Tiny Brains reminds me of a PS2-era puzzle platformer, but not in a particularly boisterous or nostalgic way. For as well-intentioned as it can seem at first, it’s an over-simple adventure with repetitive logic and a pervasive sluggishness. The game’s title refers to a quartet of lab animal mutants, imbued with supernatural powers and subjected to a series of puzzle rooms that require a certain chemistry between their unique abilities to solve. There’s a Brain who can gust a cyclone of wind to push things around, and one to suck up things toward him with equal measure. Another can face far away objects and spontaneously switch places with it, while the last Brain can generate ice blocks for steps and switches. They have names – Pad, Dax, Minsc, Stew – but the dearth of identifiable personalities means they are discerned almost exclusively by their colour scheme and given power.
Despite being short on character, things start out entertainingly enough. The Portal-style demotivational speech of the lab workers and test chamber motif, unconvincingly performed as it is, feels passable. The warped proportions of the art style and eye-catching lab backgrounds give the whole thing a light but sinister context; appropriate, given the animal testing subject matter. Learning the particulars of each character while you get your first look at this world is Tiny Brains‘ early flash of promise. Sadly, it doesn’t take long for the intrigue to fizzle. Having to gust and pull a hamster ball around a precarious obstacle course is fun the first time. So is the eventual team play of creating an ice block, gusting it across a large chasm, and then using the swap power to clear the otherwise impassable pit. Early on, it’s easy to entertain the idea that Tiny Brains successfully riffs on just four basic concepts. But puzzles quickly run short on fresh concepts and resort to queueing the same old functions in longer and less interesting ways. Padded out versions of the same ball-pushing and ice block swap puzzles you did at the outset pervade. Some occasional flashes of satisfying puzzle design show themselves, but they’re mostly unseen past its sea of throwaways.
Tiny Brains is available on both PS3 and PS4. The game’s oblong art looks crisp on the latter, but choppy performance can make things look rough at best and the timings on your movements rotten at worst. Sadly, bigger issues persist. Characters track slowly across the screen, incongruous with their running animations. It’s an unfortunate but not debilitating issue, but another design flaw can mess with the controls in a major way. With anything other than a full four players, the game will slow the action to a crawl whenever somebody switches characters. It’s a measure to give you a second to remember the increasingly elaborate choreography needed to progress, but I felt like the constant interruption hurt my cause in the otherwise easy puzzles way more than it helped. It’s a bummer, and it only gets worse as the game goes on. In single player, the constant halting felt and looked terrible. In theory you could use online co-op to avoid this, but its lobbies are but a wasteland on the PS4. I’m not convinced playing this game with strangers over the internet would provide even the small shot in the arm real live players do anyway.
Multiplayer puzzle games aren’t exactly plentiful on the PS4 right now, but that fact doesn’t make Tiny Brains more appealing. Its short, easy and unimaginative. The Worms and soccer-inspired mini game diversions don’t help its cause as a game to break out with friends, either. Even if this sort of couch co-op experience is your jam, I can’t recommend it.