Baba Is You
Baba is game. Mechanics are modifiable. Game is fun and challenging.
Ok, enough of that nonsense, I’m not keeping that up for an entire review! Baba Is You is a good old-fashioned puzzle game which, on the face of it, looks like a rather bedraggled scruff of a thing someone pulled out from the back of their C64. In fact, the quality of the underlying game despite its rudimentary graphics and minimalist presentation is a big strength in my book: a demonstration that, yes, although gaming has advanced enormously in the last <pick any period of time>, that doesn’t mean we got the most out of each period that we could have. Game devs should be revisiting the past, mining long-forgotten genres for sought-after gems. Such as this one.
Baba Is You is probably the slowest game I’ve ever played. You might even consider it belonging to an obscure ‘slow gaming’ genre, although many strategy and puzzle titles would also fit that description. Something about Baba Is You seems to demand the slowest of play, though, and that’s very much a good thing.
The game is turn-based (another reason it could probably be ported to any old bit of hardware lying around) which adds to its overall air of cerebral superiority; this is a game that isn’t afraid to challenge your brain in ways your brain didn’t know were possible.
How slow is it? You can ‘play’ Baba Is You and spend more time with your hands off the controller than on it. Sit back, give your fingers a rest, and exercise your brain muscle: that’s a totally legitimate way to play, and possibly the most effective. You could almost play from just a screenshot. Half the time, any move seems wrong anyway, so why bother moving at all!
Well, you bother because you must — trial and error really is the way forward here — and you can — Baba Is You lets you rewind and undo your entire stack of moves, right back to the beginning if necessary. It’s essentially infinite undo. And it helps enormously here — without it, individual levels would be way too much of a chore. Being able to try things out, observe the reaction, then go back and do something different is an essential gameplay loop which it would be unthinkable not to have. I just wish it were utilised even more — give me ‘redo’ as well as ‘undo’, count my steps for me.
Gameplay involves moving around a fairly small grid, pushing objects around, opening doors with keys, getting to the winning flag, etc. So far, so ‘normal’. Baba Is You then completely breaks through the wall by allowing the player to modify its own rules, by rearranging certain tiles that describe behaviour in simplistic terms: “BABA IS YOU”, “FLAG IS WIN”, “BOX HAS KEY”, etc. Some of these rules — “WALL IS STOP”, for example — can simply be broken to prevent them from applying, so that a wall blocking your way no longer does. Others can be rearranged — such as “WALL IS YOU” — to create bizarre and often necessary results.
This game-altering mechanism offers a lot more potential than might be expected. Although only a handful of concepts is present, they combine in such a huge variety of ways as to make the possibilities seem endless. Or, rather, each level presents with almost no possibilities, until the player finds that vital combination, or spots an otherwise hidden movement, then options open up enormously, to a seemingly limitless extent.
So many levels begin ‘What the HECK?! That’s impossible!’ then something clicks and the solution falls into place. But Baba Is You seems to make that happen differently every single time. Some levels are remixes of others, but with the one vital component that made the original level possible to solve, removed. It doesn’t take long until you’re playing levels that will tax you for minutes, if not hours.
If Baba Is You has an aspect that could be improved, it’s how everything is tied together — or not, really. The game is a series of levels, lots of them, divided into various areas — all pretty standard stuff so far. But, there’s a weird kind of ‘escape’ level that lets you finish the game pretty early on (after just 27 levels). And, although each area has a ‘complete x% levels to progress’ indicator, it’s not incredibly well signposted — maybe my brain was too occupied by the main task to do any further work whatsoever! Finishing the game ‘too early’ gives a sense of anticlimax, and I wish it had been clearer exactly what was happening.
I wonder if, once that ‘final’ level has been finished, the game shouldn’t open up all levels to play in any order. On one hand, this might spoil things, but I feel it might fit well with the anarchic spirit the game embodies. And, if I’m trying to finish every level anyway, does it really matter that much what order I choose to do so in?
Above all, the danger of quitting altogether is high. Baba Is You tries to mitigate this by presenting a number of possible levels to play at each point, starting quite early on. So, if staring at a level for ten minutes isn’t proving helpful, you can simply move on to another. Quite often, I’d find myself cycling through as many as 6–8 levels, each seemingly at an impasse. But due to the nature of the mechanics — some levels rely heavily on rule mixing, others are ‘movement’-based, each seems to focus on something completely unique — there’s almost always a way forward, eventually.
Saying that, I’m currently about 60 levels in, out of over 200 (apparently!) that are available. If difficulty increases at a consistent rate, I cannot imagine how convoluted those final levels must get. After 20 hours or so, I feel like I’m already reaching the end of my tether. Baba is you still has me gripped, though, despite this. That’s a good sign. But this is a very different prospect from getting stuck in a game like Celeste or Super Meat Boy. In those titles, getting stuck simply means not being able to press the right buttons, in the right order, at the right time. You know what you have to do, you just need to keep trying until you can do it. Baba Is You flips this by challenging you to work out what the heck you need to do, and that’s much, much harder, unless your brain is somehow perfectly plugged into the creator’s wavelength.
This is a game perfect for puzzle-nerds, who enjoy a challenge involving thinking, as well as acting. It’s for those of us who like playing with the rules and breaking things, looking at tasks from different perspectives, and conjuring vastly different approaches from our imagination.
But, ultimately, Baba Is You is such a novel experience that it makes a fantastic addition to any Switch library. You probably won’t have played anything quite like this before, which — in double-edged sword terms — might also make it difficult to judge whether you really want to. Take my word for it: you do. Unless you know that puzzle / ‘thinking’ games really aren’t your thing, you will enjoy playing Baba Is You, if for the novelty alone. But the appreciation you’ll gain for the level design, and the satisfaction you’ll receive every time you successfully navigate another seemingly-impossible challenge will keep you coming back for more.
I’ve played Baba Is You for 20 hours and completed it after about 15 although, as mentioned, I didn't really intend to! If I manage to persevere with the harder levels (and they do require perseverance!), I can easily see that doubling, or more.
I paid £7.90 for Baba Is You; it’s currently priced at £11.29. It’s great value at the lower price, but it’s easily worth full-price too. It plays equally well in docked or handheld mode.