"Did the world need another indie puzzle platformer?", you may find yourself asking as you glance at the Steam Store page for Youropa, a new puzzle platformer from Danish developer Frecle. The answer is, apparently, "yes we did", because Youropa manages to bring an entirely unique experience to the table. That experience is not just unique - it's also a well-designed one that benefits from some terrific level design, great exploration, and more than enough variety to sustain through its 12-hour run length. Youropa is only marred by some occasional physics or control-related irritation. Otherwise, it's a wonderful puzzle platformer that anyone who is a fan of the genre should make time for.
In Youropa you play as a little silent, unnamed, featureless guy who has one very useful ability - walking on walls and ceilings. Over the course of the game, you pick up a few other common video game abilities, like jumping, running, and picking up or pushing boxes. It's your wall walking ability, however, that remains central to the game. You can defy gravity by sticking to almost any surface, making you able to explore each level from multiple angles. The level design takes full advantage of walking on walls by throwing all kinds of unorthodox and disorienting arrangements in your direction. Right after entering a level, you may find yourself walking on a ceiling a hundred feet up or a hundred feet down from your starting point, wondering how on earth you are going to reach your destination. By the time that you finish the game, you will have climbed, walked, or slid your way across unimaginable lengths and heights. All the while, you have a lovely view of the city of Paris and the Seine River thousands of feet below you, giving you a sense of vertigo that great platforming games frequently have.
Your abilities, however, are subject to one major constraint – for most of the game, you cannot jump from one perpendicular surface to another. Instead, you can only defeat gravity when you are walking along some sort of curved surface. You will also fall to your death by disconnecting from the level while you are upside down or perpendicular to the ground. These limitations force you to find specific paths through the levels. They are also the foundation upon which most of the game’s puzzles are built. They combine a handful of otherwise somewhat common platformer mechanics – picking up or pushing boxes, flipping switches, weighing down switches with boxes, and so on. Despite this relatively mundane appearance, though, Youropa manages to stay fresh and unique through a few dozen levels. Your abilities are gradually introduced over the course of the game as are new ways to use them. Once you have learned the nuances of one ability and all of the ways you can use it, you are usually given a new ability and new tests to overcome.
Youropa, very much to its benefit, sticks to the Portal/Legend of Zelda school of puzzle design. Each ability and each use for it is introduced to you in a limited environment so that you cannot proceed without grasping what the game is teaching you. There are also occasional graffiti on the walls giving you a subtle hints about what you are supposed to do next. The puzzles gradually layer in complexity while combining your abilities in different ways. It's a mastery of this tried and true approach to the level design that makes Youropa such an excellent game. It's usually challenging, but it never reaches a point where you find yourself frustratingly trying to divine the intentions of the level designers. The puzzles themselves present no cheap or unfair difficulty. Instead, they offer a long series of deeply satisfying “aha” moments as you reach collectibles and unlock one area after another. Each level does a good job of rewarding exploration as well - if you find an inconspicuous path somewhere, chances are you will find something that makes it worth your while to explore it.
If Youropa were a drab and colorless it would still be worth playing because of some incredible scenery and how well it nails the fundamentals of a solid game design. However, the game also benefits from a bright, colorful art style that perfectly matches its innocent, almost child-like tone. Getting to design your character’s face is a feature in many modern RPGs, but Youropa is the first game that I know of that gives you a completely white, featureless character and then allows you to spray paint whatever features you want onto it. The marketing materials show a few different zany looks for your avatar, but you are free to paint just about any shapes or colors you wish to create the look you want.
Many of the levels also have spray paint cans that you can pick up and use on the walls, and doing so occasionally unlocks some sort of secret graffiti. If you ever find yourself getting bored with the scenery (an unlikely occurrence), then you may get an opportunity to spice things up a little bit by adding some color to the environment. Although the levels are somewhat linear and often have only one solution, these little touches still give you the sense of being part of this world’s creation. As an added twist, your character’s paint also functions as a health bar of sorts. Each time that you take damage (usually from falling), a little bit of paint is knocked off of you, and when all of your paint is gone, you get a “Game Over” screen. Water is eventually introduced as a hazard that can wash you completely and kill you in a second. Using color in this manner is a clever trick that integrates the game’s art into its gameplay design.
If Youropa does suffer from any major drawbacks, they would be a couple of major control issues that would sink just about any other puzzle platformer. The jumping is agonizingly floaty and your character is slow to respond to your inputs, as if are controlling a helium-filled hippopotamus. As a consequence, you will often find yourself accidentally walking off of a ledge as you desperately try to change direction, or falling to your death because you pressed the jump button a split second too late. These control issues manifest themselves in an especially bad way during a couple of horrendous driving sequences. They are, by far, the game's most difficult challenges. It's otherwise not that demanding from a twitch gaming standpoint, which is a good thing since controls would not facilitate that kind of difficulty. Normally, poor controls are the kiss of death for any game with lots of platforming, but since the challenge in Youropa is almost always about figuring out what you are supposed to do (and not actually doing it), it doesn’t suffer too much from these problems.
Youropa represents a successful merger of creativity and solid game design. In indie gaming there's no shortage of the former, but it frequently comes at the cost of the latter. Games that can achieve success in both areas are rare. If you play a lot of puzzle games, then there's a good chance that you have experienced your share of frustration over the years. Some suffer from repetition and a lack of puzzle variety. Others have puzzles that are simply tedious to solve, while others require wildly unreasonable leaps of logic on the part of the player (*cough* TheWitness *cough*). Thankfully, Youropa doesn't suffer from any of these problems. That is not to say that it is perfect, because it isn't. There may be those gamers that will be so turned off by Youropa's control issues that they won't enjoy the experience. If you can look past them, though, you will find that the game is everything you would hope for out of an indie puzzle platformer - quirky and playful on the surface, with a solid gameplay foundation underneath.