Hands-on with coming-of-age puzzle game 'Where Cards Fall'

A beautiful platformer from The Game Band and the folks behind 'Alto's Odyssey.'

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    Where Cards Fall looks like a dream. Literally, I've had dreams that feel like this game -- the world is segmented into blocky platforms covered in grass, asphalt and clouds, as if a rudimentary algorithm was asked to create cities and forests, and it spat out gorgeous geometric interpretations of the real world. The game's art style highlights this dreamlike quality, covering all those cubes and slopes in soft, hand-drawn colors and dramatic shadows while ambient music hums in the background.

    Playing Where Cards Fall feels exactly like it looks -- ethereal yet grounded in reality, shockingly complicated and soothing at the same time.

    The game's main mechanism involves building houses of cards to create pathways around the landscapes, though figuring out where and how to craft these buildings is easier said than done. The cards are human-sized and generally rest on the ground in black-and-white piles, with shapes on the top indicating which type of structure they'll create, from sloped roofs to flat-tops. Drag out a pile and it expands to fill the space; let go and a building instantly pops up, changing depending on how big you decide to make it.

    You can create cafes, record stores, houses, newsstands and all manner of spaces -- and not only are they used as rooftop platforms, but you can actually enter the buildings and mess around with whatever (and whoever) is inside. Take a break and listen to some vinyl or pop into the coffee shop for a latte. The interactivity offered by these interiors brings the entire game alive -- you're not just making pathways to race to the end of each level. You're actually building a living world, complete with neighbors, friends, strangers and enemies.

    Not that there are discrete levels in Where Cards Fall. There are no loading screens and no cuts during gameplay whatsoever. It's a single-shot game, another subtle design choice that lends the entire project a dreamy, floaty feel.

    Building the card houses is simple enough, but actually figuring out the platforming puzzles is another beast altogether. The cards respond to the physics of the world, meaning you can't simply pick up a deck and plop it anywhere you'd like -- the pile has to be dragged up and down hills and across platforms, just like the main character. This means setting up two-, three- and four-step architecture plans, using one deck to transport additional piles to the appropriate spots, and then leaping on top of them from there.

    Spatial puzzles are the heart of Where Cards Fall's gameplay, but its story is deeper than physics alone. This is a coming-of-age narrative featuring an androgynous protagonist navigating life as a high schooler and beyond. There's no way to die while playing, which means players get to focus on the puzzles and the story that's taking shape around them (literally, at times).

    Indie studio The Game Band is collaborating with Alto's Odyssey house Snowman to develop Where Cards Fall, and they're trying to finish it this year. Whenever it comes out, it'll be on iOS, Steam and Apple TV.

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