The Second Sky: A Break in Tension

After sending you through the heart of the temporal storm, The Second Sky gives you a break. Beethro wakes up on a beach — something that the game makes a point of identifying as cliché — and we get the first puzzle-free wandering-around-talking-to-people segment in quite some time. It leads back into more puzzles, of course. A couple of the NPCs have fetch quests for you, sending you to puzzle dungeons on the periphery of the beach area. But it’s all a great deal less tense than the previous chapter.

I don’t think it’s less difficult than the previous chapter, though.

Partly it just feels less intense because of context and presentation. You’re not in a broken world on the verge of collapse any more. The art is a great deal gentler, almost pastel in its softness. I haven’t said much about the art in DROD before, but it’s gotten really good over the course of the series. The original DROD tiles were brutal and garish, and that art style is still available when it’s what the level designer wants, but now we’ve got excellent small-scale pixel art, delicately detailed, coupled with mood-setting lighting effects. Important objects, such as monsters, gates, bombs, etc. have a simpler and more stylized look than the backgrounds, with higher saturation colors, the better to stand out. Anyway, just the fact that the beach dungeons are well-lit makes a huge difference to the experience, letting you see all the detail clearly.

But there are also ways of varying the intensity of the puzzles that are orthogonal to the difficulty. Tense puzzles put you in danger. They send monsters after you, and arrange the terrain so you can’t just bottle them up with obstacles. They impose time limits. They put you in the position of continually reacting to things, and try to overwhelm you with urgency. This is why the Temporal Aumtlich was such a good foe for high-tension puzzles: by splitting, he easily adds new complications when you thought you had him under control. A relaxed puzzle is characterized by stability. Monsters tend to be immobilized, or at least locked away until you decide to let them out under your own terms. Rather than overwhelm you, they give you the time you need to prepare.

The difficulty in a tense puzzle comes from trying to avoid getting killed while accomplishing your goals. The difficulty in a relaxed puzzle comes from your goals appearing to be impossible. Sometimes a puzzle will be so stable that it’s hard to see how you can change things at all. By my earlier terminology, tense puzzles are tactical and relaxed puzzles are strategic.

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