Sym is a strange platforming puzzle game with heavy themes, a beautifully simplistic art style, and some keyboard snapping difficulty.

By Artemis, Posted 21 May 2015

Keyboard-breaking frustration in puzzle platformers isn't new in the independent games market, with one of its most popular ones, Super Meat Boy, being extremely successful for not only it's gameplay but for its difficulty too. Sym, developed by Atrax Games and published by Mastertronic, is no exception to this, leaving the player growling in frustration at the screen after they've died for the thousandth time. However, what Sym tries to do is tell a unique story through its visuals and gameplay that symbolize the experience of anxiety. Not just normal butterflies in the stomach nervousness, but actual social anxiety that can be crippling to someone's life. This makes this game quite an interesting beast to try to understand; while you may peel back a few layers to what's going on, there's no doubt more going on beneath the surface.

Sym Caleb cutscene

You play as Caleb, a lanky shadowy man who lives on the fringe of reality, wanting to conquer his fears, and Ammiel, a white tentacle creature who lives detached from the world around him, allowing his fears to get the better of him. They are both alter egos of a boy named Josh, and each of their worlds represent separate sides of how Josh perceives things; two distinctive characters with similar playstyles, but different things to conquer in their own respective worlds. For example, with Caleb you'll run and jump over ledges, walking over hidden spinning blades very easily, but then you come across a wide open monstrous eye, then you switch to Ammiel who avoids the eyes because he lives in his land of shadows. You switch back and forth between the two characters in order to get through each of the many puzzles there are in the game. Each puzzle has a cryptic message written there that can have tips on how to get through the level, but the player can also easily perceive it as talking about the games overarching theme and plot. For the most part, the player is left to their own devices; the game only tells them the controls at the very beginning of the game and will warn them of new obstacles when they enter the first puzzle of an area. Beyond that, if you can't figure something out you are out of luck.

This is one of those games that requires near perfect execution of all of your platforming, which is guaranteed to frustrate some people. This is Super Meat Boy levels of hard, and it will mess some people up. There are points where you can actually get stuck and be forced to kill yourself in order to get out of those situations, which is a real hassle. While these moments are few and far between, it is still annoying when this happens since now you have to redo everything you just did. This game expects you to know what you're doing and will not show you any mercy. This only gets frustrating during the longer puzzles, because there's no checkpoint system. This means that if you die from one of those lovely one-hit deaths, you're going back to the start, no exceptions. A checkpoint system would have been nice in these situations, but at least there are no lives in this game so you can die as many times as you want. That said, it is still a little bit embarrassing when you are on the level select screen and the game shows you just how many times you died.

What makes this game last in replay value, however, isn't just how hard it is, or the seemingly impossible achievement to only die 9 times throughout the game: it's the player made levels. There's a level builder in this game that allows players to make their own painfully difficult puzzles all on their own.

Sym Caleb gameplay

The graphics of this game are simple 2D black and white images, with most of the black enemies being in Caleb's world and most of the white enemies being in Ammiel's world. The two worlds, while both otherworldly and unsettling, contrast one another perfectly with the monsters in Caleb's world being a lot more vicious looking, while a lot of the monsters in Ammiel's world being things like razors. Where the graphics really shine are during its cutscenes; after you finish a world, you'll find yourself thrown into a surreal scene of something like thousands of eyes looking at Caleb, threatening to swallow him whole with their deadly stares or a calm scene like when Caleb first meets Ammiel. It's like pages of a comic book or a strange cartoon more so than a video game, leaving plenty up for interpretation.

Sym is built around the idea of anxiety and it shows and emulates that to a startling degree. Nothing is ever explicitly stated in the game, because there's no dialogue but things are implied. While at times it can be a bit heavy handed and it will take the player out of the experience when they see certain things written on the background, like certain lines about god or creation, it does certainly make you think while you play. There are messages written in places like “RUN!” which immediately amps up the anxiety for the player giving you a feeling you're being chased by something. It's usually just to warn the player of the world collapsing around them or an enemy wandering around, but as soon as you see that written on the back of the screen, you may find yourself tensing up and frantically trying to find out what's chasing your poor heroes.

Sym Ammiel gameplay

There are also other things written like “Not a human being. That should change his mind,” which sound like obtuse statements that you just roll your eyes at in a game that's full of itself, but in Sym, if the player remembers what sort of characters they're playing as, it starts to make sense. Particularly the titles of the worlds like “My own little world” or “I want to disappear” makes things a little clearer on just what's at stake here in the game. You're trying to help these two creatures and by proxy Josh, conquer not only their fears but themselves. They're at close to or at their lost points, and it's your job as the player to help them. It puts a lot of responsibility on the player's shoulders when they realize the full extent of what's going on.

Sym is a strange platforming puzzle game with heavy themes, a beautifully simplistic art style, and some keyboard snapping difficulty. While not all of the difficult moments in this game are warranted, it still provides a rewarding experience in this dark disturbing world of Sym. It's always nice to see a game not only reward a player by giving them achievements but by making them actually really think about what they're doing in the game they are playing.

Angelina Bonilla, NoobFeed (@Twitter)

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General Information



Platform(s): PC
Publisher(s): Mastertronic
Developer(s): Atrax Games
Genres: Puzzle
Themes: Psychological Horror
Release Date: 2015-05-07

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