I’ve never before played a game that was a musical. In fact, I generally think of “lyrical songs made specifically for games” as being pretty bad, or at the very least able to let you coast through with a little bit of irony, but most of the time that's something on the soundtrack, not originating diegetically from a character. So, when at the beginning of Figment, the nightmare I was chasing down suddenly burst into song as I was playing, I exclaimed “oh WOWWWWW” out loud.
It’s not that this is the first game I’ve played where there’s diegetic singing – Bioshock Infinite, for example, with its out-of-time and barbershop versions of more modern music, or even Final Fantasy VI's famous opera scene – but those tended to be one-off or background elements. Figment fully commits to being a musical, though, with multiple characters having songs, village elders speaking in rhyme, and the bare-faced earnestness that comes with the genre.
All of this works surprisingly better than I expected too, and as I made my way through the levels, I found myself really looking forward to finding the next spot where the boss would come down and taunt me to a tune. Each one even had a different genre associated with it, giving an extra layer of uniqueness to their sections.
In fact, it’s definitely the best part of the game, which isn’t to say that it’s bad, but, well, more on that later. It’s an incredibly neat thing to see a game like this. I’m sure there have been others and I just missed them, but to use music not as a mechanic, not as a one-and-done character building thing, but just as a core part of how your characters communicate and tell the story, is really special, and from the first song to the last, it really delivers.
Speaking of how earnest it is, though, the game starts out with a family on a car ride that ends in an accident. The wife and daughter are ok, and you hear them sobbing over the father, asking him to wake up, the sounds growing more distant as you enter his mind to take on the role of Dusty, who’s tasked with getting rid of the nightmares that have been released into the mind after the crash. So yeah, you’re basically on a quest through a brain to keep a husband and father from succumbing to these nightmares and dying.
Dividing the brain into the logical left and the more artistic right helps to create a lot of visual distinction as you go through, and the game has some fun littering around little things that play with the ideas. The left brain, for example, is full of enigma machines to symbolize problems left unsolved, while the right brain has musical instruments sprinkled throughout it, strumming out little melodies as you walk by. The art and design in each section is excellent, with a beautiful hand-painted look to it all, and each part of the brain is exciting to explore - or at least, at first.
The big problem Figment has is that its gameplay is only.... partly there. The combat is simple, but fun enough, and they work with it in a couple of ways, with each enemy’s attacks being unique, and even basic ones tend to require more to defeat them than just whacking them with your sword until they’re gone.
It’s really the puzzles which can just take a little too long and have too much backtracking. Dusty is kind of slow, and while rolling speeds him up, if you realize you need to backtrack for an item you forgot, or that the actual intended solution is back at the beginning and you need to run all the way there again, it can just take a little too long. Some of the bigger offenders are the block pushing puzzles. Now, I personally don’t mind them as they can be a good challenge if done right, but the problem with Figment’s is just how much running around and backtracking is required with it to actually get the solution.
Moments with the puzzles and backtracking really grind the game to a halt, which is a shame, because outside of the singing, boss fights, and the initial thrill of exploring a new place, the game’s still and empty-feeling. When the jets cool and you realize it’s been a couple minutes since you’ve really seen something new and are just sort of stuck in a spot, it starts to feel like a drag. It usually doesn't require more than a couple of minutes to complete, even at its most difficult, but it still slows things down.
So, while the puzzles aren't a huge draw, the look and presentation of the game are so unique and interesting that the game's still really easy for me to recommend. It's poetic, and while maybe not incredibly deep, does excellent work with bringing the nightmares to life and infusing their songs with the fear and dread they represent. Fear is the mind killer – and your quest to vanquish those fears is one you'll enjoy going on.