Josh, our protagonist, is a teenage boy that toils with social anxiety disorder. Beneath Sym’s monochrome exterior lies a metaphorical take on his perception of reality, and Atrax Games’ puzzle platformer does a decent job of exploring the subject in a subtle and interesting way.
Developer: Atrax Games
Reviewed on: PC (Steam review code provided)
The game world can be aptly surreal and bleak. Presented in a black and white hand-sketched fashion, you’ll be able to sink and rise between the dark and light squares; the first signifying Josh’s perception of reality and the latter being the world he’s created mentally to deal with his fears. Because each level clearly conveys a particular theme and symbolic enemies such as spinning blades and scampering beasties, Sym does an excellent job of using its simplicity to bring the subject matter centre stage without it being bogged down in too many unnecessary distractions.
The main task is to reach the door at the end of the level, switching between the contrasting states to avoid anything that might kill you or prevent you from progressing. Jumping is as infuriating and as clumsy as you might expect with difficulty levels spiking out of nowhere, only to subside again once you’ve passed the troublesome area. Sometimes routes will open up, too, that demand some planning before trying to pass. The game’s satisfaction comes from these more strategic elements rather than the platforming itself, which tends to end in relief more than actual enjoyment. Anyone who’s played these types of games will know how subjective those moments can be in this particular genre, so it’s not something I’d hold against Sym despite the slight lack of finesse in movement.
Whilst the presentation serves its purpose well, it’s not particularly inspiring to look at. The mix of writing, blocked platforms and sketched enemies does make the visuals feel a little sporadic – the pin shapes that signify disappearing ledges can also be dotted around a level for seemingly no reason at all which does add some clutter that doesn’t really help. As a result it took a little while for me to gauge certain aspects of the gameplay such as places paths might appear and where I was (or wasn’t) meant to go.
In truth, there’s not a great deal wrong With Sym. The platforming is what the genre expects it to be and nothing more, whilst the ideas and theme tie in well with the level designs without throwing it in your face too much. The text displayed randomly on screen depicting Josh’s thoughts is probably one of the few times the game tries a little too hard to create atmosphere that could be manifested in other ways. So if anything Sym’s failure lies in what it could have done, rather that what it did. Potential to integrate those themes into actual gameplay mechanics more than they have seems like a missed opportunity, whilst a more fleshed out narrative could have elevated Sym to the ‘leaves a mark on you’ game that it’s trying so desperately to be.
That said, it’s comforting to see an indie title with a slightly different approach amidst a whole host of similarly veined genre releases. The platforming itself offers little in the way of groundbreaking mechanics or originality, and even with a level editor included longevity might be an issue. However, guiding Josh through his contrasting mind of self doubt and inner defences certainly has some strong moments. If nothing else, Sym succeeds where a lot fail; it feels like a tough journey worth exploring, a light at the end of a platforming tunnel that’s actually worth striving for.