Identity Crisis

TurnOn

HIGH Uniting the dopey lovers at the café.

LOW The runner level with the Ferris wheel.

WTF This skyscraper sure has a lot of exposed external wiring on it, huh.


TurnOn is a platformer that pretty quickly becomes two versions of itself. In one, it’s a relaxing game about thoroughly exploring levels to light every last streetlamp. In the other, it’s a twitch platformer in the runner vein that’s unforgiving of missed jumps and failed dodges. Unfortunately, TurnOn becomes a game for nobody, because it never commits to one of these identities.

TurnOn tries to put a twist on platforming by making the main character a sentient ball of electricity that travels along wires. That might conjure images of a spark snappily “zapping” between platforms, but that’s not what happens. The idea of electricity is a purely aesthetic twist on standard, if somewhat floaty, 2D platforming. The most interesting aspect of the gameplay is the spark’s ability to move seamlessly between objects in the foreground and background, a trick that’s used in many of the levels.

One thing that does set TurnOn apart is a general absence of enemies. The fundamental goal of each level is to explore and find different things the little spark can turn on. Lights and streetlamps abound, but the spark can also turn on signs and activate fuse boxes that light up whole buildings. The score at the end of each level generally reflects the player’s success in finding these action items in the level. Little collectible blue lightning bolts also drive exploration.

Aside from the broad appeal of exploration, most of TurnOn’s individual levels tell a cute little story of the spark trying to help people. These range from freeing people from a shopping center, to scaring off bullies, to helping a pair of lovers meet at their favorite café. The off-kilter graphics, cute animations, and music work well to sell a sense of comic threat and silly celebration as the spark puts the city back in order.

The game has some rough spots. The camera has a tendency to draw in too close, blocking off the player’s view of the vertical or horizontal direction she should move next. It can also be a little difficult to judge jumps, particularly ones that transition between the foreground and background. However, TurnOn is mostly designed so that this doesn’t matter. Missing a jump has no real penalty except getting bumped back to a nearby save point, so there’s no reason not to experiment with jumping to new places.

If that were everything to say, I would happily end this review recommending TurnOn as an ideal version of a relaxing, exploratory platformer. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way somebody seems to have decided that this game also needed challenge segments. Worse, they actually acted on that idea.

The main problem takes the form of ‘runner’ levels set on stacks of three or four transmission wires. The spark can only traverse certain highlighted areas of the wires and can fall to its death, again getting knocked back to a checkpoint. The wires also have special lightning bolts on them: red ones reduce the spark’s health and green ones restore it. Losing all health means restarting the entire level.

In these runner levels the spark moves forward constantly, turning them into twitch platforming challenges completely unlike the rest of the game. Worse, the spark’s pace changes without warning. Combining this with the floaty, imprecise platforming and the camera’s tendency to cut off forward vision by zooming in too close means that these levels can get pretty hard. They’re not intrinsically bad and a game built around their ideas could be interesting, but these levels don’t fit with the bulk of the game around them, and there’s no way to skip them.

Things also take another turn for the worse near the end of TurnOn, with a timed movement level that works against the exploratory values the rest of the game embodies, and a genuinely terrible “boss fight” against a helicopter. The difficulty and pressure of these levels just doesn’t connect with the rest of the content. The developers have been trying to address this incongruity with patches, but as of 1.0.0.8, the fixes haven’t gone far enough.

This leaves TurnOn in a tough spot. More than 90% of the game is a high-quality, quirky, relaxing exploratory platformer. Unfortunately, that game is broken up and gated off by runner levels that add a disconnected (and possibly fatal) element of challenge, so I can’t recommend it for that strength. I can’t recommend it for the challenge, either, because anyone who comes to TurnOn just for the difficult bits will be bored to tears by the other 90%. As two separate games these individual elements could have sung. As a single work, they thud. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game is developed by Brainy Studios LLC and self-published. It is currently available on XBox One, PC, and Mac.This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on a home-built Windows 10 PC equipped with an Intel i7 processor, 8 GB RAM, and a single Radeon R9 270X graphics card. Approximately 4 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E and contains mild fantasy violence and use of tobacco. Some storefronts record the rating as E10, but ESRB reports it as E. Either way, this seems like an ambitious read of objectionable content. There are a few scenes of rioters running around and dogs growling but no real player-controlled violence. This game should be fine for everyone, but its runner levels may prove frustrating for young players.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The game has no dialogue so that should be fine. Changes in pace in the runner levels are signaled by changes in tempo of the music; aside from this no significant sound cues are in the game.

Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable on PC.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options. It’s necessary in several places to make rapid and accurate distinctions between red and green lightning bolts. This may be an absolute barrier to progress.

Sparky Clarkson

Sparky Clarkson

Sparky Clarkson grew up in the hot lands of Alabama, where he was regularly mooned by a cast iron statue. He played his first games on a Texas Instruments 99/4A computer, although he was not an early adopter. He eventually left Alpiner behind, cultivating a love of games that grew along with the processing power of the home computer. Eventually, however, the PC upgrade cycle exhausted him, and by the time he received his doctorate from the University of North Carolina he had retreated almost entirely to console gaming.

Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.
Sparky Clarkson

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