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ElecHead review - a more than clever platformer

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ElecHead is an ingenious, compact, and elegant puzzle-platformer of wordless brilliance.

Games are good these days aren't they? What a nice state of affairs. Sadly, it means that if I was to say that ElecHead is a supremely smart platforming puzzle game, you might be a little underwhelmed. Games are so good these days! You probably have hundreds of supremely smart platforming puzzle games you can pick from. Many, like ElecHead, will use a simple idea explored in a range of ingenious ways. Many, like ElecHead, will come from teams of one or two people toiling brilliantly on projects they're passionate about. So what makes ElecHead truly special? I feel that it is, but I can't yet put it into words. Let's talk about it and see what happens.

In ElecHead, you play a dinky little robot whose head carries an electrical charge. Stand on a metal platform and the platform shares your charge. This means in visual terms that it lights up a certain colour, and so does everything else connected to it - nice and clear, no misreading the situation. In mechanical terms, it means that anything connected to that platform requiring electricity starts to work: platforms start to move, blocks that are ghosted out suddenly pop back to life, machinery starts to do its machinery thing. As long as you're connected to the platform, it will run.

A quick look at what ElecHead's all about.Watch on YouTube

And it means if you jump, say, the stuff you were powering will cease to work as long as you're in the air and not in contact with the platform. So those ghost blocks that popped into life will disappear. Those moving platforms might retreat to their original positions. Deadly energy fields you triggered will no longer be deadly. Good and bad news, really: possibilities.

Navigating a handful of puzzles based on this idea and this idea alone will keep you busy for the first few minutes of ElecHead. You move between rooms, all picked out in chunky 2D pixel-art, and each room will have a clever puzzle for you to solve. How to get over this block? How to get past these energy beams when you need to stand on the platforms that trigger them? How to get that promising platform from the far side of the room where you can't use it, to this side of the room where it would be really helpful?

Even here, in these first moments, a lot of what makes ElecHead so satisfying is already in play. You could call it the Sherlock Holmes principle. You know how everything works, because the electrical rules of the game are so simple. You know what you can do, and you know what you can't do. When faced with a task, rule out all the things you can't do and whatever remains must contain the solution. ElecHead is ingenious, but also compact. It guides you, prompts you to be at your cleverest.

"This is where the game gets great: the practical thrift of it all, the simple solutions that you have to work for and then: ta-da!"

But brilliantly things don't stay this simple for long. Pretty soon, you discover that you can detach your head and chuck it. And your head is the part of you that carries the charge. So you can separate your body from the charge, and that opens a whole new suite of possibilities - particularly since the range in which you can chuck your head is limited and clearly marked. (Fail to reconnect with your head in ten seconds, incidentally, and you explode.) Again, you have total information, but new possibilities. And the game starts to twist its elements in clever, but very easy to understand ways.

This is where the game gets great, I think: the practical thrift of it all, the simple solutions that you have to work for and then: ta-da! That little hum of smugness that you figured something out by yourself.

All of ElecHead's menus are completely wordless.

And it turns out that everything can be part of a puzzle. So: checkpoints reset the puzzle if you've got stuck - but maybe resetting a puzzle at a specific point by triggering the checkpoint will be the trick that solves everything? Then there are the rooms, which connect in such a pleasing way and give the individual puzzles a sense of context and continuity. Maybe, like a good Zelda dungeon, ElecHead will play with puzzles that involve multiple rooms? Maybe you need to think about what lies outside of the current screen? Maybe the electrical circuits you're triggering are more complex than you had suspected?

This is what I suspect makes ElecHead a proper keeper for me - in connecting the rooms in playful ways, in encouraging you, now and then, to think of the ways that the clear rules of the game work across several connected spaces at once - it moves from being a puzzle game to a puzzle game that is also a place, a sort of playful mechanism with its own secrets, its own subtle prompts to look for a deeper story. ElecHead is supremely clever, then, but it's also always more than just clever. It's fantastic, basically.

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