Xbox Live Indie Games is a bit of an anomaly. Despite being a tremendous step forward in giving anyone the opportunity to develop for the Xbox 360, Microsoft has been rather shy in championing it. The fact the games aren't officially rated, also means they require an internet connection at the time of loading - thereby allowing any game to be deleted should offensive material be discovered. As you'd also expect, given the low barrier to entry, there's a tremendous amount of absolute garbage available, obscuring the real gems. Still, some great games have been made available, such as the Penny Arcade 3 RPG, which really deserve to be treated as full blown XBLA games. At only 240 points, and with an exceptionally well implemented premise, Gateways is also deserving of recognition as one of the best XBLIG titles available. It really is fantastic.
The influences are obvious: Gateways is Portal meets Super Metroid in an entirely side-on viewpoint. Though as the game's creator David Johnston is keen to point out, there's more to it than just being a 2D version of Portal. Along with gateways which transport you physically, it also features a time travel mechanic which Johnston first dabbled with in his Net Yaroze platformer Time Slip, and later expanded on with XBLA title Shuggy. Plus you can rotate the world's direction of gravity, and enlarge or shrink yourself down, Alice in Wonderland style. There's a lot of depth to the mechanics. Left thumbstick moves you, right stick aims the guns, while L and R fire the eponymous gateways. Click the left thumbstick to be able to shift the camera without moving, thereby allowing you to see further. Green button jumps, and Red cancels any current gateways. Select activates the map screen.
The premise behind all this is that Professor Ed wakes up in his laboratory, dazed and confused, with someone clearly having ransacked his lab. His gateway guns are missing, strange tunnels have been dug through the walls, and all of the disturbing vivisection experiments have escaped (think floating animal heads meets a mechanical Cthulu). His task is to explore the enormous subterranean lab, find his guns, and discover what happened. If an enemy is in your way, jump on its head Mario style to kill it (be careful, some require multiple hits). Where it differs mechanically from Super Metroid, is that instead of new equipment instantly granting access to previously blocked off areas, it merely gives you the means to solve the puzzles which were blocking your progress. In addition to gateway guns you can find a torch, for activating light-sensitive switches; a mirror, for reflecting laser beams; and a "time suit" to prevent Time Cop style touch-yourself-and-die paradoxes. Plus there's a variety of gun-strengthening power-ups. Let's look at the guns, shall we?
Gateway Gun (standard)
Your standard gateway gun. Shoot it on a wall, the floor or ceiling with one trigger button, and then fire its twin with the other trigger onto another surface. Voila! Walk through one and pop out the other. Be careful, because as you exit a portal you will be re-oriented by gravity.
Fire a small gateway with L and a large one with R. Walk through the small to end up really big, or walk through the bigger one to wind up small. There are only three sizes Prof Ed can be: Small, Normal, and Big. Use it to walk through small tunnels, defeat giant enemies, or increase your height for better laser refraction. Also transports you physically like the normal Gateway Gun.
This is really cool. Fire a gateway with L and wait as the time bar charges. Before it reach maximum fire a second gateway with R, then walk through it. You'll pop out the first gateway, just as your former self was making it. Now there's two of you! Later on, following him through the second gateway he creates to wind up in a dimension with three of you! Whatever you do, don't touch your other self until you've got the time suit.
This re-orients gravity based on whether the exit gateway is on the ceiling, floor or wall. Allows you to turn the world in 90 degree increments. Run on walls or fall upwards through holes in the ground. Essential for avoiding the sharp environmental traps in some areas.
At first you can only use one gun at a time, limiting the method for solving puzzles. Later on you acquire a power-up which allows you to use all of them at the same time, opening up the possible solutions, and also the styles of puzzle available. Though even then, once the time gun is activated you can't switch to another, so you need to use it last of all.
The puzzles throughout are ingeniously implemented. Some are simple, such as the giant enemy blocking your path which requires a large Prof Ed to jump on his head, while others are fiendishly tricky. Some require clever use of physics, for example one where you're at the bottom of two tall shafts. By placing a gateway on the floor of each shaft, then jumping in and holding the jump button, you can accelerate your inertia as you continuously fall from one to another, slowly increasing the depth (height) of your fall. The time travel puzzles are the best, since they require you to plan ahead and navigate previous versions of yourself. Later puzzles require multiple skills simultaneously. The whole system is also quite robust, and there are multiple ways to solve some puzzles. In one instance I had to activate a laser-switch, and I set up a complex series of time warps, with multiple Professor Eds all avoiding each other and lining up on a set of steps to reflect the laser from one to another (thereby walking it up the steps). After solving a puzzle you're allowed to view the optimal method for doing so - as it turns out the solution to this one was actually incredibly simple. Instead of using multiple versions of Prof Ed, just enlarge him in size and use his extra height to reflect the laser above the stairs! Easy when you know how.
Given that there's no time limit puzzles can be tackled at your leisure, but if you just can't do one it's possible to buy the solution using the in-game energy balls. These are scattered around like coins in a Mario game and are well worth collecting. You can also spend 5 energy balls at help points to tell you if you have the needed equipment to solve a nearby puzzle. This is a fantastic idea, since in a lot of Metroidvania games it's not always obvious when you're able to clear previous obstacles - now you can hit select, view the enormous map, and notice how a red orb is now green, signalling you've got the right gear. It's essential to do this, but it makes keeping track of puzzles much easier. Regarding buying the solutions, don't think you can buy your way through the entire game - the energy balls are finite, and buying a solution costs 40. Assuming you activate all the help points, you should have enough left over for about 4 or 5 solutions. Maybe one more if you don't spent any on the help points. Having said all that, the final puzzle can't be bought out, so you may need to use Youtube if stumped.
There's little legitimate criticism to make with Gateways. Some might be put off by the low-res visuals, since there's not a lot of diversity to the scenery, but there's still plenty of charm to them. Notice how the main sprite for Ed is correctly drawn for facing left and right - there's no ambidexterity when it comes to him holding his guns! This shows a genuine effort was made with the visuals. The puzzles are refined and clever, while the available tools diverse and surprisingly easy to use. As you walk near a gateway you can peer through it, allowing you to decide if it's safe to go through. This tends to look a little confusing in screenshots, but while playing you very quickly acclimatise. Special praise must also go to the hint and solution system, which allows less skilled or impatient players to progress. Some critics have claimed some puzzles are a bit too tough, but this is a ridiculous statement to make given that you can skip those that really stump you. Isn't being challenged the whole point of games? At roughly 5 hours to complete, it's also good value for money. The only complaint is that the 360 version is an XBLIG title, which isn't a problem in itself, but it's guaranteed to put off some buyers by virtue of the need to sign in to play. While there are DRM free versions available for PC, a lot of people are put off by sitting at a monitor. As the game's author David Johnston explains though, after the failure of Shuggy it's just easier to go via the XBLIG route. Don't let this dissuade you.
There's already a lot of platformers on XBLA, and countless more on XBLIG, but Gateways offers something different to all of them, and sincerely deserves a look. Watch the videos, play the trial, and take a step through the gateway. An essential purchase.