There’s a lot to like about Polarity, a stylish first-person puzzler in the vein of Valve’s hit PC and console series Portal. But for all its cool atmosphere, excellent level design, vibrant neon visuals, and fiendish puzzling, it is let down time and again by sub-par touch controls that make you wish you were on a PC.
Your job is to hack into a high-security bank, stealing data fragments for your unscrupulous clients. You do this by exploring the large 3D levels, looking for both three green fragments and a way out. Leaving is seldom simple, though, and you have to figure out the path to safety for yourself.
Most puzzles involve changing your polarity to negotiate forcefields.
Red and blue cubes are more often than not the key. You need to find and dock them at their correspondingly colored stations to enable or disable forcefields, moving platforms, and jump pads that propel you across the room. This usually must be done in a specific order that isn’t necessarily clear from the outset, although experienced players may find it simple enough to guess.
The whole thing has a major Portal vibe, right down to the use of cubes that you need to collect and throw/drop in the puzzle-solving process, but Polarity never comes close to meeting the brilliance of its forebear. It’s more opaque, for starters — Portal showed you precisely where you needed to go and hinted subtly at how to get there, while Polarity does nothing of the kind.
Polarity also lacks Portal’s storytelling chops. There is absolutely a hint of a story, but it plays out more like a loose collection of levels around a theme than anything with actual plot development or abstract messages to unravel. The levels are fantastic as standalone first-person puzzles, granted, but there’s so much potential left untouched in the high-security hacking premise.
The setup teases out a story that the game fails to carry forward with any significance.
Fighting for Control
Even with these caveats, Polarity would be a stunning experience — if not for its poor and unresponsive controls. A virtual joystick near the bottom left corner of the screen handles movement forward/backward and sideways, while dragging your finger around anywhere on the right side of the screen looks around.
I turned the sensitivity for both of these up to high and still was frustrated at how slowly my character changed direction and turned. If you’re used to being able to spin around 180 degrees or more in one quick flick, Polarity will drive you crazy. Turning around routinely takes two to four swipes across the screen, and you’re likely to accidentally touch the jump or action buttons —which are located in awful central positions — in the process.
There’s also a button to switch your polarity between red and blue — a major concept here, which allows you to pass through forcefields of the same color and walk across platforms of the other. That, too, is awkwardly placed (at least it is when playing on a Nexus 7).
Blue and red boxes — Polarity’s answer to companion cubes.
Tapping one of these buttons while turning or moving is comically destined to failure at worst and merely uncomfortable at best, depending on your dexterity and the degree of precision required. And don’t even try spinning around in the air — it’s not going to happen.
If it feels like we’re getting bogged down in describing these control woes, that’s because they really spoil an otherwise stellar package. Polarity has other rough edges, sure, but it’s excellent across the board — with great music and visuals, strong level design, mind-bending puzzles, a cool premise, and enough variety to keep it fresh from beginning to end.
It would be unfair to expect an experience on par with Portal, but — to borrow a cooking analogy — Polarity needed more time in the oven to crisp and brown, and it was served up with the wrong utensils. Presentation is about more than just sound and visuals.