Review: Typoman

Traditional word games have always held on to the belief that balancing intellectual stimulation with fun is never an impossible feat. Be it a cross-word or a word-search; a round of Scrabble or a quick pass of Hangman with a friend, language — so long as it’s no longer than five or six letters — isn’t always exempt from an affirmation such a game can still be enjoyable. Whether or not Brainseed Factory take inspiration from this idea, or have even looked that far at their unorthodox game mechanic, remains to be seen. But Typoman, on surface, stands out remarkably well. More so given its puzzle-platformer cataloging and often grizzly, downtrodden illustration that can leave many thinking back to the Limbo-esque formula without so much as a millisecond of gameplay even being shown.

To that end, the Nindies@Home program this June was a perfect way for Brainseed to get their foot in the door and their name out in the wild, and I for one took to this indie release with heightened anticipation. Not solely through its promise of balancing out the style-substance tug-o-war to a near-precision, but it gave the Wii U a shining (and maybe leftfield) diversity amid a catalog of often already-tried, already-tested releases. That, like Runbow and Affordable Space Adventures — albeit to lesser degree — before it, Brainseed could be the next little studio causing an almighty stir. Conclusively emanating that same Nintendo feel-good vibe we’ve come to know and love.

While it doesn’t offer much good to my current mind-set (even as I’m writing this) I feel it’s critical to point out just how much expectation I was holding onto, for good reason, going into the full release, because for all its promise, Typoman lands itself an easy place among the contenders for this year’s most wasted opportunity. This, despite its rather charming gimmick and its clever if-possibly unfair integration of that ‘beloved’ trial-and-error method of puzzle-solving, but with words. That for every ounce of fascinating set-play, there’s an underlining struggle that plagues one’s advancement. HERO, as your character is named based on the letter-shaped limbs of his body, may look and act like your atypical platform-jumping, trap-fleeing loner, but the one thing that binds you and the game together is the manner at which puzzles are solved. And it’s this that comes to identify and thus, spoil such lofty amounts of potential are there.

Typoman Screenshot 3
Throughout your adventures, you’ll come across letters that require rearrangement to spell out specific words. While some puzzles involve a solitary readjustment — one instance requiring you to change the word NO to ON to activate a platform — latter sections require you to delve a little deeper into the English vocabulary and spell out, at the most, six or seven-letter words that act more as a means as opposed to an end in of itself. At its best, Typoman flourishes in its elegant arrangement and design — puzzles lending themselves to the nature of wordplay and spelling, solutions will often leave you smiling by way of how letters will play and interact with the World. The way they configure and refigure based on the context and events taking hold add a lot to the game’s atmosphere. Be it in a mad dash across a crumbling steel frame (the word ROBUST breaking apart to form RUST) or a stand-off with one of the game’s rather antagonistic ‘words’, it shows Brainseed are well apt in the art of story-telling and to do it with words, but outside the conformity of a script or dialogue, just spins the very convention on its head.

Such a shame then that any ‘story’ told here is rather bare-minimal and forcibly shunted into the player’s midst mid-gameplay — easy as it is to simply switch off when all one can gather from what’s going on is: big bad is bad; evil must be stopped. Or words to that effect. Had Typoman offered something in the way of a more extensive variety of puzzles and efficient word-play, the narrative side may not have stood out so boldly or felt so flat, yet one of the biggest let-downs here pertains to neither the gameplay itself nor the breaks between gameplay segments. Typoman comprises itself of three ‘chapters’ not including the prologue, which is essentially a discrete tutorial encompassing everything aside from the Gamepad’s usage (which I’ll get to). But it’s only when you get to the closing credits a mere three hours upon boot-up and the first thought that comes into your head is: ‘that’s it?’ Typoman not only feels anti-climatic — its end boss fight less-pleasantly executed from a design side and suffering more so from a persistent frame-rate issue that extensively plagues throughout — but the way it builds itself up feels jarred and awkwardly splintered.

Typoman Screenshot 2
Anyone who shared the same sentiment seeing the credits screen in Ground Zeroes will quickly empathize with where I’m coming from. But while earlier escapades are a lot less resounding than any Metal Gear Solid experience, the unshakable feeling of being short-changed here can last a fair longer. That’s not to say each of the game’s three main chapters don’t offer reasonable bite-size chunks of gameplay, but when it comes to transitioning between first-to-second or second-to-last segment — clever use of words to describe what’s happening during cutscenes aside — the drastic shift between canyons, industry and some kind of highly-advanced laboratory falls rather short in feeling well-meshed or resolute. It only makes proceedings look a lot more forcibly structured and dictated and this unexpectedness isn’t as isolated or as remote as one might prefer to tolerate.

There are points in Typoman where the dreaded DOOM or FEAR show up – whom transform from the same serif typeface, admittedly, rather well to further push the World’s surreal and often distorted vibe — to try and put and end to your escapades, requiring speed on par with Usain Bolt from both a physical as well as a mental means. You don’t get long to work with the letters at your disposal to help defend yourself and even then, some less-than-punctual letters and words often separating at will — thus deactivating what perk/ability they bring — will land you with many unfair dismissals. Specifically when traversing a treacherous area requiring you to maintain a word’s presence. While the need to enable, disable and then re-enable a word’s abilities does lend itself to some tense moments, more often that not it will punish you by way of the physics-based engine being too precise in its execution.

Typoman Screenshot 4
Spelling out words of a more sophisticated length too can get so frustrating, what may look like a simple puzzle can leave you pussy-footing around the controls to the point the fear letters may land a little too far from estimate, will end up defining such moments. Fortunately the Gamepad helps alleviate some of the difficulty by laying out nearby letters and allowing you to rearrange them on-screen. But again, hitting confirm won’t always mean said assemble will land in the spot you want them. Couple this with how small some platforms are and the limited two-dimensional space you have to work with, don’t be surprised if the odd letter falls off into oblivion or words, again, split apart. Some of the answers themselves are so cryptic and unfathomable, you can’t help but take to the Gamepad again and allow words, offered up in momentary passages, to be highlighted, literally spelling out the answer you need.

While this may be considered cheap on the player’s part – and admittedly, it does leave me feeling disappointed I couldn’t figure it out on my own – it’s another result of Typoman’s lack of communication and the risk a word-based challenge can garner in a physics-based, platform-orientated environment where solutions are often subtlety tucked away. One notable example: assuming the word STAIRS would allow me to reach a platform wouldn’t work, but the word SEPARATE somehow brings the corresponding area closer to me, did. This despite there being no clues or indication such a contextual action was possible. There’s no denying that playing about with possible words is a neat little mental exercise. What’s more, with machines dotted about only spitting out specific characters, it’ll lend itself to a situation where three, possibly four solutions to a puzzle exist and here the game feels generous, though far from charitable thankfully, in allowing players the breadth to think a little deeper.

Typoman Screenshot 5
Closing Comments:

There’s no denying that this is an experience with a striking in-game mechanic and one that lends itself to moments of simple-but-wonderful design both creative yet stimulating. For that, Typoman unquestionably stands out on its promising opening and it’s one that, in another scenario, could have been the first step in what would might have been a truly remarkable experience this year. Sadly this is not to be; Brainseed’s attempts are lacking not just on the length/content front, but seldom evolving outside of its lustrous presentation — charming as it is, a mere consolation to a game hard-stricken more by what it lacks as opposed to what it genuinely, excitedly brings. As unique as Typoman is, seeing the scale of its missed opportunity unfold only saddens me evermore.