They Breathe is ultimately a game about swimming to the bottom of a mysterious body of water and avoiding the various obstacles that stand in your way. That is seriously underselling it though. In fact, They Breathe is hard to describe, not because the game is overly complicated or even atypical (though it is atypical), but because in giving away too much detail you can easily spoil the game for others. This would be a shame, as They Breathe is a simple and short but ultimately fantastic indie game.
Sometimes a game can be more of an experience than a game. This is true of They Breathe. So many subtleties are used throughout that reward those who are really paying attention. There is no hand holding, at all. You will find yourself immersed in the world as the slight changes in ambient sound and sparse soundtrack create an atmosphere bordering on horror, but certainly creepy. They Breathe may not be most fun XBLIG I’ve played, but it is without a doubt one of the best XBLIG experiences out there.
Without giving too much away, you play as a frog.
Okay, so giving just a bit more away, you play as a frog that is swimming down into a dark and mysterious body of water for reasons that are not made clear. Surviving on small bubbles of air, you must rescue fellow frogs and eliminate or simply avoid enemies. The world grows ever creepier as you dive further and They Breathe certainly rewards those who experiment and pay attention.
It should be stated rather bluntly, They Breathe in no way shape or form tells you what to do. There is no controls menu, no tutorial, nothing. Instead, The Working Parts simply throw you into the pool and says, “swim” (like the drunken uncle at a family reunion), and it is all the better for it. Leaving it up to the gamer to discover just what they are supposed to do every step of the way and rewarding gamers who pay attention by allowing them to progress forward helps to perfectly create the atmosphere of They Breathe.
They Breathe never explains your ultimate goal, though it becomes more or less obvious towards the end. It is obvious though that something is “not right” and without ever uttering a word or a single line of text (outside of the game title), They Breathe manages to tell an engrossing and creepy story. In other words, through gameplay and imagery alone, The Working Parts has managed to tell a better story than most XBLIG’s do with voice actors/pages of text/etc. Each phase of the descent into the underwater world is filled with a sort of dread, reminding me in a way of my first playthough of Dead Space where I hesitantly crept forward one step at a time. I’m not even sure exactly what manages to create this atmosphere, or what combination of things, but I can safely say the artwork plays a part.
The HD hand drawn art of They Breathe looks like a moving painting more often than not; that is to say that it looks fantastic and stylized. The world created only really works due to the vibrant but also somewhat dark visuals. Alien and completely mundane at the same time (and the game even features a slight plot-twist that involves the artwork). Almost, but not quite like something out of a Tim Burton film, the world of They Breath really comes to life in the art style and you quickly and easily get lost in it. If nothing else, you have never seen a more melancholy frog in your life. It ain’t easy being green.
As an added bonus, upon completion of the game you are given details on how to “unlock” a behind the scenes look at They Breathe on the developer’s website. Normally I would avoid such things till I had finish writing the review, but I was curious, as this is not something usually done by other XBLIG’s. I’m not sure why not. It was a very interesting look behind the game I had just finished playing, and honestly made me enjoy the game even more as I became aware that many of the things I had enjoyed had been intentional aspects of the game, some of which were almost left out. It added a nice personal touch to the game after the fact and is another great example of how indie games and their developers can do things just a little bit differently than the big guys.
I feel like I am gushing for They Breathe here, and to an extent I am. There really is only two things I can bring up negatively about the game, and it is a stretch. One is that They Breath is short, only about a half hour in length (give or take). Of course, had the game been stretched out it would of likely been worse off for it, and in fact would of added to my other complaint; the gameplay is a little boring. The short length of They Breath keeps this from being a problem, but at the same time the game’s simplicity both makes the game better but also, a little slow at times. In no way shape or form am I saying that They Breathe should be avoided because of this, more that a slight increase in game speed or action might have improved it. Really though, I feel like I just included this last paragraph for the sake of balancing out my review a bit.
They Breath is really just a fantastic little indie game. It managed to be nothing like what I expected from the screenshots (having expected a high score based type of game where you catch food, or something to that extent). In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and richness of They Breath, and how The Moving Parts managed to do so much with so little. It is impressive in its own right that in 30 minutes, They Breathe managed to best most every other XBLIG I have reviewed so far. The true definition of an indie gem, They Breathe does things differently because they can and because somewhere along the line they knew they should. In this case, being different is a good thing. They Breath is a much needed breath of fresh air on the XBLIG Marketplace.
Final Rating: 9/10
CBR Break Down:
Console Played On: XBLIG
Time to completion: ~30 minutes (probably less)
Gamer Score Earned: N/A
Price Bought at: N/A – Copy furnished by The Working Parts
Current Price: 240 Microsoft Points ($3), or $1.99 on Indie City.
Recommend Purchase Price: Could drop, but it is a fantastic game. I encourage supporting innovative developers.
Why you should buy it: One of the best and most unique XBLIG’s out there.
Why you shouldn’t buy it: The game’s length and 240 point price tag are the biggest draw backs.