There’s a classic video game I used to play a lot on my dad’s computer, called Marble Madness. The goal was to steer a marble through a 3D map filled with all sorts of hills, drops, moving platforms, elevators, and enemies that would either stun your marble or try push it over the edge. It was a fun game but also one that easily made me rage quit before too long. As a kid, I didn’t have much patience for difficult games, so I’d usually quit when things got too hard. I open this review with a trip down memory lane because Squishies, a PlayStation VR game by Brainseed Factory, reminds me so much of Marble Madness, only instead of sentient marbles, you’re guiding strange little monsters to safety with a pair of fish-shaped air blowers. You read that right!
Squishies is a challenging virtual reality puzzle game that has you helping strange, lumpy creatures avoid dangerous obstacles. Squishies are immensely fragile critters that die if they come in contact with the elements, like water and fire. Also, the Squishies can’t move on their own and require assistance from the player using the PlayStation Move wands which transform into fish creatures that can blow and suck in air. It comes off as a little goofy, but fits with the game’s whimsical tone. You’ll use the fish to move the Squishies, blowing air to move them forward and sucking it in to draw them backward, steering them across imaginative levels to reach the teleporter. This is a feat that’s sometimes easier said than done.
The start of the game keeps things easy as it introduces the player to the control mechanics and how certain contraptions trigger special effects, like lowering columns and activating energy bridges. Then things start to get really crazy as the stages get more elaborate and complicated through the addition of more complex interactions, coordinating multiple Squishies to trigger different devices spread out across the stage, and critters looking for a snack. Splitting your attention from traversal challenges are a gaggle of floating crystals and hidden eggs that challenge you to explore off the beaten path that is harder to navigate than the rest of the area. Finding these is not essential to beat a level, though completionists may argue differently.
The difficulty of more elaborate later levels is compounded by the awkwardness of the controls and the Squishies’ staunch following of the rules of momentum. In other words, they’re unwieldy little monsters that can’t stop on a dime. Trying to get them up steep ramps and across precarious edges is as fun as performing an open-heart surgery on a moving table. The air blowers have only two settings, off and full blast, making it kind of difficult to perform any precision movements around corners and slanted drops. I also ran into an issue with activating switches and checkpoints because they’re not flush with the ground. Rather, they sit on small pedestals and you need to blow enough air to get the critters up and over the lip to activate them. This is an issue when they sit near the edge of the map, so you’ll have to make sure you don’t blast them hard enough that they miss the object altogether and go flying off into the blue abyss. I hated this not just because it felt unfair but because I had to wait a few moments until the Squishie reaches a specific distance below the map before it respawns. I understand why, as the 3D space allows for tall, vertical environments, but the time to respawn needs to be a lot quicker (perhaps with the addition of a quick reset button or something) because it ruins the flow.
Having to babysit the Squishies’ every move requires a lot of focus as you compensate for their erratic movements. Between that and constantly moving my arms, hands, and wrists to reposition the camera and zoom to ensure the best angle to see and interact with the Squishie, I found myself getting tired. And when I get tired, I make mistakes. And when I make mistakes, I want to rush. And when I rush, I make more mistakes, and the vicious cycle goes on. I’d like to think I’m a patient person but when I have killed my third and fourth Squishie, I turn into my younger self that just wanted to quit and do something else. This largely applies for the levels that feel specifically designed to include as many tricky and difficult elements as possible. There are, however, some fun stages that don’t feel nearly as torturous and make a good use of cool environments and contraptions.
Completing a stage displays the time it took to finish, the number of Squishies saved (and killed), and the number of collectibles obtained. Though it’s not abundantly clear, these numbers appear to factor the frequency you unlock level elements to be used with a level editor which is, in a word, awesome. I may even suggest that it’s the best feature in the game. I’m not a very creative person and while I love the idea of content creation in games like LittleBigPlanet and Mario Maker, I’d rather let the community be responsible for making new things. And yet, I haven’t had this much fun with a level editor since 2010’s Mod Nation Racers because like that game, Squishies makes it easy and super fun. Given a large canvas to work with, environments are built on a grid with terrain blogs, giving the whole affair a decidedly Minecraft-vibe. Building takes the position of the Move controller into account, letting you change the orientation of an object by moving your hand and wrist accordingly (and that’s cool).
After laying down some terrain, why not drop in decorative pieces? Rocks, flowers, and tall trees can serve as cosmetic features or even as obstacles depending on how you place them. After that, toss in various bits and bobs you’ve earned from the base game, like triggers to open doors, lower columns, and activate bridges. You can even drop in creatures and set their patrol paths. Connecting contraptions to their triggers is easy as clicking and dragging connectors to whatever object you want it to activate. Brainseed Factory did a fantastic job with presenting these tools in a way that’s accessible and easy to understand. The only bad thing is that the game seizes up whenever I try to add an Ice Fruit power-up to a stage, so save your work frequently until it gets fixed. Player-built levels can be shared with the community with a special section dedicated to content highlighted by the developers. And while it’d be cool to see what devious levels other players come up with, I’m more interested in what sort of art people end up making with the available tools.
Squishies doesn’t hurt for content, sporting about a hundred levels and all the collectibles to grab on the way. I enjoyed the game the most when played for a short period of time and avoid burnout by playing for long stretches of time. Still, if you’re looking for some good, solid puzzle fun on the PlayStation VR, Squishies has a lot to offer. And the map editor is nearly worth the price of admission alone for its content creation and 3D art potential. It’s not going to blow the roof off the genre by any means, though it’s one of the better puzzle experiences on the platform.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.