Zeroranger was one of my favorite games of the last decade and proved that studio System Erasure could make a well-designed and subversive game. They’re back with a game that is even more subversive and well-designed…if you don’t mind a lot of frustration along the way.
Our story begins with a mysterious woman jumping into a hole before stumbling upon a magic scepter that lets her pick up and place any tile on the ground. From there, our descent into the labyrinth begins.
The puzzle logic here falls on the Sokoban side (Sokoban is a puzzle game where you push boxes around a warehouse), with a few specific twists. You can only pick up a tile that you are facing, and you must walk in the direction of the tile you want to pick up: essentially, you need either a three-tile long or wide section to let you keep picking things up endlessly. There are bonus crystals and treasure chests to find, with the chests containing what will be your extra lives here. No matter how good you think you are, you’re going to run out of lives, and then the real Voidstranger begins.
When you die, you are offered the choice to keep playing with infinite lives, or end your game and restart back at the beginning. Having infinite lives means that now the only thing standing in your way are the puzzles themselves. As you go further, you’ll start to unlock bits and pieces of the greater narrative, and the story is as deep as the labyrinth itself. Make it to the end, and you’ll learn something very painful.
Reaching the final floor while voided will give you the "bad" ending, unlocking the option to turn on infinite lives. But if you want to see what the game really has in store, you must go through it without becoming void. Dedication is at the heart of the game, and for people who are dedicated, there is a lot in store here.
While this is a spoiler warning section, I’m not going to say everything I’ve learned. Throughout the labyrinth are secret brands that can be activated to discover secrets, with many tied to specific floors. You’ll learn about your character, the mysterious Lady Grey who is trying to right a wrong from her past, and her actions will lead to events that ripple out across time and space. Beating the game is not anywhere near the end of Voidstranger, and you’ll soon find yourself returning to the labyrinth with even more surprises in store.
Learning the Language of Puzzles
The subtle brilliance of the game is that the secrets and *redacted* you find are not necessarily there to give your character more power but to provide you with more options. Despite having only one method of interacting with the world, the game explores this in many different ways. Once you learn something new about the world and how your scepter works, everything changes from that point on, and I don’t want to give too much away here. Your ability to solve puzzles easier and faster will be dependent on learning and being exposed to the rules of the labyrinth. For those who felt that Undertale was a subversive game, this one sometimes comes at you like a rollercoaster through the fourth wall.
But getting to the moments where Voidstranger pays off will take a lot of puzzling, and a lot of pain.
Falling Down Over and Over Again
The complexity of Voidstranger's puzzles is extremely high and in spots reminds me of playing Catherine. In that game, there are “maneuvers” in terms of moving tiles or setting them up for a few steps in the future, which the player must figure out for themselves. But the problem is that, unlike in Catherine, you’re not going to have anyone giving you some help to learn them or items to circumvent them.
What makes this game so fascinating to play, I can’t tell you without revealing the trick, and once you start learning, or get spoiled, about the game, so much of the magic is lost — like someone telling you everything about the different routes in Undertale. But getting to that payoff requires more time than I think the game debatably deserves. Reaching the end of a playthrough of the game, even with infinite lives, can easily take several hours of play at the start if you know what you’re doing. While you can learn the solutions to the puzzles, that’s still memorizing, or writing down, hundreds of solutions. Most puzzles are designed around a very specific order of actions to solve them; mess up at any point and you’re going to have to lose a life to reset it.
And this isn’t even getting at the *redacted* elements, with some providing you with quality-of-life elements if you can find them, including level skips. While QOL rewards are great, they’re only there and accessible for the people who are most likely good enough at the game not to need them for the main route, and they’re really there to allow someone to push further into the game rather than help people who are struggling. Even trying to reset your game or learn what you’ve unlocked can be a pain to do, and this is one of the most “gamer tax” filled games I’ve played in some time. I do think it would have been helpful to have a system or mechanism in place so that if someone is not making progress, the game can give them a hand or hint about it. While there are plenty of things to discover, some of which break the rules of the genre itself, they’re all under the layer of increasingly difficult puzzles.
I can guarantee that most of the people who check this game out will never even see 5% of what it has to offer. That isn't hyperbole, which should give you an indication as to how far this game goes. There are puzzles that you won’t even know are puzzles until later in the game. If you had trouble figuring out the meta puzzles of Tunic last year, then this game is going to hurt your brain.
The difficulty of the puzzles started to wear me out as I played it, and not even the intriguing story was enough of a carrot at times to push me through without resorting to a guide. The problem is that while every puzzle exists on a single screen, the number of steps needed to solve it becomes progressively bigger, to the point that I couldn’t even follow video guides without constantly pausing. On top of it all, the lack of an "undo" option means that a single mistake requires the entire puzzle to be restarted.
Is it Worth the Trip?
This is a hard game to recommend or render a verdict on. There is some of the deepest puzzle design you will find this year in Voidstranger, but this is not a game that is approachable to new players, or even most puzzle fans. There is a lot of time demanded from the player to see what this game has in store, and if you are someone looking for an experience that gives up its secrets easily, then this is not the game for you.
If you’re able to *redacted* *redacted* and unlock *redacted* to reach *redacted* which can take a minimum of five hours, Voidstranger starts to come to life. Surprisingly, this game proves that System Erasure can tax your brain just as well as it can tax your dexterity, and it makes me worried about what will come next from this amazing studio.
But as someone who is better at shmuping than Sokoban, there just isn’t enough here to make me want to dig through all the pain to learn what else this game has in store without resorting to flat-out spoilers at times. This is a puzzle game for expert puzzle fans, and the game does not do enough to help anyone who isn’t already a master get across the finish line. Voidstranger is like being told there’s an amazing party you need to go to, but you must solve multiple riddles to even find the address, and at some point, I’d rather just stay home and do something more relaxing and look at pictures from the event. But trust me, this party gets very crazy and I can't tell you why.
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