The premise is magical. The screen is a yellowed, unfolded piece of paper, and your mouse cursor is a crayon. What you draw on the paper comes to life. Draw a circle and it will roll down a slope. Draw a line between two points and it becomes string. Attach a hurriedly drawn square to one end, and something you want to lift to the other, and you've made a primitive rope and pulley system. Draw a box with two wheels and there's a little vehicle. The miracle of Crayon Physics Deluxe is that all this works. Like some kind of amazing wizard, you get to draw objects and then immediately see them animated in front of you. What a treat.
This device is made game through a series of levels in which a crude red circle must reach the screen's yellow star or stars. Your direct interaction with the red circle is limited to nudging it left or right with mouse clicks, so your means of moving it are much more about magicking objects into existence. For instance, to reach a higher platform you might trap the ball inside a box, attach that box to a length of string that runs over a tower you've drawn, and then weight it on the other side. The weight tugs the ball up to where you want it, and then a quick right-click of the box makes it disappear and the ball drop.
Or perhaps you could create a catapult. Just a simple single-line drawing of a plough-like shape, with a bucket drawn around the ball and a long line stretching over your triangular pivot, will do the trick. Then draw a big boulder above the far end of the catapult and watch it propel the ball into the air. Or your solution might be to create a lunatic series of strings and pulleys, levers, falling objects, buckets and barriers, resembling the childhood scribblings of Rube Goldberg.
Much has changed since the version that won the Seamus McNally Grand Prize at the 2008 Independent Games Festival. What was formerly a collection of about 30 challenges from a simple menu are now part of a much more realised game. The game's 80 or so levels are arranged in a series of islands, navigated by a child-like drawing of a boat. Collecting enough stars opens later islands, with most levels completed in your chosen order. There's also a lot more you can draw and create. As mentioned, string now works, and there are no limitations on the obscure shapes it can animate, meaning you can add useful notches onto your rectangles, and so on.
In some ways, CPD isn't that original. Since 1993's The Incredible Machine, creating Rube Goldberg/Heath Robinson devices in games has been fairly commonplace. However, previous games gave you a limited set of tools with which to achieve set goals. You'd then have to be inventive within those restrictions, often taking the long way around and having your imagination challenged in the process. Having broken free of these restrictions, the infinite resource of CPD's crayon means the limitations have to be in structures put in place at the start of each level, and it's proved very tricky for that to be enough. You could breeze through the vast majority using the same tricks over and over.
But the key word here is "could". CPD presents something of a problem. It can be a fantastically fun and challenging game, but often only if you choose to ignore the obvious route to the finish. One level on the penultimate island clearly wants you to create a weight and pulley system around a floating cloud, but it's impossible not to notice you can literally draw one straight line and complete the level. Years of gaming conditioning tell you to do just that, and expecting players to take the scenic route to a star is a problem in the level design. Success is ludicrously rewarding if you steel yourself to do something a particular way, but you'll know you could always have used the old box, rope and weight trick in a fraction of the time.
The final island's collection of 19 levels, however, sees the difficulty ramp up at last. Here are some properly challenging tasks that will have you stumped for a bit, and far more likely to experiment. Someone might point out a far simpler solution, of course, but you'll be much more satisfied with your inelegant and convoluted route. It's hard not to wish this wasn't the difficulty level throughout.
Quite a few levels raise a laugh at first sight. A number contain extremely frightening stickmen, who wobble in a peculiarly unnerving fashion, obeying the physics that rule the rest of the game. It can be a lot of fun disposing of these figures, tying weights to them and seeing them fall off the edge of the world. Or you could use them to solve the level in more imaginative ways. In one level your ball begins in a man's belly, requiring the opening of his flip-top head to progress. If only this sort of theme had been more fully explored, rather than a series of 'ball one side of obstacles, star the other' levels, CPD could have reached greatness.
And it still might. It comes with a level editor, which lets you create levels in a manner in keeping with the rest of the game. You draw them using the crayons, with a collection of tools letting you pin permanent objects in place, add in rope and rockets (which are fired by dropping objects on them, and used for a few puzzles in the main game), and use the more advanced tricks like applying force to objects in your level. You can jump in and out of it as a playable level for tweaking, and then a simple in-game option lets you name it, describe it, and upload it to the game's site.
These appear in the "Playground" section, which at the time of writing only shows the most recent uploads (hopefully by the time the game is out on 7th January this will be archiving levels correctly). Then they can be downloaded as a PNG and played through the level editor. It would be much nicer if downloaded levels could be grouped together and played without having to go through the editor, so we hope to see that in a future update, but in the meantime there's an endless amount of challenges to approach once the main game is over, and hopefully as time goes on the best and most difficult will also be bundled.
That's just potential, but Crayon Physics Deluxe is still well worth the USD 20 for the adorable fun it offers right now. Having your drawings come to life is just wonderful, and when you choose to do something inventive and imaginative, you'll have a fantastic time. If only the level design forced this kind of innovation on the player, it would have been even better.
7 / 10