Science: it’s a wonderful thing. Without science, we’d still be muddling through the dark ages, in a world without Facebook and instant soup. Of course, before such manmade wonders can exist, they need to be tested – and what better way is there to trial such innovations than by exploiting poor animals? Don’t call PETA just yet, though, because the four furry subjects in Tiny Brains are fighting back with supernatural abilities.
Fans of the Portal titles will feel right at home in this PlayStation 4 adventure. An often hilarious overseer puts your logic and muscle memory to the test across a variety of short puzzles. There’s not much story to speak of, but what little there is will be relayed to you as you scurry from section to section. The focus, instead, is on solving the conundrums.
With a heavy emphasis on co-op, it should come as little surprise that portions of this game will feel downright miserable when you’re playing alone. Each of the four different Tiny Brains have their own unique power, which will help you to move around objects, insert batteries, defend various non-playable characters, and reach specific points before venturing to the next area. If you’re playing with less than four people, you can swap to the available characters at any time. As a result, levels are simpler in the solo mode, but you’ll still need to leap between the roster of playable protagonists frequently, meaning that it can get quite tedious.
There are four stages in total, with each lasting around 10-20 minutes. If you’re playing alone, most of your entertainment will stem from the scientist testing you. While not quite as sadistic as GLaDOS, he still has something of a screw loose, and his rambling ranges from smile-inducing to absolute hilarity. The title’s biggest pull is its decent writing, there’s no doubt about that.
Of course, the other attraction is the four-player co-op. This isn’t long enough to be as addictive or as involving as PlayStation Network classics such as Castle Crashers, but there’s enough additional content that you could easily enjoy a few sessions. As such, it’s easy to recommend this title to someone who’s hungry for some good old-fashioned local multiplayer. It honestly does it well, but even if it didn’t, it actually does it, which is, well, more than can be said for most multiplayer games. Don’t worry if you’re an old Billy no-mates, though, because there’s an online option on offer if you want to play with buddies from a little further afield.
If you’re more interested in the banter than the gameplay, then this is well worth picking up, too. It forces you to use your grey matter, and testing things out and making mistakes can lead to a rip-roaring time. With each character controlled by an actual human, every cog is responsible for a particular portion of the puzzle solving process, and this can lead to inevitable laugh-out-loud moments as you work to solve each conundrum.
Communication is important in this game, so you can employ the DualShock 4’s touchpad for a little added correspondence. This controls an arrow reflecting your chosen lab animal’s colour, allowing you to point out things as you try to explain them. It’s a small but useful feature that highlights the advantages that the sensitive surface may augment in the future. Another nice touch is that the light on the controller will change depending on which character you’re playing as.
You’ll need to get to know all of the stars, too, as there are a few extra missions and modes available that will reward you for understanding the ins-and-outs of each selectable critter. As well as a variety of challenges and puzzles, there’s a soccer mode that’s great for short competitive showdowns, and a ‘Joules’ mode, which unlocks one new hero that’s equipped with all four of the other characters’ powers. It adds a whole new layer of challenge, and will probably extend your experience by a couple of hours.
Despite some solid mechanics and decent level design, though, there are some issues in Tiny Brains outside of its dismal single player campaign. For starters, it’s far too short considering its steep asking price. However, this would be forgivable if it wasn’t also plagued with technical issues, such as constant slowdown that nearly ruins the experience.
Considering that the game is available on a variety of systems, including last-gen machines, it’s no surprise that it’s less than PS4-optimised. Some unfortunate aliasing issues aside, though, the visuals are pleasant, predominantly because of the bright colours employed. But as already alluded, the frame-rate is a massive problem throughout. There doesn’t seem to be any rhythm or rhyme to the toxic slowdown, but it’s a constant issue throughout the campaign. It’s often so chronic that you’ll be lucky if you manage to get through more than half a level without being completely glued to the spot for seconds at a time.
And yet, this is nothing compared to the unreliable physics. The potential fun of throwing a friend across a pit of lava is easily ruined when said accomplice ends up inexplicably tossed miles into the air, only to fall safely onto a platform that they should never even be able to reach. These physics issues happen less often than the slowdown, but often enough that they are noteworthy. Oh, and on one occasion during the composition of this review, our screen decided to flash orange and stay that way until we restarted the challenge that we were attempting. Very strange.
Tiny Brains definitely isn’t great. In fact, it’s not even very good. However, for the group of friends that opt to enjoy it together, it may just provide enough laughs for a decent night in. Technical issues, an extortionate price point, and a slender running time mean that you should approach with caution – but if you’re looking for something to play with your buddies, then you may enjoy the experience all the same. Just like Facebook and instant soup, this experiment is very much what you make of it.