Whenever children play with their action figures and plushies, imaginations runs wild. An arm moving downward is actually a mighty sword crashing down on an evil miscreant. The seemingly normal Barbie doll effortlessly leaps through the air due to a benevolent, almighty observer declaring it in her ability to do so. Strange structures built in sandboxes were towns and castles inhabited by small people, going about their daily lives and having exciting adventures. Supraland switches perspectives and lets us be the heroic toy in an imaginary tale 一 taking place in a literal sandbox.
We, a red plastic figure, are tasked by our father, the benevolent king of red plastic figures, to investigate why the village’s plumbing is clogged. The cause is quickly found: It’s those pesky blue plastic figures! We always knew they were up to no good. Now it’s up to us to escort the queen to the culprits’ village, where she’ll have a word with the blue leader.
Easier said than done. Venturing outside our idyllic village quickly reveals things are much harsher here as we are attacked by skeletons rising from the ground. Those bony bastards don’t care about our noble quest; thus, we have no other option but to retaliate in kind by swinging our trusty wooden sword. Purely in self defense, of course.
This doesn’t require much more than clicking as quickly as possible. During the course of the game, we find several upgrades that increase our damage or attack speed, but we never learn any new sword techniques or combos that would add depth or complexity. While a laser blaster allows us to shoot enemies from a distance, this doesn’t make the fights any more exciting or varied.
Only the upgrades hidden all over the world spark joy in this context. On every mountain, behind every corner and inside each crevice, we find upgrades. Most of them are marginal in effect, yet the constant reward for thorough exploration is incredibly motivating. After a while, all these small increases in damage or health add up, eventually turning us into a veritable god of war that wipes the floor with skeletons and demons alike.
This isn’t exactly challenging, but damn if it isn’t empowering to actually become this mighty. Whereas most other games care more for a moderate, finely tuned challenge throughout the duration of the game, ensuring that by e.g. scaling enemies to the player’s stats, Supraland instead provides us with the means to become ludicrously overpowered. New monster variants, of which there are but a few, occasionally up the difficulty for a while, but nothing poses much of a threat once we’ve collected another upgrade or two.
Don’t be mistaken: Combat is purely a vehicle to cram as many upgrades into this sandbox as possible, to have a constant stream of small accomplishments. Despite helpful devices, like the eventual beeping chest-detector, this onslaught of well-hidden things is a completionist’s worst nightmare, unless you’re a masochist who loves searching every last inch of the map, in which case you’ll be overjoyed to have found the perfect game to fulfill your needs.
Small (and Big) Brain-Twisters
The actual highlight of Supraland is of a peaceful nature. Superbly designed puzzles regularly challenge our grey matter in creative, imaginative ways. In our starting village, we want to brew a magic potion, but we lack a bucket to transport the water. No problem! We just take a big sponge and dunk it into a puddle. With this sponge soaked to the brim with crystal clear and in absolutely no way contaminated water, we are good to go. Dirt scrubs the stomach, right?
Most other puzzles are of a physical nature as well, involving conducting electricity or utilising inertia. Even our weapons help us here. Sure, being able to explode our blaster shots is a good way to decimate groups of enemies, but we can also use that to activate switches that are otherwise out of reach. Almost each and every gadget (and major upgrade) useful for combat also opens up new solutions for puzzles, either by itself or in combination with our other tools. Finding something new is, thus, doubly exciting.
Less Plastic, More Heart
It’s readily apparent in all the nooks and crannies that Supraland wasn’t created by a large development team. Numerous things are unpolished and rough around the edges, more so than what we might be used to from big productions. Art styles clash here and there, the music is alright, if nothing to write home about, certain mechanics are quite finicky in execution, and combat is, well, present. But Supraland wasn’t even created by a small team but rather just one person, and the result is mighty impressive.
In contrast to the lacklustre combat, it’s precisely these rough edges that elevate the puzzles. Instead of bog-standard box-pushing, we’re presented with a colourful array of creative ideas following a pleasant difficulty curve. Just occasionally, clearer environmental hints as to what exactly we’re supposed to do would have been appreciated because some solutions are very obtuse and unintuitive. Fortunately, most puzzles have a variety of possible solutions.
In the end, this laissez-faire approach to established game design norms leads to an unpredictability that’s pretty much exclusive to indie titles. It’s refreshing to be surprised so often, to solve puzzles with real life logic and not your typical game logic. Us old and experienced veterans who can predict every twist a game might throw at us 一 if I may be so overly melodramatic 一 don’t stroll through this game like it’s a leisurely Sunday morning walk in the park. It’s certainly as enjoyable, but we need to really rack our brains for this one.
The Modern Way to Travel
The puzzles even outweigh the flimsy story that only functions as a hook to send us to all kinds of places in the sandbox. Since Supraland can veritably be classified as a Metroidvania, at those destinations we find new methods of exploring the open world. More than once will we see our surroundings, both old and new, with different eyes, discovering new paths everywhere.
Thanks to jump pads conveniently placed all over the world, some of which catapult us across the whole map, as well as strangely familiar green pipes, we quickly go from one end of the world to the other. During our brief moments of flight, we can scour the area from a different angle, revealing hidden secrets and pathways we previously missed. These fast travel mechanics lessen the annoyance of the constant backtracking, an inevitability in any Metroidvania. But beware: Backtracking is a frequent occurrence, complete with annoying enemies respawning in visited locations again and again.
It’s always a good sign when as soon as you turn on your computer, you’re looking forward to playing that one game, the one you keep thinking about all the time. No skill trees, microtransactions, deep characters, or a battle royale mode, and yet developer/publisher Supra Games delivered a game that’s just a lot of pure, simple fun. During the 10-15 hours it takes to finish the story and explore most of the world, we constantly stumble upon new treasures, discover new interactions, and find charming Easter eggs. The sheer amount of things in Supraland is almost too much to bear, yet it never loses sight of its core mechanics and gameplay loop.
We are free to explore the world on our own, forge our own path 一 within reason, of course一 as we push for the (at times invisible) boundaries and venture into spaces we shouldn’t have access to. Eventually, we’re nigh on invincible. Instead of taking us by the hand and guiding us through the world, carefully arranging encounters so we’re neither overwhelmed nor too powerful, Supraland gently nudges us in the right directions without forcing us one way or the other. Figuring out what to do next and how things work can be tough, but it works super well. Or rather, supra well.
Developer: Supra Games
Publisher: Supra Games
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: 5th April 2019