Shiftlings wastes too much effort on story elements, without first creating a lasting gameplay experience.
I feel the need to open this with a quick disclaimer. As a local co-op game, Shiftlings is a worthy investment. But, if you’ll simply be playing this solo, stay away.
Shiftlings tries really hard for you to like it. Frankly, that’s my main gripe. From the opening cinematic, the humor is on display, revealing if it lands as funny or cringe-worthy quickly. Sadly, I sat steadily in the cringe camp throughout, but I’ll give Rock Pocket Games a bit of a nod for their effort. The voice actors are committed and the material gallantly tries to build out a game world, but, much like the primary puzzle mechanic, it always feels half-bloated, half-deflated. Unfortunately, this does not make for balanced gameplay.
The heroes are two cosmic custodians tasked with solving their way through a galactic game show. Tied together with an air hose, the duo progresses through each puzzle by switching size and weight. As far as game mechanics go, you can bounce on your bud’s head, weigh down buttons, pull levers, float up jet streams, make use of trap doors and seesaws, and plenty more. However, before long, the puzzles lose their freshness faster than the backgrounds and sounds in each level.
Solo play proves tiresome because while you can move both characters simultaneously by holding the L button, certain puzzles can only be solved by switching rapidly between the pair. So, while these puzzles can be fun and exhilarating with two players working in tandem, they come off as frustratingly time-consuming alone. Plus, if you mess up and die, expect to hear the same, lame lines over-and-over again from the nagging narrator until you can best it.
With over 50 levels (plus time trials) to complete, each of which include collectible cola bottles for unlocking later levels, Shiftlings appears to have a great deal of content. The problem is that these levels are spread across five regions, and while each region has its own unique charm and puzzle mechanics, the settings feel bland (especially by the seventh or eighth level within a specific area). Many of the puzzles become repetitive, and in turn, make certain levels feel like a sluggish slog. To the point where weighing the value of unlocking the next region becomes a debate.
Shiftlings’ size-swapping mechanic serves as a perfect metaphor for the game itself. Simply put, it lacks balance. The cute art style would make for a perfect parent-child co-op experience, but the skill required for certain platformer-specific puzzles makes it a bit too difficult for a younger child to master (and/or have fun). The story elements that are fleshed out don’t really amount to much. It would have been better served without the bloat of the story. It harkens back to the oldest of game truths; as gamers, we ultimately don’t care how or why Bowser kidnapped Peach (possibly something cake-related?), we only care how we’re going to save her, and the playable journey ahead.