An Icy-Hot Puzzle Platformer
Degrees of Separation begins as a modest platformer. You first take the role of Ember, a girl living in a world of eternal summer. Before you can get used to her warm presence, the perspective suddenly switches to Rime, a boy who serves as the last defender of a kingdom of ice. Control shifts between Ember and Rime, drawn to each other by a strange force. At last, the two discover one another and reach out their hands. But they cannot touch, for neither can leave their own worlds – one of intense heat, the other of a bitter cold. This scene was the game’s defining magical moment that instantly hooked me in.
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At all times, both Ember and Rime inhabit the same area. However, the screen is divided by a dynamic line, splitting the two characters and their respective worlds. Ember imbues her half of the field with constant heat, represented by warm orange colors, while Rime’s half exudes icy blue frigidity. As the two of them move, the environment alters with them. When they cross paths, the barrier between them spins, flipping the two climates.
It’s stunning to see this game in motion. The fluid storybook world seamlessly transforms from one season to another, with an ethereal mosaic line brilliantly outlining the transition. Calm instrumentals set the game’s tranquil tone. A soothing voice narrates the characters’ story, which is essentially a fairy tale version of Romeo and Juliet, featuring two lonely, star-crossed lovers on an emotional journey.
More than a visual spectacle, Degrees of Separation is at heart a puzzle platformer. Ember and Rime harness their authority over fire and ice to solve temperature-based brain teasers. For example, their contrasting skills can freeze or melt water, activate or deactivate heat vents, and light up or put out lanterns. The concepts are simple but cleverly implemented. Solving each riddle requires precise movements and careful manipulation of the elements. Neither character operates in a vacuum and must use their unique powers to assist the other.
Although you can only control one character at a time, it’s not a big hassle to switch between them. More intense coordination may prove unwieldy, though, and the partner call option doesn’t always function correctly. Luckily, the campaign can be played entirely in local two-player co-op, which is the smoothest way to play. There’s a magic to experiencing this together with a friend or loved one. Although two-player is ideal, it isn’t necessary for completion.
The game “1-ups” its own temperature manipulation premise by introducing gimmicks in every world. For instance, in one level, Ember and Rime gain the ability to materialize the split screen line, freezing it and transforming it into a platform. Another area forces an explosion to occur whenever the two characters are nearby, allowing them to blow up obstacles and propel across gaps. The level design ingeniously complements the hot-and-cold dynamic, though there is some reliance on trial-and-error with the undependable in-game physics. Also, the gimmicks are limited to the level they’re introduced in, so it never feels like you’re learning a new ability, but rather temporarily applying one to the current situation. Nevertheless, there’s a comfortable learning curve as the game teaches mechanics efficiently during easier puzzles to prepare players for harder ones. Indeed, the difficulty ramps up to a point where later puzzles would stump me indefinitely.
Except for the first and last worlds, the game functions like a collectathon. It takes almost no effort to walk from the beginning to the end of a level. But you can’t proceed to the next one without obtaining a bunch of collectible scarves. Each one serves as the reward for solving an environmental puzzle, but since you’re free to explore the level, you can choose which scarves to pick up. If one puzzle is too hard, you can just skip it and try another one. As long as you have enough scarves, you can reach the ending. This non-linear progression isn’t a turn-off as the puzzles themselves are still worthwhile. That being said, I would have preferred a more standardized experience where each level was a set of trials that included bonus collectibles for completing optional puzzles.
I ended up having to replay several of the game’s handful of levels to reach my scarf quota. You can warp to any part of the level you’ve accessed, but a vague map display makes it hard to pinpoint where the remaining scarves are. As a slow-paced game with no enemies, aside from a harmless end-of-level dragon, this experience is best reserved for patient players not seeking action. The adventure takes about ten hours, give or take depending on puzzle-solving skills. Collecting every scarf takes longer, though it’s not compelling to do so after the credits roll.
Degrees of Separation is a gem that matches its warm narrative and cool graphics with equally impressive duality-focused riddles reminiscent of Zelda. Not every aspect works, but the crucial elements synergize, producing a world-colliding experience for puzzle platformer fans.
Note: A review copy was used for this article.