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The Pedestrian Review – As Above, so Below

There’s something unanimously humbling about exiting the New York City underground subways, where subterranean confines with claustrophobic depths give way to another world entirely. Skies with no end reign above you and skyscrapers tower. Activity courses through the city across multiple planes, running concurrently in a manner too engulfing to be seen from all angles at once.

Like any bustling cityscape, The Pedestrian is comprised of layers. What is at surface level is a simple but effective 2D puzzle platformer the can only be seen to its conclusion from various interlocked perspectives. From the instant it starts, The Pedestrian introduces enough distinct mechanics to feel like you’re playing multiple puzzle games at once but also ensures that they cohere and remain intuitive. It operates from a strikingly ambitious foundation, held together by a serene aesthetic and the ease with which it meshes experiments together.

From the position of your on-screen protagonist, The Pedestrian is a platformer with an endearing visual premise. At the center of The Pedestrian is its urban city landscape, but on a more microscopic scale than one normally expects. The anonymity of your character is not a cut corner. All the platforming takes place across street signs bound to photorealistic backgrounds: coffee shop windows and residential fences to name a few. Backgrounds are never visually obtrusive but give noticeable character to the city as its varying traffic shuffles behind you. With this setting, Skookum Arts take plenty of artistic liberties given the platforms and deadly laser beams placed onto respective street signs, but focus level design around the square surface. The game’s presentation is inherent to the nuances of its gameplay.

Gameplay still from The Pedestrian displaying the game's title painted onto a curb while the player jumps across a fallen street sign

The Pedestrian leaves no stone unturned with its presentation

But with the closed doors bookending many of the panels, you will soon realize that much of what The Pedestrian has to offer operates outside of your side-scrolling capabilities. The urban infrastructure platforming premise is uncommon but not entirely unprecedented. You can look to neglected PS3 downloadable Sideway New York for a contemporary example. But where the platforming elements mine enjoyment from reliable fundamentals, The Pedestrian’s puzzle design sets out for uncharted territory.

The street signs that your safety decal figure volleys across one at a time only make up individual pieces of a larger puzzle. With an integral press of the F button, your perspective broadens out and reveals that matters are much more complex. To get anywhere in The Pedestrian, you are going to have to connect street signs, the door of one sign exiting out through the door of another. The game makes this clear with an incredibly efficient HUD. Designated semicircles facing certain directions can connect to each other if their connections form a full circle. The top half of a circle is bound to the top of a ladder and connects to the bottom half of a circle and ladder respectively. Doors positioned at the right of a street sign can only connect to doors positioned at the left of another. Quickly enough, the path to success will be strewn across six separate street signs that can be dragged across the map (but not rotated) to form one greater piece of platforming architecture.

The strategy of connecting what are effectively small individual rooms with a limited number of exits relies on careful judgement. Once you have made use of a connection (traveling from one street sign to the next), altering that connection will cause you to respawn at the start of the map. Many street signs have only one or two exits with many theoretical destinations. Early on, connections are limited enough in quantity that solutions are somewhat telegraphed. You can conclude that both sides of the only ladder on-screen will need to be connected for the sake of progress. But in the game’s earliest moments, the multilateral puzzling is unique enough to impress while merely teaching you the ropes.

Gameplay still from The Pedestrian showing six street signs being connected by the player, in order to get to the destination

The Pedestrian is also not a bad application for designing a conspiracy chart

On a visual and mechanical level alike, The Pedestrian is always playing with its off-kilter dimensions with an infectious glee. Levels end at the driver’s seat of a passenger train and list a destination code on the cabinet’s walls that must be punched in by the player from their miniaturized interface. More surreally, gates that are opened through electrical power are fed by a handheld game device that players physically drop into and place energy pickups (batteries or lightning symbols) inside. When sorting and connecting respective rooms, backgrounds with sharp corners will intercept the player’s ability to drag-and-drop their signs into certain parts of the map. The Pedestrian’s gameplay engages with its environment regularly. A connection is always felt between individual layers even when it’s on the player to sow it all together.

Across its five hour campaign, new platforming and puzzling mechanics are introduced relentlessly. These range from one-off scenarios that challenge you to string electrical connections across multiple screens, to innovations that fold into the core of the game. Devising your route home soon becomes uniquely imposing, but always adherent to a sophisticated logic and strange economy of variables. You will eventually reach points in the game where even its death mechanic is inverted into a viable strategy, a level’s long-term solution forcing you into a short-term dead-end.

But within one level and between them, the game complicates elements gradually, letting players train their way towards the deep end. Your vision will inevitably need to bounce from street sign to street sign, but it never becomes disorienting to the point of frustration. The game actually ends in noticeably easier territory than many sequences before it, but all matters are sufficiently mind bending.

Gameplay still from The Pedestrian showing a platforming sequence taking place at night amongst a dimly lit city

There’s no question though that The Pedestrian asks a lot of you. Until a late-game addition that is less a concession than permission for the game to make puzzles even more elaborate, it’s tough to back out of a strategic move without consequence. The series of steps to get from one street sign, through an additional six, and then to the seventh unfolds like one of those circular mazes where full comprehension ensures a sprained neck. Your toolkit expands constantly with visual cues providing admirable reinforcement. Despite revolving around a series of utility signs, The Pedestrian’s puzzles reach creative enough highs to boast the joy of lavish AAA setpieces. And that is just as much attributed to the game’s classy presentation.

The Pedestrian weaves through its continuous environments with the direction of an animated short. As you progress through every individual puzzle, the camera moves from whiteboards to office walls down to an outside curb, then into the heart of a constantly morphing city. Jazz and classical backdrops soar through the mix, upholding the sort of ornateness the game trafficks in. After a certain amount of time, the score is prone to fading out anticlimactically to be replaced with little more than ambient street sounds, but it’s a pleasure when it’s on. For all its methodical, challenging depths, The Pedestrian seeks to entertain just as well. Striking feats of logical leaps are a breeze when set amidst such a picturesque environment.

By the time one last perspective shattering twist introduces itself (which I will withhold due to how surprising it was), so much stylistic ambition has been layered on top of the game that you may be inclined to find some sort of subtext in it. That doesn’t really manifest, and its absence is the rare missed opportunity in a game that pleases so much mechanically and aesthetically. Yet experimentation for its own sake can sell itself when it permeates a game so thoroughly. The Pedestrian is an early-year highlight that is equal parts relaxing and totally stimulating. The destination may be a bit cryptic, but it’s the distance traveled that will stick with you.

 

This review is based on the PC version of the game. A review copy was provided by the developer, Skookum Arts.

8.5/10

Summary

From its multi-dimensional premise to its elegant aesthetic The Pedestrian instantly marks itself as an indie puzzler stand out and only promises brighter work from Skookum Arts in the future

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