You are alone. Darkness surrounds you, but you embrace it. You submerge yourself in it and hide from the eyes, from the fears. In the light nature itself would eat you. In the dark you are safe, as long as you don’t cut yourself… This is the world of Sym.
Sym is an indie puzzle platformer game developed by Atrax Games and published by Mastertronic; it’s available for Mac, PC and Linux.
If you read the first paragraph and thought I was talking about a teen living in emotional despair and tempted to harm himself, you wouldn’t be wrong. The major appeal of this game are its story and themes of anxiety, solitude and depression. You delve deep into a representation of a young man’s twisted sense of self and reality in a hauntingly beautiful game.
This is why you’re probably reading this review so let’s get it out of the way before getting to the most interesting part. The game is like a mix of Super Meat Boy and Shift, which means a combination of reflexes, puzzle solving, jump timing and dying an awful lot. The hub world helpfully tracks how many times you met your demise, and there is an achievement for completing the game with 9 lives or less. You also can get killed there.
Now we have a problem, because the game lacks controller support. My suggestion is use a third party program like Joy2key to play with a controller. There are some minor collision detection problems when trying to make yourself fall in a tiny space, but luckily it’s rare and harmless enough that it shouldn’t really be an issue.
The most important gameplay mechanic is your ability to change between worlds. Press down or S to go from the Light to the Dark Worlds and up or W for the reverse, much like in the flash series Shift, except the game does not go upside down to match your new gravity so it might take some time to adjust to it. Things that kill you in one side are innocuous in the other, so be careful where you make a switch!
Another interesting mechanic are the symbols. They behave like programmable platforms, they change from light to dark and using them to solve puzzles is crucial for this game. Some levels have loops of them and you have to time your jumps to use them as platforms, others use their changing mechanic to make you fall towards a trap, etc. Their versatility gives a layer of complexity and fun to this game that combined with the level editor and the ingenuity of player created levels add a massive replay value to the game. Like many things in the game, they can also kill you by crushing you to death.
In Sym you take the place of Josh, a teenager that suffers from social anxiety disorder. His world is a mesh of light and dark, each side representing a different aspect of his mind; being navigated by one of Josh’s alter egos, Caleb and Ammiel. This is never really stated in the game, only in the store’s description.
The Light World is daily life as Josh sees it through his avatar there, Caleb. Caleb is very afraid of it. Other people are giant, unblinking eyes tracking his every move. Dogs are vicious beasts that devour you at once, as do some plants if you step on them as Caleb. He is brave, though. Being there, in the light, means that he wants to overcome his fears.
In the Light World you’ll find most of your enemies. The dogs kill you on contact and they patrol in a goomba like manner- so be careful when using symbols since they could fall on top of you. The seeds are underground in the dark world, and as soon as you step on them sprout a carnivorous plant that eats you. It’s easy to mistake a seed for a symbol, so watch your step always.
I should mention that the giant eyes don’t actively antagonize you, but they can block you by switching on or off the symbol platforms. While you’re in the light they’re open, and close when you switch. If they were staring at certain symbol it will start a chain reaction that you may have to outrun or pursue. So, relatively harmless but creepy as hell.
The domain of Ammiel. He represents Josh’s inner darkness, his rejection of humanity, and he wants to be left alone. Excluding things that can kill you in both worlds, like being crushed or falling of a bottomless pit, the only thing that harms you in the Dark World are spinning saw blades. Luckily, they are stationary.
While the whole game is a platformer, this is more evident here than in the Light World due to the lack of enemies. Navigation can be a little bit confusing because of the reversed gravity and switching back and forth a lot- a must for many puzzles- will make it easy for you to overlook deadly traps.
The game has a very sorrowful feel to it and it doesn’t pull its punches. Everything is a metaphor for anxiety and depression, some subtle and some not so subtle; the blades in the dark world being an obvious parallel to withdrawn and depressed people cutting themselves.
Every level has words scrawled on them; Josh’s inner monologue. It tells of his despair, his sense of abandonment and of his alienation to other people and even himself. The words in one word sometimes contrast with the ones in the other, going on different directions. The Light World’s script is about insecurities while the Dark World’s tells about contentment in isolation and hiding. It’s haunting to read sometimes, and gamers that had or have depression and/or anxiety will surely relate.
The music is sad and beautiful, very fitting for a game like this. A nice detail is the way it’s distorted when you go to the Dark World, a reflection of Ammiel’s walls between him and the world. The sound effects are average, they do their job.
Visually the game is very peculiar. It looks hand-made and it probably was. The black and white aesthetic serves a dual purpose of gameplay and storytelling, and a minimalistic setting helps to set the tone for the game. Some people may not like it, but flashy graphics and stylized art would detract from the game’s themes. I’m reminded of Closure’s art style and I heartily approve of this choice.
The levels are, at first, a little daunting. You won’t have to interact with everything you see, so trying to explore or finish a level in the wrong way could leave you stuck figuratively and literally if you’re unlucky. It contrasts a little with the minimalistic art approach until you realize how well it fits with the anxiety themes, making the player feel overwhelmed by things that don’t directly affect you and it helps with immersion.
Difficulty wise, some levels are very hard. There is no clear learning curve, some of the later levels are incredibly easy while some of the first ones can confuse you or require much precision. It’s somewhat justified, a little, by the story and it’s pacing; but I feel that a better difficulty progression could have been made without sacrificing storytelling. Then there’s the level editor.
Yes, this game includes a tile based level editor. It’s fairly easy to use and very intuitive. A curious thing is that levels connect with each other, effectively creating campaigns of user made content; the levels don’t have to be created by the same person enabling a lot of cooperativity between players.
This is fortunate, because the official game has only 44 levels and it can be finished in a single afternoon. The inclusion of the editor alone justifies purchasing this game at full retail price which is $8 right now- but you can get it discounted at $6.33 at the time of this writing.
I really recommend this game. It’s fun, engaging and it tells a story in a rather unique way. You should try the demo and decide for yourself whether you liked it or not, of course, but with an accessible price and great replay value thanks to user created content this is a must for platformer lovers.