmicky nature of the Vita's toolset and makes the entire experience a refreshing play on tried-and-true platforming mechanics. It feels very silly at first to have to turn your console upside down while still trying to steer your character in a single direction. But it also adds a legitimate physical challenge to this game—sort of like trying to play Twister and Super Mario Bros. at the same time. Or juggling, in incredibly slow motion. Metrico might be a "mobile game," in other words, but it's not something that you want to play on your subway ride home.
Metrico's worst moments are something else entirely, however. Some of the Vita-friendly features on display here undermine the quality of the game. The back touchscreen is especially irritating in this light. There were countless moments when I unintentionally fired off a projectile in the wrong direction because of a misplaced finger. Even compared to other puzzle games, Metrico requires incredible precision to make it through certain levels. The messiness of the way it applies some Vita features makes getting past late-stage hurdles far more of a challenge than they need to be, to the detriment of the tricky parts that are actually interesting.
The game also does very little in the way of hand-holding, which lead to some passages where I had no idea what I was supposed to even try to do. The light-reading feature left me stumped for a long time for no better reason than the fact that I was playing the game in a dimly lit room, and the game didn't make it especially clear that I suddenly couldn't do that. Since the Vita is still a relatively new and untested piece of machinery, Digital Dreams didn't do itself any favors by leaving players to figure all of this out on their own. But at the same time, it is still a puzzle game. And as I said before, the process of discovery inherent in every solution is a big part of the fun.
"Discovery" has a special meaning here. Like last year's excellent Vita game Tearaway, thenovelty of Metrico's gameplay means it comes across as a proof of concept for Sony's console. That doesn't have to be a bad thing, though. Because when you think about it, the Vita needs more experimentation like this before people realize its true potential.
It might feel weird hoisting your Vita up towards a lightbulb or trying to ply it upside-down right now, but...actually, forget it, those things will always feel weird. But seeing a game that takes as many chances with the device it's being played on is inspiring all the same. You still view this game through a screen, but Metrico makes it feel like something much greater than an inanimate object.
Flaws and apparent oversights aside, therefore, I still like Metrico because of how bizarre and imaginative even its most annoying features can be. Despite its small stature, this is a game that rewards experimentation on a grand scale. I hope that the PlayStation Vita gets more games like this that make such liberal use of the console's many different appendages.