Few games today are as beloved as Portal. Somewhat unceremoniously bundled in The Orange Box, which included a variety of Valve titles, Portal‘s release in 2007 completely reinvigorated the puzzle genre, adding fluid platforming to thoughtful puzzle solving and garnering a mainstream appeal with its outstanding writing. Despite the title’s overwhelming popularity, which did result in a more fleshed-out sequel in 2011, Valve has done nothing with the franchise in years, leaving other developers to fill the Portal-shaped hole in my heart. Galaxy Shark Studios, a development team comprised of 14 university students, satisfies that craving with Gravitas. A first-person puzzle-platformer with loads of polish and style, Gravitas is a delightfully short-but-sweet entry into the genre.
The game opens with the player’s shuttle crashing into a space station. The ship is home to The Gallery of Refined Gravity, or G.O.R.G., an art installation of floating cubes and deadly lasers. The charming robot Curator is all too keen to show the protagonist around, paying no heed to ship AI’s warnings to evacuate. With time running out, the player must appreciate the Curator’s platforming-based art at a tremendous pace before the ship falls apart around them.
The art exhibits are explored with the aid of the A.A.E.A. Glove (pronounced like a scream), which allows the player to generate a gravity field. The field will swap gravity for any objects caught within, pulling cubes or the player towards the generation point. The field can only be created on certain surfaces, so pulling objects to the correct location is a game of starting and stopping gravity at the correct moment for things to fall into place. The controls are intuitive, and each exhibit uses the gravity-manipulating abilities in a different way. One will have the player climbing a great tower, another dropping blocks into a stream, another swinging a cube on a rope as a wrecking ball to smash glass.
The difficulty of each exhibit generally ramps up evenly, with the Curator hovering nearby to gently remind the player to bring a cube or warn about lasers if need be. The exception, I found, was the very final level, which had me completely stumped. Gravitas is a short game, averaging about 30 minutes to an hour of gameplay. I reached the final level in about 45 minutes, and spent another 45 trying to solve it, before giving up and looking up the solution on YouTube. What I saw was so convoluted, I am not entirely sure if that player got the correct answer either.
The problems with this level are threefold—the Curator has forgotten about this room, so can offer no hints like he does in the other exhibits; the room lacks the quick reset button most others feature, so trying different approaches is a chore; and the solution requires stacking cubes, which is tricky with the bounciness of the physics. The cubes have rounded edges, and as a result are quite happy to balance on an edge rather than sitting flat. The player can only manipulate the cubes with the gravity fields, so straightening them up is an ordeal. If the player could perhaps nudge the cubes a touch, or if they could snap together like Lego, this room would not be so frustrating. The rest of the game is not insanely difficult, however, so perhaps I was just no longer in the zone and other players will have less trouble.
Just as much effort has been put into the presentation of Gravitas as the puzzles themselves. The gallery has a futuristic appearance, shiny white surfaces with glowing blue accents. Each puzzle component is easily identifiable: the gravity compatible walls are distinct from regular ones, and cubes are colour-coded for their functions. The voice work is fantastic, bringing the neurotic Curator and the cheerful ship A.I. Shi to life. Even more impressive is the fact that neither of the voice actors specialise in the field: Alex Shilts, who voices the Curator, is also the lead writer and a level designer for Gravitas; and Taylor Pate, who voices Shi, is also a visual artist on the game.
Much like the other elements of the game, the writing of Gravitas is evocative of Portal, but different enough to be its own thing. The Curator and Shi have a great rapport, and the tone is generally more light-hearted than Glados’s machinations. I liked how extra dialogue was included for the player idling, and the controls were explained well without dropping the humorous tone.
Unlike a lot of other free games, the player is given a great deal of control over the settings, with controller support, six languages, ultra-wide resolutions, and a whole bunch of graphics options on offer. Little touches like these are appreciated, and add a broader appeal to the game.
Gravitas is the Portal follow-up we have all been waiting for. The puzzles are clever but (mostly) not too frustrating, and the charming characters of the Curator and Shi kept me engaged throughout. Whatever the talented developers at Galaxy Shark Studio attempt next, I am sure it will be something special.