Stereo Boy (Main Gauche Games, 2022) is a charming little puzzle game set on a dead world which has been torn in two by some sort of cataclysm. Yes, that’s right. Charming and cataclysm in the same sentence.
Last year, I streamed Stereo Boy twice for Thinky Games (first time, second time). Initially, I wasn’t sure if it was my sort of game, as I suspected the split-world mechanic might be frustrating. But this suspicion was proven to be unfounded and Stereo Boy won me over.
Nutshell: Enjoyably taxing but not mind bending; main challenge is navigating the world.
Each Stereo Boy level is split into two. Provided the three-dimensional position you inhabit matches a safe spot on the other side of the screen, you can cross over there with a click of the mouse. I can imagine a version of Stereo Boy with dedicated crossover booths instead of this free-for-all – not only would it make the level designer’s life a little easier but would coax the player away from potential frustration.
In a way, Stereo Boy does offer something similar: there are often square marks on the ground to highlight zones where crossover is possible. Please note I said often not always. You will spot these markers throughout the game but some crossover zones have no markings, particularly when it comes to chasing optional objectives.
The main goal of Stereo Boy is to get to the exit using a familiar toolkit of switches, pushable blocks and keys. Exiting the level will involve crossing back and forth many times.
Some might consider the design, at times, to be an exercise in obfuscation, but that’s the point. The central challenge in Stereo Boy is assembling something like a four-dimensional mental map that knits together the two worlds. I expected this to be a brutal process, but my brain adapted quickly, decomposing the levels into manageable chunks rather than attempting to map the entire space.
Some of the later maps are more fearsome in this respect and there are a few helping hands in the Stereo Boy UI to help you out. For instance, a ghost copy of your character will appear on the other side of the screen if crossover is possible. And you can rotate the level at will.
Still, there were a few embarrassing moments where I got stuck in Stereo Boy because my incomplete mental map took precedence over what was actually on the goddamn screen. There would be a simple path from A to B but my brain absolutely refused to see it.
Stereo Boy gets far more interesting once it introduces blocks that can crossover – these are the best levels as they draw heavily on that mental map. One of my favourite puzzles, involving plenty of crossover block work, is shown below. I’m sure it looks completely innocuous to you. Oh wow, some blocks.
There is an unfortunate arcade aspect where some levels feature drones and turrets that attempt to destroy you; you’ll need to return fire or move fast to avoid getting hurt. But Stereo Boy has no undo so if you get hit three times, you’ll have to start a level over. With some of the bigger levels, this potential for restart can be frustrating.
It is possible to bump up the number of shields in the options menu – and even boost it to infinite shields if you just want to solve puzzles and not worry about getting vaporised. There are a few occasions where these defence systems are used as a puzzle ingredient rather than just a twitchy diversion and you will miss out on these if you eliminate the risk. However, I switched to infinite shields towards the end as the puzzles were getting a bit large for my liking. I wasn’t happy having to redo a complex level just because a trigger-happy turret caught me in a pensive moment.
Optional objectives include retrieving narrative logs that expose a thinly-veiled climate change allegory. It’s typical puzzle story fare; you’ll be playing Stereo Boy for the puzzles and not for the narrative.
Additionally, there are “shards” to retrieve which are often stranded at the end of some fiendishly disguised route. Collect enough shards and you can unlock bonus levels. But just snatching up a shard is not enough to win it: shards need to be carried through the exit.
Importantly, it is sometimes possible to soft lock shards during your march to the exit, casuing you to finishing the level empty-handed. It may not be clear that you’ve done this until it’s too late, forcing you to redo the level to grab any outstanding shards. You may find this annoying. It is annoying. But the main game is not meant to have any soft lock situations (although I found one!) so permitting irreversibility on these optional collectibles enables Stereo Boy to stretch its wings a little more.
I could easily see someone attempting to make a “triple-world split” version of Stereo Boy. It would be much more complex, but would it be any more fun? Maybe? Maybe not? It’s not really the same game at all, but I am reminded of how Tres Undos pushes the player hard with its “three layers of undo”. But Stereo Boy is just perfect as it is and, come on, it does look fetching.
I was never sure if I was really into Stereo Boy or whether it was just a good companion with which to pass the time. But I can tell you I didn’t quit until I solved every bonus level and retrieved every shard.
Stereo Boy is available on Windows and Mac from Steam. A free review key was provided by the developer.
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