Baba Is You (Switch) - Review
Baba Is You is a grid-based 2D puzzle game developed by Arvi “Hempuli” Teikari as an expansion of his award-winning entry in the 2017 Nordic Game Jam. With an ingenious central premise free of unnecessary aesthetic fluff, this is a dense, challenging game that can rely on the quality of its own design to keep the player invested. It’s also a lot longer than I expected.
The rules of Baba Is You are represented within the levels themselves by moveable text that can be pushed around in order to give objects different properties, or change one object into another. Text objects usually consist of single words, and have three general functions. There are nouns, which refer to a particular sprite that might appear in a level (“BABA”, “ROCK”, “WATER”); properties, that refer to particular mechanics that can be assigned to a noun (“PUSH”, “SINK”, “HOT”); and conjunctions, particles that provide the syntax for joining nouns to properties or other nouns (“IS”, “NOT”, “ON”). The objective of each level is the same: whichever object has the property “YOU” (i.e. is being controlled by the player) has to reach the same tile as the object with the “WIN” property.
The game begins with eight brief levels that teach the basics. Even at this point the progression of ideas came across as slightly haphazard, with the effect of making approaches to each subsequent puzzle unpredictable. While this actually works well for later levels, I felt that the fundamental principles of the game needed to be spelled out more clearly, such as establising the directionality of text objects: “BABA IS YOU” is not the same as “YOU IS BABA”, even arranged vertically. Still, I was amazed at how intuitive the learning process was, and how a single word that is more symbolic than linguistic communicated so much about its function. New properties are introduced throughout, combining with old properties in ways that are fascinating just to play around with, and the puzzles only get more interesting as the game goes on. Without spoiling anything, things get meta.
I loved that the game never wasted my time. Moving, undoing actions, restarting levels, and going between level and overworld maps happen smoothly and promptly. I noticed the occasional input delay, but as a user of Multimedia Fusion 2, which Baba Is You was developed with, I’m aware how vague it can be with frame-rate and loading issues, especially since you can’t edit the source code of projects directly.
The way the game handles contradictions and tautologies seems a little arbitrary. If you have a sequence like “WALL IS NOT STOP”, for example, and then make another sequence “WALL IS STOP”, the negative statement will take precedence, and the new one will be cancelled out with little red crosses. But if something like “WALL IS WALL” appears in a level, it indicates that the developer wants that object to remain untransformed, because if you try to make “WALL IS [another noun]” it is immediately cancelled out by the tautology. These stipulations can build up dramatically in some of the less elegant levels, and are basically there to facilitate the particular solution the developer had in mind. But though these levels can be overwhelming, requiring close study just to figure out how to approach the objective, I found that the levels with the least amount of verbal clutter turned out to be the most challenging. I will see the level “Prison” in my nightmares for weeks to come.
There is an unseen universal rule in Baba Is You, “TEXT IS PUSH”, and while it would be silly to include it in every single level just for the sake of completeness, this rule really underpins the premise of the whole game, and I wonder whether it should have been somehow established at the beginning to give a sense of an overarching thematic purpose. This also played into my feelings that Baba Is You has retained some of its “Jammy” qualities, as if the lack of an intentional thematic or subtextual narrative gives away the fact that it’s an expanded Game Jam project.
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The only story in Baba Is You is that which the player creates by playing the game; even the island setting and flower motifs don’t really suggest anything other than a vague quest-for-enlightenment feeling. That being said, the game can stand perfectly well on the quality and inventiveness of the puzzle design alone to motivate the player to continue, and I appreciate this quietly brave confidence the game has in itself.
Graphics / Art Direction
Each level’s visuals are clean, colourful, and effective at communicating the state of the game. The sprites have been upgraded from the original Game Jam version, and all objects have three-frame static animation loops that gives the game a fluid, hand-drawn quality that I love. One downside to this minimal style is that overlapping and “FLOAT”ing objects can be hard to tell apart, especially if both objects are the same colour, or if one is a text object. But this is only a problem in levels where moving objects are multiplied greatly; and there is a certain chaotic joy in making an absolute mess out of these levels.
Aesthetic variety and spontaneity is an underrated quality of puzzle games, where an intense focus on consistent, unsuperfluous level design can result in a cold sameyness (think Breath of the Wild shrines). But because objects in Baba Is You have no inherent properties, Hempuli can use as many cute, colourful sprites as he likes without making the gameplay any more complex. Organised into settings like “The Lake” or “Forest of Fall”, each with subtle lighting and particle effects, Baba Is You safely avoids being boring to look at. However, I would have liked to see the thematic elements of each setting come out even more strongly.
Music / Sound Design
The soundtrack is minimal; most tracks are standard two-minute loops in binary form, without much harmonic or melodic substance. The music I’ve heard comes to thirty minutes over the course of a fifty-hour play time. Each setting on the overworld map has a theme for its levels, but worlds in the late game simply reuse earlier tracks, which is acceptable up to a point but ultimately comes across as lazy. A few tracks, like those from The Lake, Flower Garden and Rocket Trip provide variety in tone-colour, but otherwise the music is repetitive and forgettable, which is a shame since, without the need to compete for the player’s attention with reaction-based sound cues or dialogue, puzzle games can afford more substantial music than most genres.
Final score: 86%
Despite a few pedantic inconsistencies and a lacklustre soundtrack, Baba Is You is an excellent and precisely-made game that explores most of its mechanics to their limits, even to the meta or deconstructive level. Though it feels like it wants a sense of an overarching purpose, Hempuli has managed to pull off an extremely difficult feat: to integrate language into the mechanics of an entirely systems-based game without compromising the gameplay, and in a way that makes the game more accessible and intuitive to learn.