What exactly is a “Tetroidvania”? That’s the question I posed to designer Bob Webb when I met with him to play Next Gen Pants' upcoming title, Refactor. This incomprehensible mash-up of Tetris and a Metroidvania was something I needed to experience first-hand to truly understand it. After playing through the first stage, I found Refactor to be a more cohesive and fascinating experience than I imagined.
Players assume the role of an imperfect, 3-squared shape who is on a conveyor belt loaded with other rejected blocks headed towards destruction. Webb says Refactor is a game about imperfect shapes trying to find a place in a world that doesn’t want them. You wouldn’t expect a world inhabited by blocks to have much personality, but the character’s WALL-E-inspired communication, as well as environmental elements like Cold War-era propaganda posters promoting perfection, establish an oppressive yet humorous atmosphere. Refactor's overall tone is evocative of Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee, a comparison Webb acknowledged as a common one.
Refactor performs as a mostly physics-based platformer. Despite the protagonist being an awkward, hard-edged shape, moving around doesn’t reflect that. Rolling along feels smoother than I expected, with momentum gained as you push forward. Jumping feels adequate and leaves a margin for error that allows for quick mid-air adjustments, an element I made ample use of to complete tricky maneuvers. It’s also possible to cling onto ledges and pull yourself up.
Early on, players encounter a second character, a single cube, who combines with the player to create proper four-squared object. In addition to bypassing sentry droids seeking out imperfect shapes, upgrades are tied to the multiple forms this duo can become. The square shape grants a downward slam used to defeat enemies or press buttons. The T-shape can grapple onto objects or foes.
While the premise is certainly different, Refractor’s true uniqueness lies in its level design. It’s a somewhat tricky concept to explain, so bear with me. Rooms are shaped like Tetris blocks and can be rotated and joined together to form various paths. Entering designated control rooms opens a simple map interface that displays every available area and is where players tinker with room arrangement. Manipulating levels is a puzzle game in itself, messing around with several configurations to find a path that works. A quick tutorial at the game’s start does a great job of explaining the mechanic in a manner that's plain and easy to grasp.
At one point, I got stuck for a good while trying to create a working path (I made it more complicated than it was), but there’s enjoyment in discovering a successful arrangement. Webb told me room manipulation won’t be a constant occurrence, which should alleviate potential frustration. Another source of relief comes in the form of a warp button that instantly sends players back to the last control room. This way, players won’t have to needlessly backtrack if they find the path they explored to be unfavorable. Warping also helps encourage regular experimentation.
No single correct answer exist in path-making. As long as your path is valid (indicated by a yellow highlight), you should be able to traverse it with your current abilities. This could have created a multitude of progression and balance issues, but several limitations keep exploration in check while remaining flexible. For example, players can only manipulate rooms they’ve already explored. Doing this allows the developers to have some control over room planning and progression, since they’ll know what a room’s orientation will be before players arrive there. Restricting level editing to the static control rooms prevents players from simply taking the room they’re currently occupying and moving it straight to their destination. You’ll always need to explore no matter how conveniently you arrange areas. Even so, Webb did state that it was still possible to sequence break the game, which could be good news for potential speedrunners.
Shifting rooms affects more than just exploration. Enemies get tossed around environments as you change them, altering their behavior to your advantage (such as disorientating drones programmed to only move left to right). I eventually gained an upgrade that put a real time camera in the map editor, allowing me to view the room as I rotated it. Seeing the occupants ricochet of the walls like toys inside of a dryer results in no small amount of amusement. This camera also helps players plan ahead and arrange levels in a way that's most advantageous to them.
Refactor's levels are filled with collectibles and secrets. Depending on how your rooms are arranged, some are easier to locate than others. You'll also encounter other characters, some of whom issue side-quests. I came across another imperfect shape who controlled access to a locked door. He wouldn't open it unless I fetched him another cube to make him a four-squared piece.
Players also find ability points used augment their powers. These points can be reassigned at any time, so players are never locked into their choices. This is key in boss battles, who can be tackled using several strategies, some better than others. If you feel a skill isn’t cutting it against a boss, just move those points towards other abilities. Upgrades are helpful, but not required. In fact, players can complete the entire game without upgrading a single ability if they choose to.
Speaking of bosses, the first level boss was a huge robotic head that defended itself using a moving buzz saw. I dodged the blades and used my ground-pounded buttons to activate elevated platforms from which to leap off of to smash the boss’s vulnerable cranium. This battle provided decent first encounter, and I'm curious to see how the other bosses pan out.
So far, Refactor is shaping up to be one of the most inventive takes on the Metroidvania I've ever seen. I was impressed at how Next Gen Pants were able to take two seemingly disjointed designs and meld them into a concept that makes more and more sense as you play. Refactor is hitting PC, Mac, and Linux as well as PlayStation 4 later this year.