In a way, Entwined was the most heart-warming moment of Sony's E3 presser, though it was a calculated kind of cockle-warmer. As an unexpected reveal of an arty indie game made by a small, unknown studio - with extra brownie points for looking pretty in a crisp, angular way - it ticked all the right boxes. Firstly, it's a PR win for Sony, which shows its support for the little man by generously handing over a couple of minutes of valuable conference time; secondly, developer PixelOpus gets to show off its game to a huge global audience; and lastly, we get a new game to play right now (as opposed to in 2015, like everything else).
Not too long after I'd started playing, however, the goodwill started to ebb away. It would be fair to say that PixelOpus has been strongly inspired by thatgamecompany; nothing wrong with that, of course, but Entwined's hat-tips to Journey and Flower serve only to remind you of two far better games. Its visual style is often attractive, but not especially distinctive. It's often redolent of Rez and especially Child of Eden, yet it's sterile by comparison, lacking the punch and vibrancy of Mizuguchi's games. And most problematically of all, it's built around a single, shallow mechanic that doesn't really go anywhere.
You control two animals, an orange goldfish and a blue bird, the movement of each tied to a single thumbstick and one half of the screen. Fish gets the left side, bird's on the right, and they must be guided through coloured markers as they speed down auto-scrolling passageways.
The object is to build up a gauge for both creatures to eventually synchronise the two; you'll fill it by successfully passing through these coloured gates and by collecting the trails of orbs that lie between them. When both meters reach their limit, the pace picks up, the music gets louder and livelier and, assuming you can keep your thumbs steady enough, the two will join together, forming a green dragon which you then get to steer around an open environment, collecting further orbs to open the exit portal. Fly into the light - after a fleeting opportunity to enjoy a bout of skywriting with the coloured trails you leave behind - and you've completed a 'lifetime'. There are nine lifetimes in all, though for most players the end will be reached between one and two hours.
Entwined's brisk runtime isn't necessarily a problem - not least because there are five challenge stages to play through - but it still feels like a bit of a drag. Its tone suggests a gentle, relaxing experience, yet manoeuvring two creatures independently at speed is either stressfully fiddly or blandly boring. The coloured segments might expand and contract, or rotate as they approach; they might spiral around one side a second ahead of the other, or space their segments wider to force careful adjustments as you roll your thumbs in quarter or half-circle motions. But whichever lifetime you're playing through, you're doing almost the exact same thing in slightly different environments, from the game's twee start to its strangely abrupt finish.
It's not a punishing game, by any means. The meter of whichever creature isn't in position will take a small hit, but you can carry on, and PixelOpus seems to throw in a few easy patterns if you're struggling. With the orbs you'll collect on the way, you can muddle your way to the finish even if you never come close to mastering the game's controls. Yet the angry buzz of rumble feedback that accompanies each miss is always frustrating.
That's partly because, at times, you don't feel like the failure was really your own fault. The tutorial suggests you hold the analogue sticks against their circular housing for finer control, but in doing so you're pushing the creatures further into your peripheral vision: your eyes are naturally drawn to the centre of the screen and the encroaching shapes, and when you're forcing fish and bird to the extremes, you're close to flying blind, trusting your thumbs rather than your eyes.
What's more, there's a strange disconnect between the stage music and the tones or beats that sound when you pass through a marker. They certainly don't fit the rhythm of the current theme, and coupled with the shifting speeds and irregular patterns, uniting the two creatures never feels like a fluid, natural process. Instead, it's more like mediating between an uncooperative estranged couple. The course of true love never runs smooth, of course, and that also applies to the unions between these two: there's a significant hiccup during the transition to their dragon form, and a similarly noticeable stutter should you break their ties as their gauges get closer to merging.
There are moments when Entwined threatens to become something special. As I raced across the abstract urban environment of the second stage, the streaks of colour below reminded me of the time-lapse footage in Koyanisqaatsi, while soon after a tunnel of glittering lights briefly made me feel as if I was flying through Coruscant. And while the dragon sequences are spoiled by controls that never quite capture the thrill of flight - not to mention invisible walls - there's something wonderfully calming about gliding over a still lake, or weaving between glaciers beneath the aurora borealis. As I accelerated through a cave and emerged to a late-afternoon sun casting its rays against tall spars of rock, I caught myself muttering "that's lovely".
But a small handful of highlights is not enough to save Entwined. It's a game that strains for profundity and meaning - that's particularly evident in its Trophy titles - but finds them ever beyond its grasp. Some will be soothed by its contemplative mood, others will relish the challenge of mastering those devious patterns, but to me the two felt like an awkward mismatch. Sony might have given Entwined a gentle shove into the spotlight, but there are surely better, more deserving PS4 indies waiting in the wings for their time to shine.
4 / 10