What would you do if you were the last person left? Not just on Earth... but anywhere? Saira, the heroine of the latest game by Nifflas (Nicklas Nygren), finds herself in just that situation, when she rushes home during an emergency to discover all of mankind has vanished in the short time it took her to get there. Where has everyone gone? Why was Saira spared? If you want to find out, you'll have to play. Featuring fourteen distinct planets to explore, an original soundtrack, and six unique endings, Saira is a puzzle platformer with non-linear gameplay and a whole universe for you to explore.
Saira's job as a photographer of frequently dangerous places and creatures means she's kept herself in pretty good shape, so she does an admirable impression of Lara Croft as she runs and leaps, scaling most walls with remarkable agility. Saira controls with the [arrow] keys for movement, and the [S] key to jump, leaving [A] to take pictures and [D] to interact with objects or open her ever-present PDA. While the movement keys are fixed, you can change the keys the other actions are mapped to by running the settings executable before you start the game.
Saira's most important tool is her PDA, which you'll come to rely on a great deal. A particularly handy function allows you to photograph your surroundings, which not only reveals which creatures are dangerous, but lets you take a visual record of, say, an important clue or code. That's right, no more scribbling passwords down on the back of your hand because you can't be bothered to look for paper. It's a nice touch that helps eliminate what would otherwise be a lot of annoying back-tracking. You can also make use of her PDA to teleport back to her ship, or to your last activated checkpoint, which is also where you'll respawn if you meet an untimely demise.
For the most part, your time is spent exploring, which you're probably familiar with if you're a fan of Nifflas's games. The puzzles usually attempt to engage your brain (you know, the squishy grey thing between your ears?), but there are a few reflex-based platforming trials that may test your patience. Hands up, everyone who likes timed platforming sequences! While a little bit of challenge is good, here it winds up feeling out of place compared to the laid-back, exploration-based play style of the rest of the game.
Nifflas has managed to create not just one lovely world, but an entire universe full of them. Of course, if you fell in love with the "just stepped off the NES runway" look of his previous titles, Saira's softly painted visuals are going to take some getting used to. Rather than pixel art, Saira, for the most part, tends to look like the sort of rich, watercolour paintings Bob Ross was so fond of, despite actually being partially composed of photography. The backgrounds are beautiful, full of soft colours and subtle animation, and every world has its own distinct look. But as far as you'll go in your journeys, and as many fantastic sights as you'll see, there's an air of loneliness that can never quite be shaken. After all, an important part of discovery and wonder is being able to share them both with someone, and that gives Saira's quest a particular sense of poignancy.
Saira features a rather meaty demo that should be more than sufficient for you to decide whether or not you want to part with your precious dollars. The full version can be had for $17.00, and if you're a charitable sort, an additional $2.00 will net you an extra license, good for an impromptu gift, or as a reason to make two of your friends duel to the death for it. As if you needed a reason.
Analysis: "Okay, alright, I get it. The game is pretty, you're sentimental, blah-de-blah-de-blah. But, Dora," you say, "what about the gameplay?" Well (I reply), for the most part, Saira plays pretty smoothly, with bits of the story being revealed to you as you go. The levels are big, but not so big that you'll find yourself getting lost, and leaping from place to place is pretty exhilarating. (Saira has some tough ankles to take those long falls, let me tell you.) Unfortunately, the controls occasionally feel a little stiff, especially when you're trying to steer Saira through the air or leap off a wall. It almost feels like the whole thing would have been much more responsive built around a controller with a joystick. As it is, get used to overshooting your targets until you get a fair amount of practice in.
I also wish the story had been integrated a bit more closely with the game itself. As it is, you can go a long time without seeing any story advancement at all. Which is fine if you're just taking in the scenery, but it does keep the player from really building a bond with Saira herself. Beyond the natural empathy you feel for anyone so desperately alone, there's no real connection there, and it keeps the experience from being quite as emotionally involving as it might otherwise be.
Inevitably, Saira is going to be compared to beloved predecessors, most notably Knytt and Knytt Stories, which are probably going to remain the great titans of the platformer-exploration super genre for some time, crushing all would-be competitors. Is Saira better? Well, what kind of question is that, anyway? It's certainly not a let down. Rather than feeling like a console title, Saira's free-form gameplay and fluid leaps tend to give the whole experience a much more organic feel. Taken as a title in its own right, Saira is an enjoyable game that at the very least deserves a chance to win you over.
Were it not for a few frustrating jumping sequences, I might almost be tempted to call Saira "a platformer for people who hate platformers". As it is, I'll call it, "a game for people who enjoy beautiful things". It's not perfect, but with the exception of pineapple pizza, few things are. What it is is a very ambitious and remarkable feat, with a lot to keep you busy and maybe even take your breath away. It's a big universe. Now get out there and find your place in it.