Bree somehow managed to weasel her way into a game design degree, hasn't stopped playing Skyrim since it first came out and is unrelentingly thirsty for Nagito Komaeda.
Xbox One, PC,
April 30, 2020
Living in a post Mario Maker world, it’s hard not to be excited by a new level designer game to sink my teeth into. Something about building your own and then playing other people’s levels is immensely satisfying, knowing that it was designed by someone just like you planning to make something fun (or infuriating) for other players to sit through. This is where Levelhead comes in, a new game developed by Butterscotch Shenanigans. Levelhead is a great game to build and design in. And with complete cross-platform level sharing, all of your friends can play your creations.
The gameplay at first seems to be your typical side scrolling platformer fare. Getting from the start to the end while jumping to avoid obstacles. But the package that you are to deliver is what gives the game something new and fresh. GR-18 has arms that can stretch out a little like a spring and can be used to grab a package and toss it at high speeds. Standing on the package is also a good way to gain some new height and it’s even possible to pick it up again while jumping, so using it for a height boost is viable while also being able to take it with you into the air.
Most triggers in the game only work if you are carrying the package, from automatic doors controlled by eyes to switches that sometimes need the package to activate. I loved moments where I had to throw the package over to an eye so it would open a door for me. It was very smart to make the item you are carrying to the end of the stage also essential to the gameplay. It’s a great way to make sure you don’t drop it and forget about it. However, the difficultly of the single player stages upshoots very fast. As someone who doesn’t play too many platformers, I was having a perfectly good time until the complexity ramped up out of nowhere. It’s jarring how quickly it halted my progress.
The animation style of the game is very cute with thick lines and bright colours. I love the way everything moves, it bounces and squishes in ways that are very satisfying, and the combination of the aesthetic and the great use of sound effects gives the gameplay a good sense of weight and presence. The character designs are great as well, my favourite is the robot who serves as a checkpoint. She sings this sweet little note whenever you pass by her and it hits me right in the heart. Everything has a face! From switches, the enemies, to the package cube that you carry around for puzzle solving. The cube even makes a sad little face if you fall off a cliff and leave it behind. The world feels alive and vibrant.
One area where Levelhead was disadvantaged when sitting beside good old Nintendo’s very high pedestal, is that the game doesn’t have a preexisting mascot like Mario. Levelhead has instead created its own storyline and characters to lead you through the tutorial of the maker and it’s great. The designing of levels is even part of the lore. The player is a new employee of the Levelhead Division and their job is to stress test the shipping robot GR-18 by building levels for him to traverse. Like building a maze for your mailman to see if he can still find the front door. With each few levels of the tutorial, you get another meeting with the higher ups in the bureau teaching you more about the ins and outs of their company and more of the obstacles GR-18 might face. These updates usually correlate to new objects you will encounter in the next level of the tutorial.
“They did a great job to create a world engaging enough to promote the game, without having an already established IP to lean on.”
It almost feels like playing through a level of Portal and then getting to design your own test chamber and dump a different (less fortunate) robot in to solve it. In a lot of ways the meetings with the bureau remind me of dialog Cave Johnson from Portal 2 might say, and I am not knocking that. They did a great job to create a world engaging enough to promote the game, without having an already established IP to lean on.
Another key aspect of a maker game is always going to be the level sharing, and there’s a lot to love here. First of all, it’s so easy to search by theme or difficulty. As someone who hates those Mario Maker levels with a 1% clear rate, it’s great that you can choose levels at the difficulty you want to play, there’s even a ‘troll’ tag for those who want to make stages that are just plain mean. Levels can also be searched by tag. When uploading a completed level, up to three relevant tags can be selected to make your level easier to find in the crowd. Despite this, it feels like a lot of the levels tagged “beginner friendly” or something similar are not that easy at all. I’m sure this is because you’re always going to think that your own level is easier than it is, but having a collection of levels made by those who aren’t actually game designers is often going to result in this.
Also, as someone who’s favourite Mario Maker level was called “Wizards in my Nasty Body”, I am disappointed that levels are named with a generator where you can select words to smoosh together, much like leaving a note on the ground in Dark Souls. It makes getting across the exact intent of your level difficult, especially if you are trying to do something very specific. The game also has a system called Exposure Bucks, designed to help promote your stages to the masses. Exposure Bucks are earned by playing other people’s levels and then can be used on any level of your choice (even your own) to give it an extra promotional boost and make it easier to find in the crowd.
Obviously, playing the levels in Levelhead isn’t the only exciting part of the game. You also need to be ready to take time and make some yourself! Luckily the level maker toolset is extremely robust. There are platforms to run on, platforms to fall through and platforms that disappear after a period of time. My favourite element doesn’t add much gameplay wise, but I really love the background objects you can put behind your stage to give it more depth. Almost all objects can be changed between three different designs, each thematically appropriate for the setting of your stage. There’s also a way to connect multiple items together by putting them on channels. If a switch and a door are on the same channel, that switch will open that door, for example. It is very nice that you unlock parts for level building after playing a tutorial level including those parts. This means that you get a chance to learn how they’ve worked before you use them yourself. It makes looking at the large collection of placeable objects a little less intimidating.
Levelhead is a brilliantly designed maker game. It has boundless options for your own creations and great levels to play through while learning the ins and outs of the gameplay. The game is both a joy to play and a joy to look at, with great gameplay feedback and adorable graphics. A shoutout is also owed to the cutscenes throughout the game with some topnotch humour and world building intertwined. Being fully cross-platform is also amazing in this day and age with so many places for so many games to be played. It’s great to know that when I upload a level to Levelhead on my PC, my friends can then play it on their Switch. If Mario Maker tickled you and you’re looking for something else to scratch that itch, give Levelhead a go, it won’t disappoint you.