It took dozens of people to put together both Mirror’s Edge and Portal, two successful first-person adventures cut from two very different cloths. When one plays either of those titles, it’s easy to see why. They’re both top-notch gaming experiences in their respective genres, and yet, it only took one man and a Unity build to take elements from both titles, refine them, and blend them into a sleek, responsive and engaging puzzle-platformer.
In Gregor Panič’s debut title, Welkin Road, players progress through a series of 11 levels, each more complicated than the last. The only way to traverse these levels—all incredibly minimalist in their design—is through an increasingly complicated series of acrobatic manoeuvres which involve sprinting, wall-running, and death-defying leaps across bottomless chasms. In this game, the only true enemy is gravity.
The only “weapons” you have against it are two grappling lasers, fired from your wrists to tether onto floating orbs. The first two levels ease players into understanding how these work (red orbs are just tethers, green orbs make things move,) before introducing timed orbs that detach after a few seconds in the third level. After this point, the game starts ramping up its difficulty in terms of what it expects players to do.
At first, this is overwhelming. Expect to fall to your death in this game. A lot. Initially, I was frustrated at how much I was dying, until I realized that the game has generous checkpoints and practically instant respawns. Death isn’t a punishment, and it doesn’t slow down runs of a level. Dying is the game’s way of telling you: “you’re doing this wrong, try something different.” Utmost precision is expected to proceed through levels.
When this precision is nailed, Welkin Road becomes one of the most satisfying platformers in recent memory. Once players get used to the mechanics, and understand that the running, jumping, and grappling must be perfectly timed, it just sort of clicks. Every move has to be deliberate and planned multiple steps in advance, especially in the later levels (which you can tackle at any point.) Running in a straight line and hitting “jump,” then expecting the game to do the rest for you just won’t cut it. While this may be a shock to the system of people who are used to the conveniences of many modern games, it’s a breath of fresh air to people who like having total bodily autonomy in a video game, as opposed to having their hand held through levels.
And the things you can do with that autonomy are nothing short of breathtaking at times. Running off a wall into thin air, turning while falling, then using a grapple beam to whip yourself around a corner is gratifying. Sailing hundreds of feet through the air with only your momentum to carry you forward is exhilarating. When this game works, it’s very rewarding.
However, the times in which things don’t come together break the flow and bring things grinding to a halt. The detection for the grapple beam hitting tethers can be finicky at times, leading to what feels, occasionally, like cheap deaths. Likewise, the physics are often inconsistent, and one swing from a grapple point that kills you one life will totally work the next, with no rhyme or reason as to why it sent you falling to your death the first time. Also frustrating is the poor contrast between the white floor textures with the bright white-and-blue skies, meaning that losing your footing because your eyes played a trick on you is a very real problem at times.
Kinks like these hold Welkin Road back from being a perfect game, but considering the title is still in Early Access, it’s forgivable considering that it’s not technically finished and has a one-man dev team. On top of that, all the good offered here is tied together by a unique aesthetic that helps the game carve out its own unique identity in a crowded market.
If you want parkour with a puzzling twist, and are willing to overlook some design hiccups, Welkin Road is a satisfying, challenging title with a lot to offer.