One of the coolest things about independent games is the plethora of information available months, sometimes years, before the project crawls to retail. Not subject to the veil of secrecy or PR-controlled flow of information, most indie developers are easily accessible and wholly willing to discuss their work in considerable detail. They are, after all, often seeking to have their game bought and distributed by a publisher. The Misadventures of Mr. P.B. Winterbottom is one such title we’ve known about for quite some time. It’s entry into the Independent Games Festival (and even its post-mortem) was way back in 2008. Nearly two years later, it’s finally trickled down to Live Arcade. The story behind its creation is admirable, but one always had to hope the finished product matches the intrigue of its birth.
Winterbottom’s whimsical art direction begs to be engaged. Its playful 1920’s cinema aesthetic prefers style over accuracy, making it feel closer to Tim Burton interpretation of the silent film era than a true replication of 20’s cinema. The desaturated color pallet is alluring by virtue of its exclusivity (how many games use black and white as a style and not a gimmick?), but Winterbottom keeps you around thanks to its knack for humor and charm. The character of P. B. Winterbottom excels as mischief, an attribute reflected in his impressive mustache and top hat, and his place in the world often goes hand in hand with sheer absurdity. Which, you know, sort of has to exist to fully exploit the wild tasks at hand.
Comparisons to Braid are easy. Winterbottom has a similar level structure, and it places time-manipulation puzzles first and pure platforming a distant second. Precision and accuracy are forged through trial and error routines in your brain, and they’re merely expressed by a few basic actions on the dpad; you can jump, hover down, and whack stuff with your umbrella. Winterbottom also has the ability to forge clones of himself in order to meet the levels goal; clearing the screen of every piece of tasty pie in sight. Your clones are limited, but their actions will loop over and over without fail. The ways in which one must manipulate your clone’s actions are constantly shifting with the changing level themes, but Winterbottom does well to never break itself with outlandish tasks or (too) impossible-to-predict requirements.
That’s not to say Winterbottom wasn’t maddeningly difficult. Like any game worth its pixels, it excels at presenting relatively simple concept and then twisting it around for a range of challenges. Your brain is forced to bend right alongside the time/clone elements, producing countless “ah-ha!” instances that only seem to arrive after a considerable amount of thought. Pies that can only be gathered by a clone, fiendish evil clones, portals, and time limits all leave their own unique stamp on Winterbottom’s level structure.
Winterbottom is a fine puzzle game, and, while I can’t emphasize the difficulty enough, does well to not feel quite as punitive as its peers. Even when I had to scrap a plan and start from scratch, puzzles rarely took more than a few minutes to remap and try again. Over thinking and under thinking are both rewarding in their own appropriate manner, and inevitably (we can hope) nailing the sweet spot of the puzzle and progressing forward provides a terrific sense of satisfaction. Best of all, the solutions to each puzzle don’t seem to be set in stone. Googling for a bet of help (Flame On Sweet Prince took forty minutes of my time, fine for leisure but less than ideal for review), I wound up finding a host of different solutions for a few of the game’s puzzles. It hadn’t occurred to me that there might be more than one way to eat a pie. The number of solutions isn’t excessive, but an assumed personal touch to solving a puzzle goes a long way toward the feeling of accomplishment.
If any complaint can be lodged against Winterbottom, when you get stuck – you’re really stuck. The only hints in place are the placement of the pies; an arc you need to mock while airborne or an order in which you need to proceed. Failure, as I just mentioned isn’t so bad because you’re never really set back, but, at a certain point, progression may feel like it’s impossible. If you know that caveat ahead of time or you’re particularly fond of puzzlers, this should be right up your alley – but those lured in by the inviting aesthetic might hit a wall and decide they’re not going to go any further.