Area 86 is a physics puzzle game. Realistically, do I even need to go into more detail than that? It’s a game where you have to try and fight against a physics engine to get to the end. Just like every other physics puzzler out there. The key difference this time is that you’re actually controlling a third party who has to solve physics puzzles for you while you observe from a more remote perspective. So, it is at least more original than most physics puzzles, even if that makes the gameplay more fiddly than a 1,000,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.
Area 86 comes to us from SimDevs, a first-time indie developer and publisher based out of Latvia. The game stars a cute little cube-shaped robot in his attempt to escape from a space station with a rogue AI. To leave the station, you have to go through various rooms, smashing, chucking, and hopping your way around various escape room-style puzzles.
Each room in Area 86 has various tasks for you to accomplish besides just trying to escape. Sometimes it’s as simple as smashing the right object by jumping on it or hitting it enough times. Other times it requires complex jumping puzzles or for you to work out codes. Needless to say, almost all of the puzzles require you to smash or throw something.
Of all the puzzles in Area 86, the throwing-based ones are probably the most annoying. Because the game is based heavily around physics, trying to accurately throw something into the right location is rather difficult. Each time you throw a cube, you have to take into account what it’s trying to land in, what shape and weight the object in question is, etc., etc. If you’re a theoretical physicist, you can probably figure it all out. If not, you’ll probably just have to throw stuff 400 times until you get it right.
In quite a surprising twist for anyone who has ever played a Minecraft adventure map, the jumping puzzles are at the other end of the spectrum. Your little robot friend can run and jump better than most other video game characters that were created in the past two decades. He shoots around the map at quite a pleasing speed and jumps relatively high and far. This makes a lot of the jumping puzzles pretty fun to do, even the more challenging ones.
That’s the sort of odd thing about Area 86. Despite being more fiddly than Fiddler on the Roof and more frustrating than trying to balance 100 single Jenga pieces on top of each other, it’s still really enjoyable and playable. Despite my annoyance at trying to throw the power block onto the platform it’s supposed to be powering, I never felt like giving up on the game itself.
Part of the reason for that is that you can always just ignore a puzzle you’re not enjoying in favour of another one, at least for now. Even if you have to come back to it later, a brief break from it may have given you some new insight into how the puzzle works. Not only that, but there are often multiple ways of solving each puzzle. For instance, although I was initially annoyed at having to throw the aforementioned power block, I eventually gave up on that approach and ended up just stacking boxes in such a way that I could place the block in the right place very easily.
If there’s one takeaway from this review, it’s that most problems in Area 86 can be solved by brute force. If you’re struggling with a particularly hard ‘the floor is made of lava’ segment of the game, you can just place a bunch of boxes on the ground instead of having to use the carefully crafted devices that the developers placed there for you to use. Having said that, it feels like this was the intention. The game’s Steam page flouts the idea that each puzzle can be approached from many ways, so perhaps they saw using the boxes as less of a workaround and more a spectacular use of lateral thinking.
As well as performing various tasks, you can also collect secret items in each area. These are all the same thing, these weird little power cores, but finding them offers a little extra challenge if you just can’t get enough of the game. Honestly, probably the best thing about the game is the feeling of triumph. At first, I was all ready to hate on my time playing Area 86, but after solving various particularly difficult puzzles, usually by throwing boxes everywhere, I just felt so accomplished that I kept wanting to play more of it.
Overall, Area 86 is a charming adventure with a surprisingly endearing nameless robot character. While it can be frustrating at times, it’s pretty easy to ignore the bits that you’re not enjoying and just get on with the game. The sense of accomplishment that you get for solving the puzzles is probably enough of a high to carry you right to the end of the included levels. Just remember, the boxes are your friends.
Release Date: 15th April 2020