Tiny Brains review: Frankenstein's furballs

There's a thin line between solving a puzzle and completing a chore, and you can easily sense when a game has taken a step over it. The primary pleasure of a puzzle comes in piecing together the solution, in plotting your escape from each convoluted trap the designers have strung up around you. Carrying the plan out is a secondary problem, and the best games in the genre – like Portal – make that part fast and constantly mix and re-mix the arrangement of your shots, pushes, jumps or pulls.

Tiny Brains is a game about pushing, pulling, jumping on and switching places with a small selection of objects. In rearranging those mechanisms, and splitting them between four twisted lab creatures looking for an exit from the skewed venue of science that created them, the game gives us our physical puzzles (and the occasional chore).

The tiny, titular noggins belong to Dax, the miniature bat, Stew the rabbit, a mouse named Pad, and Minsc, the blue hamster that, in some alternate universe somewhere, probably has an owner named Boo. Those are their names, but you'll probably call them by their color-coded telekinetic abilities: Push-Bat, Pull-Rabbit, Swap-Rat and Block-Hamster (he can summon a block of ice). Together they must escape an eccentric scientist's clutches, as you look from above and see them scurrying about in a cute, sectioned maze built out of tubes, wires, corrugated cardboard and popsicle sticks. You can either play by yourself, switching through the super-powered vermin with the shoulder buttons, or have three more players join you on couch or online.
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Tiny Brains (Review)

One of my favourite maneuvers in the game is the block launch, usually used to traverse a pool of bubbling chemicals or some fiery death. Block-Hamster drops an ice block, while another lab escapee-to-be stands on top like it's a slippery skateboard. Push-Bat uses his sonic push to send the ice hurtling across the gap, and a swift disembarkation follows. If you send Pull-Rabbit, he can use telekinetic suction to pull more incoming objects onto the ledge – perhaps a battery that needs to be installed on the other side. Alternatively, if you can get a line of sight with Swap-Rat, you can instantly swap his position with that of the battery and teleport both.

It doesn't always go according to plan, and you'll probably end up killing each other if someone gets the timing wrong (as there is a cooldown period for each power's use), but the penalty is slight and the chaos is a welcome element in Tiny Brains. It's more fun when it becomes frantic and less predictable, because both the maneuver and the puzzle I described are relied on frequently, with only trivial variation here and there. The puzzles in Tiny Brains are too often tests of battery – as in get it into the slot.

Tiny Brains is well paced, however, and throws several other balls into the air. One of them is literally a ball fighting against gravity, wobbly inclination and other moving hazards to reach a goal. The courses grow increasingly complex and mean (especially in a set of optional challenge levels), forcing the four rodents to pull, shove, swap and block the ball before it rolls off an edge or back to where you started. There's a lot of satisfaction in successfully coordinating the unwieldy sphere's safe passage, and perhaps a bit more when you make a complete mess of it as the game's bouncy soundtrack blares on.

The diminutive geniuses also encounter an army of evil, equally small chickens during their adventure. They can't be reasoned with, so you'll have to smush them against the wall with a force-pushed ice block or teleport them into a pit, whichever is the more powerful display of your rapid teamwork. These sections seem to demand a bit more speed than your lab captives allow (movement in Tiny Brains feels sluggish in general), but the problem is, again, that they're a recognizable part in what becomes a distracting repetition of puzzles.

Tiny Brains goes back to the chickens every now and then, just like it throws in another ball escort segment or a familiar battery test. It has the parts to make some interesting puzzles, and it often does, but the growth in complexity comes to an end far too soon in what is already a short game. The puzzles feel like they die down, while the chores start running the show.

To balance that out, Tiny Brains is thankfully not an elegant, perfect clock of a game. It's accessible and adorably illustrated. It has a streak of dark humor embedded in its cast of Frankenstein furballs, and it's just relaxed enough to let its physics-driven puzzles slide out of control every once in a while, giving its challenges a spark that chores don't have.

This review is based on review code of the PlayStation 4 version of Tiny Brains, provided by 505 Games. The PlayStation 4 game is available today, with PC and PlayStation 3 to follow at a later date.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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