In Greg Sergeant's aptly titled puzzle platformer, Use Boxmen, you, believe it or not, use boxmen to collect boxes.
It sounds fairly simple and straightforward, but it's not, really. You are a little blue boxman. Correction, you are a "strange, superior figure" that controls the cheerful looking little blue boxman in his quest to collect the spinning box at the end of every level. Why? Because the narrator told you to, that's why. Sounds easy enough, sure, but now let's throw in some spikes, switches, traps, big giant black tooth looking things that can kill you with a tiny touch, and some death defying leaps and all of a sudden what seemed simple just got a whole lot tougher.
As in many platformers, you use the [arrow] keys to run, duck, and jump, but you find out very quickly that this is far from adequate to negotiate the puzzles that keep you from your coveted boxes. You need help. Thankfully if you press the [shift] key, you can summon a happy orange boxman to aid you in your quest (the number you can summon changes from one level to the next). These little guys can be quite industrious, but they aren't the world's best thinkers. They will do whatever it is you are doing when you summon them. If you're standing still, they'll stand still, if you're jumping, they'll jump, etc. Oh, and they are very much expendable, just like you.
Now you have all the tools you will need , but you'll still need that big gray thinking thingie upstairs if you hope to collect the boxes and figure out what the narrator is up to (besides making an incredibly popular internet game, of course). As you move from one level to the next you'll have to come up with increasingly creative uses for your boxmen from making them power generators to using them to "see" invisible platforms. Put your fingers and your noodle to the test and maybe, just maybe, you'll figure out what all those boxes are for, and maybe what's up with that narrator guy as well.
Analysis: Use Boxmen exudes charm the way an ink soaked sponge exudes ink, especially if you push down on it really hard. From the music that sounds like wind chimes made in a happiness factory, to the way the little orange boxmen run with their arms waving behind them like two thin wisps of old man hair, Use Boxmen feels like a really tough platform puzzler was hugged by a kindergartener on a sugar high. Even the boxes you collect at the end of each level explode into a burst of celebratory confetti.
But don't be fooled, this game is NOT easy (this is the same guy who made Death Dice Overdose after all). Behind the pastel blue skies and overly huggable characters lies a game that is devious as both a platformer and a puzzler.
As a puzzler, the challenge stems from first discovering completely how the orange boxmen work. They do what you are doing when you make them, but different situations will have different results. Crouching, for instance, works differently for your main blue boxman compared to the orange guys. Once you've figured the ins and outs of the orange boxmen, the challenge shifts to visualizing all of the actions required for each level. You have to take into account every set of spikes, every switch, every jump, and every platform, and you have to decide which paths you'll force your clones to take, and which one you'll take yourself. Thus, solving puzzles requires a balance of predicting future behavior and engaging in trial and error in real time. This combination provides a rather unique and satisfying experience.
Solving puzzles is only half the battle here as Use Boxmen takes its platforming element very seriously. You will quite often find yourself making hairpin precision jumps and dashing back and forth through levels with barely a pixel's width of clearance between you and certain death. As a result, just because you know how to solve a level doesn't guarantee you a thing, you still have to actually act it out. Thankfully the controls here are as smooth as dark chocolate layered in silk on a bed of chinchilla fur. There is just the tiniest little bit of slippage in controlling your blue boxman, but this is not so much to a fault as it is a natural expression of momentum. Also, the platforming element may feel a little too unforgiving, but the game is consistent to the pixel with its precision.
The only way such a beautiful balance between puzzling and platforming could be pulled off is in level design, and generally the level design is brilliant. Each board taunts you with multiple possibilities, throwing all sorts of stuff your way like a kind of smoke screen in order to tease you away from the true solution (protip: It's always a good idea to look at how many boxmen you can create in a level. This might give you an idea as to your possibilities). My one qualm is that the levels don't really open themselves up to multiple solutions. This isn't necessary, but having more than one solution per level would give players a marvelous opportunity to explore the copycat mechanic at work here to its fullest potential.
Unfortunately, Use Boxman isn't that long, and the learning curve, while gradual, is a little steep. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially for gamers with a certain level of patience and a skill set that matches the game's challenges, but it does mean that this game may not be accessible to all comers. You can't have too much of a good thing, and Use Boxman would have been well served by having a lot more levels with a kinder learning curve to go along with them.
Cute, clever, and unique, Use Boxman manages to appeal to both the child and the obsessive gamer in us. And yeah, maybe it makes me want to run stupidly down the street with my arms waving behind me like a buffoon while wearing a silly grin on my face.
Thanks for suggesting this, David, Arikiko, Calvin, and Sijapu17. Cheers!