Pid review: Ups and downs

I hate this butler.

I don't know any real butlers. I'm talking about Pid's first boss, a giant flying neat freak that swoops down to clean up any mess I make. I've spent an hour or two coasting through the blandly whimsical world of Pid, a side-scrolling platformer set in a storybook-ish alien planet overtaken by mean robots. I can jump and kill the bad guys with my very limited stash of bombs, but the action consists largely of using antigravity beams to float above and across obstacles. Suddenly I find myself on a giant table in a banquet hall larger than the UNSC Infinity. It's a dead end, and the only thing I can do is smash some glasses. Mazel tov!

The broken glass brings forth the butler. He's a robot domestic in the French style, with a haughty air and pencil-thin mustache, and not a stuffy old British Jeeves. I'd probably eye him warily even if he wasn't trying to kill me (and regularly succeeding). I have to use my magical star beam to levitate up through his arms as he's sweeping up broken glass, and once I'm in position I have to pump those beams into the weird intake valves that rest underneath his head. I have to do that twice, constantly dodging smaller enemies that bounce towards me, knowing that a single hit means instant death. And after I do that twice, the butler doubles down on his attacks, with swarming missiles plunging an otherwise complicated bout of jumping and levitation into an ersatz bullet hell. I have to scamper to the top of the robot's shoulders at that point, but weird angles make it extremely hard to get in the right position. A dozen times I assail this butler with no luck. It takes a half-dozen more before the game apparently feels sorry for me and lets me beat him.

That's what one can expect from Pid's first boss fight: single hit kills, a boss with multiple forms and no mid-battle autosaves, and level geometry that actively works against the platformer's mechanics. Games should challenge us, but this boss battle is less challenging than frustrating. The lack of a save after a boss changes form isn't inherently wrong, but it's untenable when combined with single-hit kills, especially in 2012 (note: unusually powerful white tank tops can grant up to two more hit points, but they're good for only one use apiece and can't really be stockpiled and thus no player is guaranteed to have any in her inventory at the start of boss battles).

And this frustration isn't a one-off affair: Pid's difficulty spikes to a ridiculous degree during its boss confrontations, turning a game that's otherwise fairly thoughtful and serene into an inordinately stressful endurance test. This makes Pid one of the most annoying games I've played this year. It shows either a lack of respect for the player's time or too much respect in the player's ability. (Or at least too much respect in my ability.)

Of course incredibly tough boss battles are a hallmark of the platformers of the 80s and 90s. And Might and Delight, Pid's designers, have a great track record of difficult, retro-minded side-scrollers, as they worked on GRIN's excellent Bionic Commando Rearmed remake a few years ago. Pid is another homage to those bygone days of gaming, one that demands precision as resolutely as any Mega Man game. Despite the lack of mid-boss autosaves, Pid makes one absolutely necessary concession to the present day, in that it regularly autosaves throughout levels and after every loading screen. That doesn't damage the game's nostalgic reverie, and neither would autosaves during boss battles.

The rest of Pid is pleasant, and yes, that is a backhanded compliment. It's inoffensive and occasionally clever but mostly boring and unmemorable. There are light puzzle elements from the beginning, as I'm limited to only two beams at a time, and have to juggle their placement to move around the levels, angling them to float past spikes or missiles. For the first few hours those beams are generally just a very slow way to drift towards platforms I otherwise can't reach.

Pid comes to life when it expands on its straight-forward platforming with a smattering of puzzles. Eventually I sleuth through a series of challenges that require clever combinations of the game's various abilities and mechanics. I have to use beams to move platforms to block lasers or lift enemies up to pressure-sensitive plates on the ceiling that unlock gates. Elsewhere I pull levers that open doors for a brief spell and then use the beams to distract instant death security cameras and sneak past other robots. These puzzles often appear in small, closed environments, which makes them recall the great challenge rooms from Bionic Commando Rearmed. This rhythm only kicks in after a few hours of play, though, and a second boss fight as laborious as the first. Pid asks a lot from us while giving back relatively little.

Pid makes a few crucial mistakes that similar recent games avoided. Super Meat Boy is more brutally difficult than Pid, but Team Meat's modern classic is broken down into chunks of play so bite-sized that no challenge overstays its welcome. Spelunky is more unforgiving, with no saves of any kind, but it's structured in a way that neuters repetition from a level design perspective and refines it into the most basic and sublime of player goals. The only goal in Pid is to make it to the end of the story, and for even the best of players that will probably require replaying some sections to the point of exasperation. Also that story mostly lacks character. We learn little about our hero, the weird world he's found himself in and the ineffectual robots that populate it until it's too late to make an impact.

That butler is what I most clearly remember about Pid. In time (maybe just in a matter of weeks) it's probably all I'll remember about Pid. I'll see him flying around, crushing my spirit time and again, and cleaning up those broken pieces of glass. Too bad he can't pick up the pieces of this once promising game.

This review is based on an XBLA download of the of Pid, provided by D3Publisher. Pid is also available on PSN and PC.

Despite his best efforts, Garrett Martin does not own a robot butler. He edits Paste Magazine's videogame section and reviews games for the Boston Herald and other outlets. You can hear his blather at Twitter (@GRMartin) or at a variety of Atlanta-area bars.

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