Gravity Glove’s potential squandered on box-stacking
Traverser looks beautiful, but it’s not nearly as fun to play as it is to look at.
Sometimes—not often, but sometimes—I play a small indie game and I think “I’d love to see what this team could’ve done with a larger budget.” Traverser is one of those games. Traverser is a game I want to make excuses for.
It is not a great game—but I wish it were. It’s a game where I’m stuck on “It’s not very good, but…” and after that come rationalizations. “…But the setting has such promise.” “…But it’s sort of like one long Half-Life 2 Gravity Gun level!”
Oh, and the most important of all: “…But the graphics are beautiful.”
A tale of two cities
As far as genre, Traverser fits somewhere in the larger sphere of “Puzzle games that are sort of like Portal.” There are no portals in Traverser, and the game is played from an isometric camera instead of first-person, but there’s unmistakably some shared DNA.
You’re Valerie, a girl who lives in Brimstone—a city under the Earth’s surface. The sun died out somehow, forcing the last remnants of humanity to build this oddly-Victorian-era city closer to the planet’s core. The problem? It’s sort of hard to breathe underground. And one large corporation, known as Raven Corp, controls all the air. And all the city’s guards. And everything, basically.
Valerie is training to be the titular Traverser, a guard with a nifty Gravity Glove that can travel between the upper and lower parts of Brimstone—names which, aside from actually being the “upper” and “lower” halves of the city, also correspond to the class disparity between the two sections. The lower city is so toxic that inhabitants have to wear gas masks at all hours or suffocate. People in lower Brimstone are understandably not happy about this, and are rebelling against Raven Corp.
If you feel like you know where the story’s headed, well, you probably do. Traverser’s story is not only familiar, but rather predictable. And full of plot holes—for instance, the fact that apparently it’s a great honor to become a Traverser, but Raven Corp guards you encounter don’t bother to use their own Gravity Glove. Or the fact you’re “undercover” in lower Brimstone, yet you’re a teenage girl with a massive Gravity Glove strapped to her arm.
Logic aside, the Gravity Glove itself seems like it should be fodder for some great moments. And early on, it is. Tossing trash over the side of the floating city or painting a house by picking up balls of paint is extremely reminiscent of the first few hours I spent in Half-Life 2 picking up trash and flinging it around for no reason.
The problem is that, just like Half-Life 2, the Gravity Glove is mostly used for the same ol’ generic puzzles. There are dozens of objects you can pick up and whip around in Traverser—cans, barrels, chairs, tables, robot birds, et cetera—but you’ll mostly use it to…move boxes. Sometimes you will put boxes on switches. Sometimes you will put boxes in water. Sometimes you will stack boxes to reach an area you couldn’t reach before.
What’s frustrating about Traverser is you’re constantly aware it could be better. The Gravity Glove isn’t exactly unique, but it’s unique from this third-person, isometric perspective. And some of the puzzles are great! The aforementioned house-painting puzzle, for instance, is wonderfully unique. I spent probably ten minutes just flinging paint at the wall trying to make interesting designs. There’s also a clever puzzle involving pipes—especially if you’re aiming to get the corresponding achievement.
But then it’s back to stacking boxes. Busywork. Or suffering through interminable boss battles.
The boss battles are a particularly low point in Traverser. I wanted to like them because at least they give you something to do with the Gravity Glove besides “put objects on other objects.” However, I kept getting more and more frustrated due to a combination of some iffy hitboxing and terrible checkpoints. Get killed? Start the boss battle over. Even if the boss battle is four stages long and incredibly repetitive.
And the checkpoints are a problem throughout the game. They don’t happen nearly often enough, and everything (including collectibles) resets when you die. Considering the game takes place in a floating city—i.e. one where you’re liable to fall off—it’s frustrating to get booted back to the beginning of an area just because you didn’t progress far enough to trigger the next checkpoint. And doubly frustrating when you have to regather six different collectibles on the way back to where you died.
It really is a shame though. Even now, I feel sort of bad complaining about Traverser because it has so much potential. The story is bog standard rebellion type stuff, filled with more tropes than you can believe. However, the setting is incredibly creative—I would’ve loved to see the dual-city idea play into the game more, as well as the apparent lack of oxygen. It’s referenced a bunch, but it doesn’t really affect you in any way.
And the graphics. Oh wow, the graphics. As if it hasn’t been proven enough, Traverser rams home again how a distinctive and attractive aesthetic trumps photorealistic graphics every single time. The exaggerated, almost German Expressionist look of Traverser is easily its greatest asset.
It’s not enough though. Traverser is also proof that all the pretty graphics in the world can’t make up for staid mechanics. I want to love Traverser. Taken piecemeal, I do love Traverser. But it’s not enough to have great ideas—you need to execute on them too. And Traverser doesn’t quite nail the execution.
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Hayden writes about games for PCWorld and doubles as the resident Zork enthusiast.