Tiny Brains PS4 Review: A puzzling experiment best done with friends

Tiny Brains draws not-so-subtle inspiration from Portal, and it gets only some of the way toward matching that legendary puzzler’s best beats. There’s humor that strikes a funny bone in places and falls flat in others, and creative object manipulation, teleportation, and the like are used to bypass puzzle rooms under the watchful eye of a malevolent overseer. There are other Portal-esque references I won’t spoil here, but Tiny Brains differentiates itself with a heavy (almost essential) focus on cooperative play and heaping helpings of cartoon visuals and charm. The result is a game that’s engaging all the way through but ends far too quickly, and whose difficulty only really satisfies with four friends all working in concert. Without those crucial elements, despite fun extra content and modes, it’s hard to justify a $20 purchase. But with the full stable of players, Tiny Brains becomes a unique indie experience on a console that desperately needs more opportunities for local multiplayer fun.

A simple story told in narration dialogue and between-chapter artwork keeps the puzzling motivated throughout, even if it doesn’t go very far in terms of lasting interest or appeal. A mad scientist has mutated the four player characters, who are colorful critters with unique superpowers. Using these powers, which include force pull, force push, creating a block to reach higher places, and swapping places with objects, is the main idea behind completing the puzzle rooms spread across the game’s four chapters. Along the way, you’ll hear snide comments from the mad scientist who created you, escape his wrath to reach other areas of the lab, and ultimately work to defeat an apparently greater threat. The faceless, unnamed scientist is the game’s primary mechanic for delivering laughs, but it only works some of the time. Mad scientist jokes are pretty tired in general, and the only deviation here is hints of the guy’s obsession with fried chicken and self-aware insanity. Tiny Brains got a few chuckles out of me, but the best I can say for Tiny Brain’s story is that I cared enough to push past frustrating sections and see it through.

Then again, "seeing it through" involves only a two-and-a-half-hour commitment, so careful assessment of what you want in a $20 game ($15.99 with PlayStation Plus) is important. If it’s competent, creative puzzles, Tiny Brains has them in spades. I loved the mechanics whether I was playing in a group of four, three, or by myself. With any less than four players, L1 and R1 can be used to instantly swap with the missing critter, ensuring that all four superpowers can be used no matter the player count. When flying solo, this complication is made easier by a slo-mo effect that triggers when you swipe to a character the game deems appropriate for your next move. This is more helpful as a clue than a way to alleviate platforming difficulties, but I can imagine less experienced gamers appreciating the help with twitchy timing when playing alone. Then again, only a couple puzzle rooms took me more than several minutes to figure out, so the clue effect is unnecessary (and, perhaps, unintended). I do appreciate that there are multiple ways to solve many of the puzzles, which allowed for some pretty unconventional solutions when the most mechanically correct one wasn’t immediately obvious to me. The game might be easier as a result, though, as you can kind of fudge your way past a few instances of tricky walls and platforms.

If you play with two or more players, and especially at the maximum count of four, you’re in for a very different experience. The game automatically updates its puzzles (in real time!) to adjust for local and online players dropping in and out. At its height, four friends will get through the action by shouting suggestions, shooting down ideas, and, in revelatory moments, executing on a complex series of abilities to pass a room in a matter of seconds. At its lowest point, when you alone are pushing a ball that’s getting constantly sucked towards pits and hazards, trying to bounce between four powers to effectively keep it safe, Tiny Brains is frustrating. In general, these moments happen when the developers abandon the core idea of four cooperative powers and break things up with these "escort" sections or combat rooms where you must protect a VIP character. The former is only really fun in its variation outside the main campaign, where four players can work together to keep a ball moving along a rotating tunnel full of hazards for as far as they can manage. The latter is usually a drag, as you can scrape by almost entirely with force pull and push–but more creative, error-free protection will net you a Trophy.

It’s worth nothing that, if playing with a mix of local and online players, your local buddies will have to sign-in to PSN, as well. It’s a small issue of inconvenience, as multiple sign-in is by-and-large a welcome PS4 feature, but I was surprised to learn that my girlfriend couldn’t locally join an online multiplayer session without entering her PSN details. But it’s worth the trouble, especially for Tiny Soccer, an extra mode that gives free reign of Tiny Brains’ powers to two teams of two critters for hilariously fun competition.

On a technical level, Tiny Brains performs well enough, but I noticed a surprising number of slight framerate drops for a game that’s not really pushing the PS4 hardware in any respect. The diverse color palette is nice to look at, and the electronic soundtrack with subtle dubstep elements is a surprisingly apt fit for the action. Nothing about the audiovisual package impresses in a significant way, but this competence means the gameplay is free to execute on interesting cooperative ideas without distracting hangups. Still, there’s an odd film grain effect that’s highly visible throughout. If there’s a narrative or design reason for this, it’s over my head. To me, the film grain unnecessarily muddies the vivid colors beneath.

Tiny Brains was worth the not-quite-three hours it took to finish because I enjoyed the intersection of four superpowers to solve puzzles with timing and platforming elements that other games in the genre shy away from. But for a discerning PS4 owner wondering where to spend gaming dollars, it’s difficult to make a firm recommendation. Without four controllers or three willing PSN friends, the complex, social experience is hindered. I still enjoyed my time playing solo, barring a few frustrating escort sections, but buyer beware: Tiny Brains is, by design, a very different game without the full team of critters, and usually not for the better. Without a particularly strong story or memorable humor, there’s not enough content beyond the positive multiplayer experience to place Tiny Brains among the PlayStation Store’s better titles.



The Final Word

Engaging cooperative puzzles and local co-op are reasons to consider an otherwise indistinct game that's over way too quickly.