Platforming elements are almost too frequent in genres that don’t define themselves as a straight platformer, especially ones with 2D gameplay. When browsing the Nintendo Switch eShop anyone can find a hoard of them as they’re a dime a dozen now. Platformers have been the rage and this is definitely true for Pixel Reign‘s masochistic die & try platformer Robbie Swifthand and the Orb of Mysteries, as it will test your perception and test your might, and is one that shouldn’t be overlooked. With tight controls, moody aesthetics, evolving mechanics to keep things fresh, and humor, there’s a finely crafted quality experience to be had. It’s made difficult for sure, but it’s always challenging in a fair way.
There is a story to Robbie Swifthand that is immediate and continues to play out through your adventure. The treasure hunter finds himself through a portal and trapped into another realm when he meets a mysterious floating spirit who never ceases to let you know that it’s your FRIEND!!!. As you progress through every few other levels, Robbie will pass through a basic level themed to the world it’s in and get small story cut-scenes like the one above. Eventually the plot opens up to another interesting character who will make sense out of what plan has been set in motion. Though the dialog is written with humor, Robbie’s disinterest in the story itself joins in on that fun. He grunts and shows no care about any of it, but whenever treasure is mentioned his expression lights up like a shimmering pile of sunken gold hit by the sunlight.
It’s actually the subtle details to animation and character design that brings Robbie Swifthand to life. The round-nosed, blue-haired, masked adventurer is a cross between a burglar and a stuntman whose facial expression changes to nearby objects. Finding something of value will create a cheeky grin whereas being close to a deadly spike for example will make him look terrified. His eyes also look in the direction of these said points of interest. While it may not change much to the player who’s personally eyeballing the environment, these little details do make a difference and make Robbie feel less of a puppet. The same is said for the environment. Lights illuminate areas and cast real shadows on walls and even change when Robbie obscures the view of light sources to the player. Grass in the foreground animates and moves as Robbie runs along. The ‘3D’ environment feels real in the 2D playing space.
Each gate passed brings up its world map with levels displayed on screen. Completing levels will unlock the level(s) next to it moving forward. The colors of these orbs also change from world to world. You’ll know which ones you’ve completed by the consistency in colors, although not all levels need to be completed when reaching the end of the world which results in a nice boss fight. This is a decent approach to reaching the end. If one level is giving the player a hard time, they may have better luck on another level and advance. Most levels on the map will display an empty slot on the base of it. This shows whether or not you’ve found the hidden coin in that level. All levels may be replayed at any time.
Orbs are a core element of gameplay when it comes to completing levels. The level designs feel rewarding enough on its own, but each world bringing its own flavor and ideas make them even more interesting to go through. No matter what obstacles are in your way, the main goal is to grab the orb displayed on the pedestal, usually obstructed by traps or being harder to reach, and to toss it straight into the vortex to break it and unlock the passage to complete the level. Both the orb and the vortex are usually in different areas of the level. The passage that needs opening can even be where Robbie’s starting point in the level is to which Robbie will need to pass through. Traps can be falling blocks of stone that will crush Robbie. Those same blocks could also be used as a necessary platform. Spike from floors and walls will emerge; Some that remain active and others that only prompt when Robbie is in proximity. The new traps introduced in each world continue the trend of also serving as changing up the platforming mechanics rather than just be there to be obtrusive. Robbie must remain untouched as a single hit will immediately tally up your death count and restart the level. A nice thing happens when you die as well. A ghostly representation of Robbie is left in the level to where the death occurred, marking the areas reminding you in an instant of to be more cautious.
Dying just happens to be part of its charm as physics has its way to make Robbie’s death that more enjoyable. You may wrongly time a jump only to have his noggin directly impaled onto a swinging axe making Robbie a human pendulum of a grandfather’s clock. That very same thing could happen except now it’s two swinging axes, but one is directly up his arse making Robbie the stopgap between the two. A falling block may crush his skull and bounce him off walls and into a bed of spikes. The number of ways his death plays out can be humorous. As mentioned earlier, it’s the subtle details that go a long way. By the end of the level, you’ll see Robbie with the damage done. It could be cuts on his face to frizzy hair from being electrocuted.
You may find yourself going about certain levels a different way to complete the same goal. There will also be levels that test your speed and reflexes to break things up a bit. These can pump the adrenaline as you’re required to keep moving as opposed to going at your own pace to solve puzzles. All of this isn’t aggravating when it comes to controls because they are smooth and responsive making it a joy to play. The bare essentials are crouching, jumping and throwing (necessary for the orb). Robbie can crouch to duck from certain traps or walk though small gaps. Some platforms can’t be reached by normal jumps, but a higher jump is achievable by having Robbie crouch for a split-second before doing so.
Throwing is required for the orbs to be tossed into the vortex and the physics are well at play here. Holding the throw button will set Robbie’s arm back in motion and depending on the time of releasing the button will determine how far it is thrown. There is a limit to the strength and the button may be held down as long as desired. This might be the most frustrating part, however. If you missed your aim and that orb goes bouncing away, you’ll either have to go to retrieve it if it’s not far or in a spot riddled with traps, or go back to the pedestal it was originally placed on as after several seconds the orb will reset its position; very useful without needing to restart a level if the orb just happens to be in a spot that is instadeath. Pixel Reign also makes earlier levels easier to navigate if you don’t succeed early on as players will be granted new abilities. For instance, completing the first world will give Robbie new boots to perform a double jump.
I would be remiss if I didn’t at talk about the sound design. It’s crisp and easy on the ears for which the sound effects used for each material, say metal blades and crumble stone, sound proper. It’s no less with the soundtrack as well. The music is adventurous, energetic and can be serene as well. HD rumble is used just enough for subtlety, from jumping and landing, etc. It runs at a stable 30fps, but for being a platformer which requires careful platforming it becomes noticeable. The 30fps is never a hindrance, but for how fluid Robbie Swifthand and the Orb of Mysteries actually is, 60fps would have done it justice in terms of its visuals.