I often find myself disappointed by the relative lack of creativity in games. More often than not, I've noticed that my all-time favourites are those that fully embrace a unique style and capitalise on that with verve. From that perspective, Metrico is a triumph.
Dutch developer Digital Dreams' action puzzler confidently carries a distinct minimalism, commentary on the contrivances of modernity, all wrapped up with clever use of the PS Vita hardware. While sometimes it doesn't quite work because - of all things - issues with the Vita, it's still an exceptional, invigoratingly innovative effort.
You begin with a silhouette of your avatar on a pure white background, and with minimal instruction. Move forward and you'll begin to build the world, as bar charts and graphs appear in response to your actions, each of them marked by percentages, fractions, and coordinates. A bar graph that responds to your characters' jumps could scale with your height above the ground, grow with each leap or only change if your move horizontally as well as vertically. Each piece of every room you enter will react to your actions in different ways. With the environment constantly changing and shifting to match your inputs, careful observation becomes vital.
Metrico encourages play and experimentation to understand how this world shifts over time. It requires a fresh mind and a new approach with each and every puzzle. You will never be asked to do something the game hasn't explained, or at least hinted at, but you will be asked to string together actions in strange patterns that follow new rules. As you progress, Metrico layers this feedback with substantially more complicated abilities as well as new twists on old ones. In that sense it provides some of the best progression since Portal. Metrico gives you the tools you need to conquer new problems and challenges, but asks that you step outside of your regular, every-day perspective to solve them properly. They're more like multi-dimensional interactive riddles than anything else.
The Vita's offbeat feature set helps. Just about every function of the handheld is utilised at some point. Some puzzles even require you to focus the Vita's camera on objects with certain colour profiles. For one set of rooms, I used a green bowl, my friends' blue shirt, and my own skin to get different concentrations of the colours I needed. Metrico does all this without pulling you out of the game world - you don't actually see what's in the frame of the camera, instead you'll have a circle of white and the primary colours that change size relative to one another. I was completely blown away by this perfect balance between real-world interaction and playing with the game. It sounds simple, but the implementation is so fresh that it was impossible for me to not immediately fall in love.
Unfortunately, not all of Metrico's ideas work quite as well. A bit into the game you gain the ability to "shoot". At first you can only fire in straight lines, but a few rooms later you can begin using the Vita's back touchpad to aim your shots. While the rear touchpad has been maligned quite often before, I don't think I've ever been more frustrated with its implementation. Some puzzles require some careful aiming, and the effect of the otherwise stunning ludic beauty is lost when you fail repeatedly because of a technological problem.
The Vita's accelerometer proves similarly frustrating. Sometimes it works spectacularly well and creates a magical feeling of perfect flow as you move through an area, but others had me turning the Vita upside down and trying to hit buttons with my toes. Whatever the intention may have been, it's frustrating enough to send you storming away from the game for a few hours - but Metrico's style and charm ultimately brought me right back and held me until the end.
In those final stages, as I was switching the Vita around to get the right balance of colour, I started to think about how this is the first game I've played in a long time that ties me to the real world. So many games strive to achieve a sense of distance and escapism. They pull you into their crafted, storied world and you walk with them, for a time, learning about something or someone new. Metrico definitively isn't that. It doesn't even pretend to be. What it does is bring me an abstracted version of reality. Much like the infographics that form the core of its design, Metrico repeatedly links what you do and the numbers that cross your screen. It wants you to occasionally take a step backwards and realise how those figures got there and the fact that even the best representations are just that.
Metrico works because its visuals are so closely tied with how the game is played. Without a clear system to give players feedback on whether their inputs are constructive or destructive, Metrico's emphasis on perpetually shifting rule sets and experimentation just wouldn't work. Instead, all of the game's ideas respond to each other much like its own delightful infographics, creating a short and beautiful puzzler that feels like a wholly self-contained piece.