Few video game titles are as misleading as English Country Tune. It's not a music game, doesn't contain anything even remotely close to a country song (English or otherwise), nor is there any narrative to provide context. Instead, the first commercial release by prolific indie powerhouse Stephen "Increpare" Lavelle is a fiendishly difficult spatial puzzler that switches up its mechanics at a dizzying rate, making it nearly a dozen puzzle games in one.
Initially, you control a flat panel flipping over tiles in an effort to push spheres called "larva" into incubators. Trouble is, their gravitational pull is relative to the angle at which you knock them. Positioning larva in the right place with the correct trajectory is easier said than done and the challenge ramps up significantly by the second set of levels.
Once you've gotten the hang of that, it's on to new objectives, pushing cubes called "whales" off the edge of the map. Whales cannot be moved directly and instead emit beams of light from their six surfaces, which must be pushed to move their source. Next up are "garden" stages, where your goal is to plant cubes of grass upon soil by covering every tile without retracing your steps. Before long you'll be doing all of these in 3D, then asked to combine multiple mechanics in the same stage.
New ideas don't stop there. Even late in the game you're being introduced to fresh concepts like shearing bits off your panel to match particular shapes, or flipping around in paint to draw a portrait of your avatar. In perhaps the game's most perplexing stage, your role shifts to that of a designer, tasked with creating a level that meets a certain criteria, then solving it. I like to think I'm pretty good at puzzle games, having conquered Braid, Limbo and both Portals without any help, but these were no match for English Country Tune's "half-sided" world.
Though English Country Tune is bursting with inspiration, strict requirements can prevent players from seeing much of what it has to offer. At any given time there are two new worlds accessible, and unless you solve every puzzle in one, more will not unlock. It's not uncommon to only have two or three stages available at any given time. Wrack your brain too hard on these and it can be tempting to give up on the game altogether. This would be a shame, as some of the best levels aren't until later, so an option to skip puzzles would have been greatly appreciated.
Elsewhere, English Country Tune's presentation is spartan compared to ilomilo's twee aesthetic or Puzzle Dimension's bright colours, but there's a cool efficiency to its sterile look. Despite the peculiar lack of any English country tunes, the haunting ambient soundtrack adds flavour without being intrusive enough to drive you bananas when deep in concentration.
Where ilomilo felt like it was created by rosy-cheeked elves beckoning you to snuggle up to it with a warm blanket and hot cup of cocoa, English Country Tune is more akin to Futurama's smarmy Professor Wernstrom. Rather than being off-putting, its priggish demeanor motivates you to rise to the occasion and show it up. As creative as it is maddening, English Country Tune is an acquired taste. Many will bemoan its grueling difficulty and oblique nature, but those with great resolve will be rewarded with an extraordinarily inventive entry in the puzzle genre.
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