It’s not unusual for co-op puzzle games to run a little lukewarm. Devising ways for pairs of protagonists to interact meaningfully with each other can be hit or miss, especially when attempting to acknowledge that single people are people too — after all, ‘two heads are better than one’ often means leaving the lone gamer either behind, or spending more time swapping than solving. Not so, however, with Degrees of Separation, a series of puzzle challenges so skillfully crafted and balanced that whether you opt for playing with a partner or flying solo, this journey through the beautiful lands of a fallen kingdom manages to mix equal parts fire and ice into a wonderfully satisfying experience.
A Story of Snow and Summer
The premise of Degrees of Separation revolves around the nature of the two playable characters: Rime, whose realm is forever covered in wintry snow, and Ember, who resides in a sunny, perpetual summer. Through the magic of video game stories, these young royals meet, gaze upon each other, yet cannot touch. The pair discovers that while they may stand on the same ground and run past the same trees and houses, they are also stuck in non-intersecting dimensions. Each occupies the opposing sides of a line that cannot be crossed — a line which separates their elementally different worlds, keeping them just out of arms’ reach. See the beginnings of a tragic, star-crossed setup? After happening upon the ruins of an ancient castle, the prince and princess set out to discover the source of their call to adventure, and along the way, possibly fall in love.
And so, they will traverse lush forests, abandoned mines, and mountainous peaks, growing increasingly concerned for each other’s safety, yet steadfast in the pursuit of various scarves tucked away across the landscape. Not just whimsical items of clothing, scarves serve a purpose much like stars in Mario 64, giving the heroes access to additional castle doors the more they collect. They are acquired by solving the numerous available puzzles — little vignettes wandered into and scattered across the multiple stages — and may have something to do with a mysterious dragon…
These fairy tale wrappings feel very connected to the gameplay, making the story in Degrees of Separation feel more organic than most, while lending context and depth to the actual button pushing that few puzzle games manage. Utilizing the elemental opposites of their universes, developer Moondrop Studios has designed challenges that both emphasize the protagonists’ detachment from each other and revolve around cooperation in manipulating the surrounding environments.
For instance, Rime’s frigid setting allows him to walk atop frozen lakes, while the heat of Ember’s world means that ice turns to water as she approaches, letting her swim below the surface. The nature of the characters gives them access to different parts parts of each vignette, whether that means propelling Ember up a steep cliffside via a jet of hot air, or letting Rime roll a snowball into a boulder that can be climbed upon, and in this way they can raise doors or lower ropes so that the other can proceed.
If that sounds kind of basic, worry not — Degrees of Separation is just warming up. After an initial level that introduces the elemental mechanics and sets up how the characters interact, each subsequent stage presents an additional ability to be utilized in that specific area. This might involve each character being tethered to a ball and chain, solidifying the dimensional barrier so that it can be used as a platform, and others I won’t spoil.
Experimentation with swinging from cliffsides and timing dimensional swaps just right can provide some exhilarating moments, often leading to that much sought-after ‘aha.’ Each new stage competes to be the ‘favorite,’ and figuring out how the many clever ways in which these powers can be used to solve the increasingly complex scenarios is one of the great pleasures while negotiating the game’s increasingly complex tests.
What makes these challenges so enjoyable is more than just their finely attuned difficulty, however. The real surprise in Degrees of Separation is just how well the dual-character mechanics are implemented for the single player. Couch co-op is as accessible and functional as it should be, of course, and working the problems with another human being is certainly rewarding. But the puzzle designs keep actions so focused (usually to one screen’s worth of real estate) that even friendless gamers won’t run into the common frustrations that often accompany these types of games. Swapping is as easy as pushing a button, and A.I. is polished enough that short sections requiring a bit more platforming execution (a rarity) are relatively pain-free. The effect is an experience that is surprisingly smooth, giving off a satisfying sense of orchestration and flow that rarely gets bogged down in repetition.
Add to that some gorgeously colorful visuals, a serene soundtrack, and ongoing narration of the sweet tale by a soft-voiced (and highly perceptive) storyteller, and Degrees of Separation succeeds in immersing players via multiple routes. Sure, the movement can feel a bit floaty, and there are a few facets (such as a bomb mechanic) that could have used just a bit more polish, but none of these nits get in the way of some of the most addictive puzzle-platforming I’ve played in a while.