Review: BaBa Is You

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Words have power, that’s not exactly a controversial statement. There’s a chance you might make a purchasing decision based on these words you’re reading here. But in the video game world, where all things are possible, the many powers of words have still not been thoroughly explored. BaBa Is You builds an entire game out of essentially defining words and objects, and shows just how absurdly complicated those relationships can get. It’s the kind of puzzle game that most people are going to reach their limit with before seeing the end, but at the same time its so well-constructed that you can expect to keep at it for as long as you need to and eventually triumph. Puzzle games that offer such steep but surmountable challenges are rare, and I imagine that’s a big reason why this one has struck such a chord.

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Despite the title, BaBa is not always You. Starting the game brings you to a room with walls, rocks, a flag, and the character you control, the squiggly white critter BaBa. But the room also includes statements defining these elements: Wall Is Stop, Rock Is Push, Flag Is Win, and of course, BaBa Is You. Each of these words is like a block in the level that can be pushed around, which means you can rearrange those sentences however you want. Wall can be Push, Rock can be Win, and I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out what happens when you make new sentences out of You. Thus you have the challenge presented by the game’s dozens of puzzles, rearranging sentences to form structures that allow You to reach Win.

I won’t spoil any of the absurd combinations you’ll have to make in your trip through this game, in part because some of them would take the better part of this review to explain. Some puzzle games have mechanics they never delve deep into, or simply run through the predictable limits of what is possible. But BaBa Is You essentially gives you the rules of the game right there in the puzzle, and expects you to re-write them in a way that lets you win. The designers knew this, and have crafted a range of challenges that start out mind-blowing and proceed all the way to utterly flabbergasting. In the early levels you’ll be treated to all kinds of surprises as you turn hazards into harmless fun and warp yourself across every entity on the map. Later though, you’ll need to push those concepts further than you ever thought possible just to get started.

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The best parts of BaBa Is You are when you can completely re-scramble puzzles to produce completely unorthodox solutions. And for huge stretches of the game, you can do just that. However, there are a fair number of levels where certain sentences are beyond your control and you have to work within the strictures they lay out. This is where the game really starts to tax you, because somehow the puzzles with the fewest options or words to work with end up being the hardest. It might be because with limited possibilities, it’s that much more important to grasp the concepts that the developers are expecting you to find. But then those concepts will be built upon in the next puzzle, and so on and so forth.

Many puzzle games reach a point where the complexity outruns the player, and BaBa Is You definitely ramps up hard enough to stump just about anyone. It starts in a place where anyone can get a kick out of re-writing themselves as sentient lava, but will almost inevitably reach a point where you stare at a puzzle for ten minutes without a clue what to do. But this is where the genius of the basic concept comes back, because you pretty much know up front how all the words work and interact. The game is particularly good about teaching you how the more powerful terms function once introduced, with smaller, more focused puzzles that let you experiment with them before expecting you to rethink everything you know to solve the next challenge. It’s also a very open game in terms of progression, because you only have to beat a few levels in each area to unlock more, but hanging back and clearing all the primary, secondary, and bonus levels can be quite rewarding.

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If you have any appreciation for clever puzzle games, BaBa Is You is a surefire hit. They don’t come much cleverer than this, giving you the power to remix the rules on the fly to hilarious effect. And eventually it’ll expect you to do just that, in a specific way, along with a bunch of other things just to get by. It’s bound to stump you at some point, but if you have any patience for it whatsoever that point is going to come after hours of enthralling and inspiring puzzling. The simple, muted, almost melancholy presentation is a great fit for the gameplay, focusing your attentions entirely on the mechanics and keeping everything clear for you. BaBa Is You feels like another important landmark in the puzzle world, one of those magical games that starts by stumping you and gives you the chance to feel like an absolute genius once you finally reach the solution. And unlike most puzzle games, how you get there is bound to leave you agape.

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