Version tested: Xbox 360
Precision platforming, devious level design, and a time control mechanism with some fascinating ramifications - it's clear within seconds that The Misadventures of P. B. Winterbottom is going to be one of those games that hurts your brain.
You won't mind at first, however, because it's simply so beautiful to take in. Its wheezing, sinister squeezebox soundtrack exists somewhere between the Nutcracker Suite and the piano music you got when films were mostly about men in top hats lashing ladies to train tracks. And its grainy, silent-era visuals call to mind Edward Gorey one minute and Dark City the next.
There's far more for even a spectator to sit back and enjoy here than you can usually count on from an XBLA game. Levels play out across misty Victorian cityscapes built from girders, water towers, and huge, skeletal clock faces. Stars twinkle sharply, Winterbottom's own animations are a restrained series of beautiful captured waddles and pompous smacks of the umbrella, and few moments are allowed to pass without the intrusion of something delightful like a mechanical claw or the juddery lapping of cardboard waves.
Like Henry Hatsworth on the DS, another busy-headed platformer with a quirky sense of priorities, this is 1890s Britain redesigned by enthusiastic anglophile Americans; even after hours of staring at the same puzzle, Winterbottom simply refuses to get old.
Even when it does start to make your brain ache, you still won't really care, because developer The Odd Gentlemen's game does such a good job of explaining itself. Winterbottom's ceaseless quest for pies is too smugly self-aware for its own good, but as motivations go it means every level has a distinct objective from the start: collect anything with a crust, no matter how impossible it seems. It also ensures that the pastry-covered delights can be, like Mario's coins, a kind of constant subtextural prompt, giving you a gentle subconscious nudge towards the solution when you need it most.
On top of that, the nursery rhyme tutorial introduces Winterbottom's smart collection of powers in the least threatening of manners. It's a one-two combo: the first beat introducing you to an idea in as simple a means as possible, the second making you realise the potential implications.
At the most basic level, then, Winterbottom can do everything a natty Victorian chap should be able to do. He can podge around levels in a sweaty wobble, leap from one chimneypot to the next with well-bred sprightliness, and either unfurl his brolly for a dreamy downward glide or use it as a gentlemanly cudgel on switches, recalcitrant machinery, or other annoyances.