Guardians of the Gravity
The year is 2121. You are a crew member aboard the Endera space ship, which is tasked with closing black holes that can potentially pose a threat to planet Earth. Things go south rather fast however, as the last black hole in the universe explodes and traps the surviving crew members inside a planet-like entity, consisting of several dimensions. You take on the role of the nameless coffee guy, who’s sole purpose on the Endera is to keep the captain of the ship hydrated — nothing more, nothing less. Along with the ship’s AI Auriel — whom is noticeably influenced by Portal‘s GLaDOS, which is a good thing — you start your adventure to rescue your surviving crew members, repair the Endera and finish the mission. This is done by collecting orb-like nanobots capable of repairing the Endera — called Selfburns — while keeping a lookout for crucial ship components as well as missing crew members.
The dialogue and characters in Blackhole are sharply written and quite likable overall, despite some minor drawbacks. The mystery behind Auriel’s origin and the Endera’s mission unravel at a solid pace, accompanied with great, albeit at times overly enthusiastic, voice acting and fitting pop culture references. When a crew member is saved, they will offer some assistance and can be talked to occasionally to stay up-to-date on their progress. The major gut punch here is that these conversations stack, meaning that you either have to go back to the beginning of the hub to talk to them every couple of levels, or sit through all of the dialogue at once after completing a dimension. This makes the conversations feel dragged and stretched, which is a shame since the writing is top notch.
Blackhole consist of a number of hubs spread across multiple dimensions, each one including around 10 to 15 levels for you to complete. About half a dozen Selfburns are scattered throughout each one of these levels, with the final, larger area of each dimension having you either rescuing crew members or retrieving crucial components for the ship. While these hubs mainly serve to let you switch between missions, there are some hidden and hard to reach black boxes you can collect, which will give you some background story on Auriel. This makes certain hubs feel more useful and story-related instead of just replacing them with a simple menu.
That being said, the platforming is without any doubt the best thing Blackhole has to offer. Puzzles are solved by utilizing gravity platforms, which rotate the world around you upon touch. This rotation allows you to traverse the same area from a different point of view, allowing you to collect Selfburns that were previously inaccessible, unreachable or unobtainable. This shows how much time, effort and attention was poured into Blackhole‘s level design. While only one Selfburn has to be collected in order to complete a level, replaying those levels to collect more Selfburns becomes a necessity, since different parts of each dimension require you to collect a minimum amount of Selfburns in order to progress through the story. Leaderboards and that urge to collect every single Selfburn in the game make replaying levels fun, and they rarely get boring or repetitive.
Another element that compliments Blackhole‘s design is the wide level variety. Some levels include climbable walls, while others will have bouncy trampolines. These add another layer of gameplay to the basic shifting of gravity, often requiring you to understand how both work when combined. For example, you can simply swim across a small puddle of water to collect one Selfburn while another one is located at the bottom of said puddle. To reach that one, you will need to rotate the world with the gravity platforms and plunge into the water from a higher point to reach the depth required to obtain that specific Selfburn. The game does a nice job of introducing you to how these different elements work without holding your hand all the way. Blackhole has unparalleled and clever design that deserves a lot more recognition.
While some thinking is required, platforming skills are equally necessary. If you know how to reach a certain Selfburn, but can’t get there due to your lack of platforming knowledge, you will get no further. Dying within a level means losing all of your collected Selfburns, and you will be teleported back to the level’s starting point. This means that Selfburns have to be collected without dying or restarting the level. Nothing is as frustrating like dying from a stupid mistake after having collected all possible Selfburns, but then again, this adds a risk-and-reward feeling to your decisions. There are no loading screens when you die either, so you will respawn within a second, keeping the pace of the game going.
Blackhole is easily one of the best platforming puzzlers in recent memory. It’s gorgeous hand-drawn visuals, polished design and unforgiving, yet incredibly rewarding difficulty make it a game that stands above the rest and delivers a rare AAA-quality experience that most big companies can’t even live up to.