A Walk on the Smart Side
A few years ago, my wife and I spent nearly a week on vacation in New York City in December, soaking in the holiday cheer in the city that never sleeps. We stayed in Queens and spent our days riding subways, eating pizza, and visiting the most notable attractions the city had to offer. Despite the iconic landmarks we toured, unbelievable food we ate, and stunning Broadway shows we watched, my favorite part of NYC was something I still have some difficulty accurately describing. To be succinct, the city felt alive; citizens bustle through streets with seemingly no rest, taxis and buses slip impossibly into small gaps in the traffic, subways rumble overhead and underground, and lights line windows and doors around every corner. Every inch of that pavement jungle buzzed with vitality, and its energy was infectious. This is the essence of The Pedestrian, a new independent title developed by three-man Ohio-based Skookum Arts – that each fraction of a densely-populated metropolis plays an important role in its lifeblood… even the street signs!
|Release Date||January 29, 2019|
|Time Spent Playing||5 Hours|
In The Pedestrian, you take the role of the silhouetted man common to each of us through various street signs: rounded arms and legs, slightly disembodied head, and postured as if he were always sprinting somewhere (and in this game, he actually is). The nameless protagonist must run and jump through various street signs and schematics strewn about the city, magically transporting from one to the other through linked doors. Sound like it doesn’t make sense? It doesn’t, and that’s okay. Though we’re not used to actually seeing these signs move, the materials and environments comprising the scenery are familiar enough to somehow make it feel comfortable. The city, though unnamed, features tall buildings, dark warehouses, busy streets, and quick subways. Our hero must navigate through each of these to reach his final goal – though what that goal is remains hidden until the final moments of the game, and deserves to remain a mystery to the reader until experienced personally.
The Pedestrian is, at its core, a puzzle game over anything else. Moving through the signs and papers to retrieve boxes, keys, and electrical components takes planning and spatial awareness. Aside from controlling our blocky boy, you can also zoom out to view multiple panels at a single time, and frequently rearrange those panels in different configurations to connect doors and portals, allowing ease of travel. This is where The Pedestrian shines; it plays more like Portal than nearly any other puzzle game I’ve ever played, and is one of the only ones to perfectly nail this teleportation mechanic. Different tricks are introduced along the way, but the core gameplay remains the same. Each puzzle is expertly crafted and expands on what you’ve learned from previous stages to challenge you just enough to feel appropriate. Difficulty progression is often onerous to nail in puzzle games, but Skookum Arts has it down to a science.
Graphically, most of what is shown on screen are flat metal signs or lightly crumpled sheets of paper, with occasional trips onto digitized screens. This sounds boring and, well, 2-dimensional, but somehow these flat canvases look real and authentic in this world. This is aided by the beautifully rendered city that is your constant backdrop, with various degrees of motion, light, and environmental noise. The peripheral scenery didn’t need to be as detailed as it is, but it’s that extra ounce of polish that makes The Pedestrian truly stand out. Crates, buildings, and papers on the borders of your screen often contain signs and words that I suspect lend themselves to some greater purpose or background story, or at the very least easter eggs, though I could never connect them mentally to form a larger picture.
Where The Pedestrian falls short (though it does so only very slightly) is the ambitiousness of its creators. By nature of this type of game, the puzzles are each relatively short, though plentiful, so you really are doing the same thing throughout your entire playtime. Even many of the puzzles share a basic theme: one central sign serves as your hub, while you head into various smaller signs and areas to retrieve an item that needs to be connected into the central hub in order to progress to the next stage. Though each of the individual puzzle elements were unique and well made, the overarching structure of item retrieval wore slightly thin. Luckily, each of these macro-levels culminates in a truly wondrous ending that, though I’m not sure I understood it completely, was a very worthwhile payoff. If you start to get tired with the level design in The Pedestrian, I urge you to press on! Your diligence will be worth the effort.
Rounding out the specific big city design intended by the developers is a wonderful tracklist of background music composed by Logan Hayes and draws inspiration from classic jazz, as well as big-name composers like Danny Elfman and Jerry Goldsmith. The entire soundtrack is bright and upbeat and doesn’t so much feel like video game music as it does the natural ambient noise of busy downtown streets. “Crossing the Threshold” and the variations of “Lobby Music” are both available for listening on the composers’ Soundcloud, and are good examples of the tunes you’ll be tapping your feet to while you travel the metallic platforms.
Puzzle games like The Pedestrian are difficult to binge due to an undeniable repetitive nature of the game, and this is no different despite its overall short completion time. For much of the game you’ll be staring at black and white (or black and yellow) palettes, and a little variation in eye focus would have been nice to increase the amount of time I could play in one setting. Nevertheless, if the static foreground does not perturb you, the puzzles lead into each other nicely and completing one results in a swell in the background music that serves as a gentle sensory reward. I had mixed emotions with the game length: I wanted more of the puzzles presented to me because they were constructed that well, but I’m not sure the same format for more puzzles would have been an appropriate addition. Perhaps a sequel in a few years will come at a time when I’m ready for more, and if it doesn’t, there are so many puzzles in The Pedestrian that I’m bound to not remember the solutions to each. A replay at that juncture will be greatly enjoyed.
The Pedestrian is a rewarding puzzle game with well-made brain busters that challenge the likes of Portal. This was originally a Kickstarter campaign, so if you’ve made the initial $15 investment to back the game, you should know that your money was well-spent. If you’re looking to pick this up on Steam, $20 is an appropriate price. The only barrier to being worth much more is the overall short length of the game. In case it’s unclear, I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of The Pedestrian. 2020 has only barely started and we have SO many indies releasing in the coming months, but if any of them live up to the quality of The Pedestrian, we have a hell of a year to look forward to.