Describing Brainy Studio’s TurnOn in three words would go like this: Play as electricity. Awesome, you’ll think, imagining a game where you harness all the vengeful and devastating power of that mighty force. Then you realise that actually, you control the cutest ball of electricity known to man in a bid to restore power to a stricken town. And it’s all set to slow, smooth and moody jazz soundtrack that only serves to emphasise how gentle and relaxed TurnOn really is.
That tone works in the game’s favour. Rather than the usual fast-paced puzzle platformer, where you race against time and defeat scores of enemies, TurnOn positions itself at the other end of the spectrum – setting it apart in a heavily crowded genre.
Like a few indie games before it, TurnOn made a major impact on us long before it was heading to Xbox. It’s picked up an absolute tone of low-key awards, such as 2014’s GamesJam Kanobu and the Imagine Cup, and that got us excited to find out: is the game worthy of all that gold…?
TurnOn was originally inspired by Earth Hour – you know, when once a year people switch off all unnecessary electrical appliances to save the planet. If the game’s making an environmental statement, though, using a sparky alien to keep the lights on, then it’s either too subtle in its delivery, or it’s an ironic piece of art. We’re still undecided at this point.
The game has a pretty basic set-up. Your character – the aforementioned electric bulb – travels along blue lines of electricity, grabbing lightning bolts for bonus points or health-refills, and travelling through fuse boxes in order to turn the lights back on. It’s an absolute dream for completionists who’ll find themselves dashing back and forth across the level in order to collect every possible bolt. The only real problem here is that often the end-level goal is poorly sign-posted (read: not sign-posted at all). So by the time you try to go back, you’ve already hit it and your points are being tallied – which frustratingly means you’ll have to replay the whole level.
TurnOn is divided into five episodes, making up 32 levels, themed around a different area of the power-depleted Electro City. Within each level, there’s a clear objective, such as guiding a little girl home or bringing two lovers together, and the vast majority of these are fine examples of how to tell a story through gameplay alone.
It’s billed as visual storytelling, but that’s somewhat over-selling what amounts to still-image cut-scenes glued together like a comic book or a particularly over-the-top episode of 24. All the while a voice-over mumbles non-specific noises without saying a word. The story is told a little better in the gameplay sections themselves, with the narrative neatly married to in-game actions that effect the world – for instance frightening away gang members by turning on lights – but ultimately it’s still incidental.
What isn’t incidental, on the other hand, is the game’s devastatingly gorgeous art style, and thanks to the relaxed pace of the game, this is an area that, if you’re into it, came be savoured. There’s a hint of the iconic about the angular and cartoony Electro City and her inhabitants, like a Pixar movie viewed through the warped eyes of Hunter S. Thompson.
Throughout the game there are two styles of gameplay: either you’re leaping along cables and granting power to buildings in classic platform fashion, or the game is automatically pushing you forward while you bounce up and down tiered pylons avoid red lightning bolts and collecting blue and greens. The latter mode is very similar to Rayman Legends’ musical end-world levels, where you jump to the beat of the music, and we wouldn’t be surprised if Brainy Studio had taken some inspiration from that for their own platformer.
We were initially concerned that the game would never evolve beyond this point, but thankfully the developers build on the initial stages, introducing enemies to avoid, and increasingly difficult jumps and puzzles. The controls, too, are generally solid – this is possibly the most crucial aspect of any twitch-based game, where reaction time is a factor, and we’re happy to report that the controls here are simple, smooth and mostly effective.
What does occasionally grate is when those controls do let you down during the later levels, where the length between checkpoints grows (or worse, has no checkpoints whatsoever). This tendency to trail off and lose focus as you near the end of the game is probably TurnOn’s greatest weakness; while the opening stages feel like satisfying, bite-sized chunks, later stages seem to drag for no real reason except to artificially inflate the game’s run time.
Still, for those that dig on the genre, all you’re going to see here is a challenge that needs to be beaten. For everyone else, TurnOn will be a delightful, if unelectrifying distraction.
TurnOn is available now from the Xbox Store for £11.99.