Leap Year reviewed

I’ve spent about 30-45 minutes in Leap Year so far, and it’s one of the stranger platformer games I’ve played.

The game’s tagline, A clumsy platformer, clues you into what to expect. The jump mechanic is unique among platformers, in that your default jump is generally fatal to yourself. Fall height is what does it; and you can only safely fall one grid-height, approximately the height of your own body, without injury.

But your standard jump height is two grid squares, making it deadly most of the time if you try to jump without a good bit of planning first. You can’t control your jump height by a light press or brief press of the button. You always get the same jump no matter how you try to press the button.

So this forces creativity. A normal jump on level ground will take you up two squares, and drop you fatally onto the ground. So you can work around that by jumping up to a higher platform, one or two squares above your starting level, and thereby avoid falling too far. Or you can jump under a low ceiling, which prevents you from going too high, and thus land safely on the same level you started from. There are perhaps a few other ways to survive falling, if you can figure it out. But I don’t want to give away too much and spoil the puzzle aspect. Figuring it out for yourself is definitely where the fun is found.

The goal of the game is to collect numbers which correspond to the dates of the month of February, 2024, which is a leap year, so there are 29 altogether…. er, I think — I’ve only managed to get through the first 15 so far. Each date is a checkpoint, which you’ll respawn from if you die. You can expect to die a lot, because most stuff you’re thinking is easy and second nature in a jumping platform game is fatal in Leap Year.

The levels provide a solution for getting safely through, and it’s a puzzle to work out for yourself how. So this is pretty clearly a puzzle-platformer. It’s fairly non-violent, despite tripping and dying constantly, and failure is never much of a setback as long as you’ve touched a checkpoint recently you won’t have to repeat much.

The game does require a bit of planning and thinking through your actions, if only because you have to carefully consider how the rules work in this game, since they’re so counter-intuitive to how most platforming games work.

I found that the level design is a bit obtuse and obfuscated — there are walls and platforms that you can move through, but the game doesn’t make it obvious. You can discover these things readily enough through experimentation, but there’s little in the way of clues or signposts. Only the bare minimum is explained: arrow keys to move left/right, space to jump, you figure out how jumping kills you, and what the rules are for surviving. About halfway through, the game throws another mechanic at you: shift will allow you to bounce safely from a normally fatal jump height, and rebound to a taller than usual height than you can jump… but only under certain circumstances, which I’ve yet to completely figure out. So sometimes you can do the bounce move, and other times you can’t, and I haven’t figured out why, and I’m not sure if that’s because I’m a dummy, or because the game design has an issue, or perhaps because figuring it out is the game, and it’s meant to be a mysterious puzzle that I have to discover through trial and error until I experience gestalt.

I’m currently stuck trying to figure out how to get to the 16th. I seem to recall seeing the 16 flag once, early on in the game, and it seemed that it was out of sequence, skipping a lot of the earlier numbers, so I tried to get it but I couldn’t, and I’m not sure if that’s because I wasn’t meant to, or because I just didn’t understand the rules for how to move and solve the platform puzzles well enough to be able to do it. So I went a different way and ended up getting all the rest of the numbers in order, and now I’ve gotten the 15th and the map sort of looped around and I’m back in an area where I’ve been already, only I’m not quite sure how to get back, or where exactly I need to go to find the 16.

So I may need to start over and play through again, noting more carefully where I saw that 16. Or maybe I’ll figure it out eventually.

So what other tricks will this game offer me? I don’t really know, but it’s been pretty fun so far. A bit frustrating, and so unlike most platformers that I’m used to that I bet it will be a game that a lot of platformer players dislike. It can be frustrating in ways that won’t feel fair to players approaching it with the expectations of the platformers that they’re used to. It’s counter-intuitive, clumsy, and a bit clunky. But that said, it tells you straight up that it’s a clumsy platformer, so you can’t say they didn’t warn you, and if you play with an open mind and with the understanding that this is a platformer that is trying to explore the space that is enabled by subverting the usual expectations of the genre, then you may come to appreciate its subtleties.

The graphics are charming, crude abstract stick figures, clumsily hand-drawn, as though doodles, and if you enjoy children’s art, you’ll find it delightful. The background music is relaxing and pleasant to listen to, although I’m not at all sure how to describe it.

Leap Year is a bravely contrarian platformer that subverts expectations, but if you’re looking for something deliberately different, and you understand the design language well enough to know the difference between a poor designer who, ignorant of the conventional rules of platformer design, just creates something sloppy, unplanned, and poor quality, and a master designer breaking the rules deliberately in order to achieve something unexpected, then you may just enjoy this game for what it is meant to be.

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