Pinky, a dopey laboratory mouse, absent mindlessly looks to his friend Brain and asks, “Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?” Brain, another laboratory mice with an abnormally sized head, replies in a calm, sinister tone, “the same thing we do every night, Pinky, try to take over the world!” I still repeat Brain’s reply to friends in casual conversation. I’ve always had this admittedly weird obsession with laboratory animals, from Pavlov’s dogs to Pinky and The Brain, but now it has arrived in video game form with Spearhead’s Tiny Brains for the PlayStation 4.
Tiny Brains is a 4 player co-op game in which players control four laboratory animals (mouse, hamster, bat, and bunny?) in order to complete puzzles while an malevolent, yet comedic, omnipresent Russian scientist insults you for having very, very tiny brains. The game takes an art-style that is reminiscent of a Saturday morning cartoon, and merges it with the narrative and puzzle structure of Portal.
Tiny Brains borrows a fair amount from Portal, which isn’t a bad thing. Sociopath narrator that somehow manages to be charming? Check. Individual rooms that serve as tests for test subjects? Check. Pieces of narrative sprinkled around the environment that cue the player into what the true intentions of their overlords? Check. A twist that switched protagonist and antagonist? Check. None of these points are issues that I have with Tiny Brains, in fact, the game embraces the thievery in some sections of the game, making it feel like homage. Tiny Brains, nonetheless, never deviates from the homage, and the homage turns into familiarity, which ultimately results in a lack of originality.
Tiny Brains is genuinely humorous. The Russian madman spews comedic lines such as, “Don’t believe western media. Freedom is overrated! I let you sleep three hours a night. I even feed you (sometimes). It is a good life! Come Back!” Comedy in games has always been a hit or miss for me, and I attribute my love for Tiny Brains humor to great writing, and cartoon-esque visuals. Also, the Russian accent; accents make me giggle. The appearance of the Tiny Brains are chuckle worthy. A naked bat with just a band-aid covering his crotch with what looks to be a top hat, and a bucktooth rabbit in a black and green leather body suit ready for some BDSM are two of the playable animals.
Each animal has there own unique ability that compliments the abilities of their compatriots, and puzzles take the form of rooms, or cages as the scientist calls them, with various goals in order to solve said puzzle. For instance, some puzzles require players to retrieve a battery from one side of the cage, and plug it into the opposite side of the cage, while others will require you to navigate a ball up an obstacle course. These goals may sound rote, and when playing co-op they do become so. Performing your specified characters action over and over again becomes monotonous quickly, and trying to get some random online guy, or gal, with no mic to follow instructions is infuriating. You can use the touch-pad on the Dualshock 4 to point exactly where you want them to go on screen, but if the communication is not up to snuff, it is all for naught. Couch co-op definitely seems like the definitive way to play Tiny Brains, if you want to play with other human beings. I, however, am a loner and enjoyed Tiny Brains more so alone, than with others.
At the heart of it, Tiny Brains is meant to be played cooperatively, with the four separate characters using unique abilities in tandem, which undoubtedly works, although boring. But when the game was at its precipice, I was playing alone. I was able to manipulate the mechanics, and break puzzles in order to solve them in ways that, I think, were not intended given cages are supposed to be solved cooperatively. When playing alone the game maps the four different animals to each of the four directions on the D-Pad. So, instead of four animals working simultaneously I played as one super laboratory Hambatmobunny (weird, I know). There’s also a certain level of dexterity needed when playing alone; switching between characters needs to be precise, the game slows down the action during switches to curve the amount of skill necessary, but it still feels satisfying. Switching on the fly gives Tiny Brains a small, but necessary challenge sorely lacking in the co-op. Also, a sense of accomplishment accompanies completing the game by manipulating/breaking a games mechanics. I felt as if I had outsmarted the developer, even though, in all likelihood Spearhead designed the puzzle to be completed in the way I solved it. It’s a very hard balance to achieve: allowing players to have agency and manipulate mechanics, but ensuring they never feel lost or overly frustrated; co-op never achieves this, but single player does.
Combat makes an appearance in Tiny Brains. Apparently, chickens are very dangerous creatures and are constantly trying to do bodily harm to the four laboratory rodents. Tiny Brains does not have an dedicated attack, but like the puzzles, using the different abilities of the four playable characters is the only way to thwart the threat of poultry, which works excellently. Spearhead also uses the abilities of the animals for pseudo-tower defense sections, in which players must protect a pink baby chicken from being attacked by other chickens (silly, I know). Surprisingly, Tiny Brain manages to make protecting a baby chick fun. Don’t get me wrong, they don’t revolutionize the tower defense formula, but like the puzzle sections, the mechanics work really well for what they are being designed around. In the same way that portals are your only offense or defense in Portal, the abilities of the animals are your only offense and defense in Tiny Brains. The tower defense specifically highlights one of Tiny Brains’ integral parts, every character is useful. Even when playing co-op players will feel they are necessary to solving the puzzle, and no one will be sitting out for the duration of a cage.
Brevity is the key to wit, and Tiny Brains never wears out its welcome, preserving its charm and humor. I could see the possibility for the mechanics to become dull, and the game ends before exhausting its mechanics. Luckily, Tiny Brain also lends it self to speed runs, and the game will display how long it took you to complete it once you are finished, if you are into that sort of thing. There are several different challenges available after completing the game that unlock, and specifically Tiny Soccer is a good bit of fun.
Tiny Brains is well-designed and uses four mechanics for combat, puzzle solving and tower defense, which is a commendable feat. The writing is sharp, and the aesthetics may not be the best next-gen showcase, but are gorgeous. The game gets the majority of everything it tries undoubtedly right, but somehow is forgettable in the sea of other games that came out this year, and I can only attribute that to its reliance on “thinking with portals”.
[+Really sharp and witty writing] [+Great aesthetics] [+A half naked bat with a band-aid over its crotch] [ + Great puzzles (when played alone)] [+ well-designed mechanics] [-Relies heavily on the “Portal formula”] [-A co-op game that isn’t fun to play cooperatively] [-Forgetful]