Life Goes On: Done to Death

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Death has always been used a core mechanic in gaming, typically as punishment and a definitive indication that yes, you sure did miss that jump. This is not always a Game Over scenario; upon death in platformers like Super Meat Boy, you quickly spawn back in and try again. The entire survival horror genre, and the rise of the Dark Souls series, are based on nigh-inevitable death. A small group of Canadian indie devs have taken another approach, and used the deaths of a battalion’s worth of adorable, misled and forsaken knights as the sole tool in the toolbox for players to solve their puzzler, Life Goes On: Done to Death. This irreverent release is light on story and far from morbid, and proposes some interesting puzzling situations. It’s somehow both simple, and not.

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Life Goes On was initially released for PC on Steam in 2014. The Done to Death addendum is something of an expansion, and a good excuse to bring the game to PS4, which is the version I’ve been playing and is reviewed here.

In pursuit of immortality, a misguided  King searches for the ever-evasive Cup of Life; “searches” in the sense that he sends forth as many knights as necessary to obtain every cup, goblet and trophy throughout the lands, throwing all caution for their own lives to the wind. The plot doesn’t develop much more than this premise, with lines of narrative dropped bit-by-bit in the level select menu as you progress. These lines feel as if they’re pinched straight out of a fairy tale, and combine with the art depicting the knights’ pilgrimage/death march to lend an air of folklore to the menu, as if you’re reading an ancient paperback bedtime story.

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See? Like a bedtime story. Right?

The difference being that every drawing on the scroll of this bedtime story leads to a 3D-modelled world, developed using the Unity engine, where players aim to reach a glimmering goblet, usually stashed behind a locked gate or otherwise out of reach. Levels are of a 2D design, so it is easy to orientate yourself and maneuver the landscape. Life Goes On uses puzzler staples like spikes, saw blades, buttons, gates, blocks, conveyor belts, checkpoints and portals. Stretches of spikes that can’t be jumped in a single bound can only be circumvented by impaling yourself on them, becoming a stepping stone for your next knight. Jumping into a saw blade to deposit a body on a button to then open a gate is a common occurrence too. You get the picture.

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The introduction of teleporters and gravity-defying force-field things in the late game is reminiscent of the Portal series. Oh and so was the companion cube homage level, obviously.

Levels in the first chapter are very easy to breeze through, and there are some growing pains as the game shifts into gear, suddenly becoming difficult; it’s clear that this is the real meat of the game, and it’s fun! The most remarkable moments were completely unexpected; when you’ve perfectly set up your thought-through solution, then have to backtrack, dodging a string of roving checkpoints in order to reach the single saw blade on the map to respawn on the other side of a wall, lest you have to repeat the entire level… ridiculous! I’d say there are about five outstanding levels that floored me with their creative design.

Not to say the other sixty-something levels are sub-par, but they do follow puzzle platformer trends, despite the added emphasis on constant death. Some puzzles can be fluked by simply interacting with everything accessible once, maybe twice, and suddenl- oh wait, the gate’s open now. Somehow. I’ve found myself shrugging at the end of a number of levels, supposing I must have done something right.

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This puzzle presents you with a limited number of ways to die, since one switch that opens a gate also blocks that jet of flame. You have to be strategic in how you plan your sequence of deaths.

The art direction looks very nice, but the fixed-yet-flexible camera angle brings some perspective issues, especially when a puzzle requires finer accuracy in movement than permitted by the controls. Despite the clunkiness of possessing a clumsy knight, the control scheme itself is very basic, which I applaud. Whereas the level design and puzzle solutions can be rather convoluted, the entire game is played using one thumbstick and the X  button – that has to be a record-breakingly simple control scheme. Having recently played Bloodborne where a single slip of the finger can be dire, and Tropic 5 with it’s myriad menu systems appropriated for console controllers, Life Goes On just feels physically easy to play. Even if my weakened brain would disagree.

Every level has the same additional objectives, including a timer and a death par to beat. The third objective is to meet Jeff, a strange, ambivalent creature positioned somewhere in the level, usually in a secret area. Meeting – and sacrificing a knight to – Jeff often involves completing an additional, more difficult puzzle, and will likely be achieved on a second playthrough. These additional puzzles are the best way to beef up the game’s rather short playtime, but won’t convince all players to run through again – it’s possible to play to the credits scene without even realising this is an additional objective.

Hats and weapons are unlocked and added to the random rotation of character creation when these challenges are met a certain number of times, as well as by natural level progression. These add a bit of variety to your knights, and are an easy laugh. I wish there were a gallery to better view hats and weapons you’ve unlocked, alas!

A small detail I really enjoy is the scroll at the base of the screen with the name of your current knight handwritten across it. Die, and a quill-line crosses out the knight’s name and replaces it with that of the new. This scroll is a nice, passive source of humour, with lengthy names and grandiose titles, as well as names like Betty.

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Life Goes On is a nice, digestible puzzle game. The entire plot is just an excuse for the puzzling mechanics, and it doesn’t try to be anything else; it’s adorable and engaging and addictive. A playthrough takes maybe four hours to complete, but a puzzler fan would revel in completing the extra-hard Jeff puzzles, which may take twice as long – or half, if you’re such a damn whizz-kid. This short run-time is a mark in favour of competing puzzle games like The Talos Principle, but Life Goes On is charging a relatively tiny price; much like with the game’s narrative, the developers aren’t trying to convince you the game is something it is not, and the entry price is well worth the ingenuity of the concept itself.

Anyone interested in puzzle games should absolutely give Life Goes On: Done to Death a shot! My only major gripe is a very selfish one – I want more!

Oh, and make sure you stick around for easily the best credits sequence in recent history.

8/10

Select Start Media was provided with a free copy of Life Goes On: Done to Death by Infinite Monkeys Entertainment.

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