Tiny Brains Hands-On Preview: Pinky and The Psionic Brain

It’s a hard life when your face permanently locks into a scowl because your friend accidentally hurled you to your death for the nth time.

It’s a good kind of scowl, though. Tiny Brains is a co-op puzzle game that hits all the right notes in terms of providing a fun multiplayer experience. You’ll yell and be fake-grumpy, but it’ll be all in good humor. After all, the fate of your psionic research critter is inextricably linked to that of your friends. Your horrible, murderous friends.

Tiny Brains puts you and up to three other players in the shoes of four newly psionic lab animals that have been used as research experiments. Each animal has a particular color and power, and the goal is to use those powers to escape the confines of the experiment and break free to the outside world. Players can create ice blocks, suck thing towards themselves, trade places with something, and push things away, depending on their choice of character. With the exception of the competitive multiplayer mode, each player only has access to a single power, necessitating careful timing and coordination in order to solve the puzzle and move forwards.

Naturally, this doesn’t exactly go to plan. Ever. Especially with four different people all trying to accomplish one goal at the same time.

It’s not frustrating, though. Tiny Brains is very easy on punishment; if you accidentally destroy an object, it simply respawns where it started. Should you kill yourself by falling into grinders, setting yourself on fire, falling out of the play area, or so on, you need only wait a short amount of time before respawning. This casual disregard for player failure is what makes Tiny Brains acceptable in all its crazy, disorganized glory. A mistake does not spell the end of your play session; it just sets you back a few seconds, tops. Once you or the object is back, it’s time to resume the puzzle.

Should you decide that you do not wish to play with other people, however, you can try Tiny Brains solo. It’s not recommended, as you won’t be able to experience the full gamut of powers as you can in co-op, but it can be done. What makes it possible is an on-the-fly level changing system, where puzzles alter themselves based on how many players are in the match and which characters they choose. It’s a clever way of addressing the fundamental problem of co-op games, as opposed to having an AI partner that isn’t particularly helpful.

In addition to the campaign, Tiny Brains also incorporates a number of arcade-like challenges to complete. These range from simple timed puzzles to procedurally-generated “go as far as you can” challenges, and each scores your team and ranks you on a leaderboard. Our group played a challenge in which you direct a ball through a rotating tube of glass floor panels, and our constant mistakes and narrow saves led to drawn breaths, yells of triumph, and cries of “No!” with each defeat. Building a co-op game is easy, but balancing it to hit those emotional highs without feeling cheap or forced is tough, and Tiny Brains manages to bring out the best of the co-op experience.

Finally, we also played an in-development competitive mode. The goal of the mode is to put a ball into the opponent’s goal. The catch is that every player can use every power, from teleport to push. As a result, matches are frenetic, complex, disjointed and thoroughly entertaining, much like the main co-op mode. Players might send the ball in the wrong direction, eliciting a cry of disappointment from their teammate. A clutch teleport might secure or prevent a clutch goal, sealing the match and leading to celebratory victory cheers. It is intense, but in a different way from other, truly competitive games. Tiny Brains is a party game first and foremost, and it wants you to feel the craziness of dealing with your friends and the fact that they may not always listen.

All of these modes are rendered in a lovely art style reminiscent of classic Warner Bros cartoons of the 1990s, such as “Animaniacs” or “Pinky and the Brain.” Characters are instantly identifiable, and environments incorporate a highly-stylized view of reality that lends itself well to the zany actions of players. The audio also is surprisingly effective, with cartoonish sound effects for the various powers and a goofy, excitable soundtrack once again reinforcing the notion that this is the sort of thing you might see waking up on Saturday morning with a bowl of cereal in front of you.

Tiny Brains may not have hit the same sort of highs and lows of other multiplayer games at PAX 2013, but it was definitely a blast. Rather than relying on careful thought and consequence, it strips the notion of punishment from cooperative play in order to create a wacky party game perfect for sitting on the couch with your friends. It’s not the kind of game that should be played online, even though you’ll be able to. There’s just something about looking over at your friend grinning at you because he pushed you to your death. Again.

Tiny Brains launches on PC and Playstation 4 in November.


Don’t miss the rest of our PAX Prime 2013 coverage all this week!

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