Genre: Platforming Puzzle-Solver
Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Release date: March 3, 2015
Price: $14.99 (only available for download)
Sierra Entertainment, who also brought you Spyro, Homeworld, and Counter-Strike, have tapped into their platforming roots to bring you Shiftlings. My first impression of Shiftlings was, admittedly, not the greatest. The art struck me as too juvenile and the premise as off-putting, but the mechanics within the game held a little more heart and replaced my inhibitions with what proved to be a relatively fun and creative platforming game.
The narrative of Shiftlings is a simple and comical one. Two space engineer aliens are connected via cord. In the midst of their everyday business, one of them finds and consumes a bottle of Black Hola Cola, the universe’s fizziest drink, inflating him to five times his size. This gastrointestinal phenomenon is quickly learned to be transferable between the two through the aforementioned cord–a wackiness that doesn’t go unnoticed, as both aliens are picked to be the lead characters on a universally popular show called “Shiftlings,” in which the duo must work together to overcome obstacles and traverse planets of increasingly more dangerous threats.
Story is not the primary drive in Shiftlings, and thus the pacing is focused at a more level-by-level rate, which progresses the player through the game, with no notable developments between each stage.
Character development is predominantly absent from this game. The talk-show host is very electric and entertaining, while the two main characters are equal halves of serious and moronic. They never undergo any noticeable transformations.
Shiftlings is inhabited by a colorful, science-fiction universe, vaguely reminiscent of the color palette found in most Nickelodeon-related material (as in the television channel). The game allows for interstellar travel between five separate planetary bodies, each with a different mashup of alien and mechanical designs.
Practically all of the dialogue within the game comes from the reality show host. With his charm and swashbuckling enthusiasm, he commentates on the player’s actions as they progress through each level, and sets the background knowledge of the story premise. The dialogue is neither good nor bad. It is merely simple, clean, and easy to understand.
Language: No language concerns, not even milder mentions, such as “dang” or “heck,” at least to the best of my observation.
Violence: There are moments of cartoon violence. The main characters may die at the hands of enemy bots or hazards such as electric fields (the latter of which electrocutes the characters all the way down to their skeletons before even those vanish). Despite the macabre sound of the violence, it has a very child-friendly style to it, in line with the rest of the games’ priorities.
Sexual Content: No sexual allusions. No scantily clad characters. Nada.
Spiritual Content: Regarding spiritual material: there’s aliens. However that fits into your theology, it’s the only content of note that could be somehow affiliated with religion or spirituality.
Drug/Alcohol Reference: Black Hola Cola is the soda beverage responsible for the main characters’ ability to shape-shift, and gameplay achievements are centered around collecting as much of it as possible. That is only material even loosely associated with drug use.
Positive Elements: Shiftlings is a well-rounded, family-friendly experience. As noted above, there’s scarce negative material, but there’s hardly any overt, positive material either. Shiftlings is an amoral game. There’s nothing worth talking about, good or bad. You don’t hurt anybody, nor do you help. You don’t steal anything, but neither do you give to the poor. It is a game based solely on raw entertainment value.
The mechanics are easily the focal point of Shiftlings. With its nature as a 2-D side-scrolling platformer, you can sense the puzzle-solving from a mile away and anticipate it with giddiness. The player must overcome obstacles by switching between the green and red aliens. The player may control one or the other, and one of them must always be inflated. Being inflated makes them heavy, difficult to mobilize, and a large cushion for trampolining to higher locations. Being normal-sized helps you navigate through small areas, gives you far more freedom of movement, and allows you to interact with the environment, such as turning levers and pushing buttons. The player must figure out how and when it’s appropriate to switch the inflation between each character, giving rise to the main proponent of the gameplay. In addition, the player must account for the cord that connects them, as it limits the range of their movement (the inflated being an anchor for the normal) and can become wrapped around objects for strategic leverage like a rope-and-pulley system.
There are standard modes added as you progress through the game, such as “Time Attack,” and the Black Hola Cola bottles act as completionist collectables throughout the game.
Multiplayer allows another player to join in the antics by controlling whichever alien the main player is not currently controlling. Obviously, this doubles the brain power for solving puzzles, but also creates new challenges, as it halves the amount of control and power you have over the characters. Creativity and teamwork are key to success.
Shiftlings operates with a singular, fixed camera angle in the style of most 2-D side-scrollers. I found very few issues with this mechanic, except that it would occasionally take the focus off your characters in order to wrap around both them and an important destination. While this is useful for finding a goal, it makes it difficult to complete precise jumps on the stretched screen.
The controls are easy, although using “B” instead of “Space” to jump takes some getting used to (again, I played for PC). Differentiating between “N” and “M” also caused some early problems, as I would frequently press the wrong button, thus leading to somebody inflating when I meant to switch characters, and vice-versa. This is overcome with a little time and practice.
The soundtrack is playful and a little wonky, just like the cast. It acts as a perfect mood-setter for the gameplay activities, but doesn’t stand on its own very well. The scores are repetitive and without crisp, interesting orchestration. While it works well in-game, the soundtrack would be a challenge to listen to outside of it.
The only voice actor is the show host, whose commentary is flamboyant and comical. He carries a strong voice that expects people will listen, and I imagine the actor has had some sort of experience with commentating in their career. He is enthusiastic, clear, and accentuates everything with keen accuracy.
Graphically, Shiftlings utilizes a contemporary style reminiscent of what you might find in older generation Spyro or Jak and Daxter. Characters have disproportional bodies, vibrant colors fill in the landscapes, and the mashed-up level designs look like what you’d expect for a game with such a goofy and fun premise.
Shiftlings takes many of the fun things that Sierra is known for in their older franchises and puts a new spin on them. The mechanics are the selling point and provide a pleasant experience for young audiences and veteran gamers alike. If you want a quick, good-hearted puzzle game that doesn’t burden you with many story details, look at Shiftlings.
The Bottom Line
A casual, creative 2-D platforming game that's easy to learn and relaxing to play... most of the time.