By the time this preview goes live, I will have already gone through the process of leaving home once more to return to my school’s campus in another state. I will be separated from my family and best friend for another four months, and despite this being the third time I go through this process, it isn’t any easier. As I communicate with them through the phone on a daily basis, it’s easy to imagine how Ember and Rime, the two playable characters of Degrees of Separation, feel–so close to each other, yet separated by an invisible barrier.
Degrees of Separation is a gorgeous puzzle platformer developed by Moondrop Studios and Modus Games that has you play as the representation of two opposing elements, fire and ice, which need to achieve a balance working together in order to navigate the environment around them. The core of the game is its split-screen interactivity that’ll remind you of last year’s A Way Out, though this one feels more gracefully and artistically executed.
While Gris was the indie game of 2018 that stunned me upon the first glimpse, Degrees of Separation is that indie game of 2019. The contrast between the warm colors on Ember’s side of the screen and the frosty visuals of Rime’s world is a beauty to behold, and it’s doubly impressive in motion. There’s something satisfying about seeing Rime run across a frozen lake with Ember right behind him, melting the ice in an instant as she traverses through the water. And just like Gris, it has an already enchanting soundtrack; even when I was wracking my brain about a puzzle, I couldn’t help but be entranced by the game’s lovely and relaxing music.
I played the preview with my best friend while I was still home and, while you can opt for single player as well, I can’t recommend playing with someone else enough. It’s an intimate experience that expertly captures the feeling of being with someone whom you can’t progress without.
Because of modern technology, many of us have grown up forming close friendships or even romantic relationships with people on the other side of the world from us. Degrees of Separation feels like a love letter to those of us who understand the validity of long-distance relationships–it’s a heartwarming representation of how physical distance in a relationship is painful but can be overcome if you both put in the work to be there for each other.
That work isn’t always easy; maybe I’m just, again, awful at puzzles, but they became fairly challenging as we progressed. There are plenty of strategies involved in deciding who has to do what and when, as well as the involvement of precise timing and cooperation. We had to carefully deliberate how we would make it so that my friend, as Rime, could fetch a collectible scarf tucked away in a corner because only she could reach it by walking on ice. As Ember, I would struggle to carefully melt a snowball of Rime’s creation in order to make it small enough to fit through a tight space so that we could then use it to reach a high platform.
Despite playing with someone I know well, we sometimes suffered from miscommunications that frequently led to fits of laughter. When one of us fell off a platform and forced a restart of a puzzle, we’d exasperatedly giggle; when we finally pulled off a complex series of tasks to reach a collectible, we were united by a sense of reward. Even when we were in different parts of an area, we were always working together toward a common goal.
The preview took us through three worlds, each offering Ember and Rime a new ability to use in order to explore new places, which keeps the gameplay fresh by constantly providing new challenges, especially since the powers aren’t always very easy to use. One of them involved a mechanic that, if Ember and Rime got too close, would cause an explosion that would send the two flying in different directions. My friend and I never quite got the hang of how to perform a high jump using this so the game could’ve been a bit more smooth with gradually teaching us the new mechanic. The controls feel a bit wonky at times, too, and since the variety of powers is integral to the gameplay, I feel like a quick tutorial before the introduction of a new power can easily resolve this issue.
The story is written by prolific games industry writer Chris Avellone, who’s best known for his work on Fallout: New Vegas, Prey, and Pillars of Eternity, and narrated by Kira Buckland, who is renowned for her work as 2B in NieR: Automata, Talim in Soul Calibur VI, and Kirumi in Danganronpa V3. While the preview didn’t explore too much of the story across the three worlds I had access to, the narration is pleasantly frequent and thus allows the story to feel equally at the forefront as the gameplay does.
However, Degrees of Separation can also guide the player more efficiently in this regard. The narration is helpful, but since this is a non-linear world that doesn’t always follow the classic platformer rule of just going toward the right side of the screen in order to progress, it could be more helpful in steering players in the right direction. The non-linearity means you might trigger a line of narration that doesn’t quite immediately follow the last one that you heard. While the dialogue achieves its purpose of establishing the story, it isn’t as successful in accomplishing its goal of informing the player as to exactly where they have to go.
Degrees of Separation is a visually beautiful romance between story and gameplay that is already shaping up to be a memorable experience. I’ve played only a handful of co-op games, but none have ever quite captured me like this one. The combination of the stunning graphics, ethereal music, and narration of a story teeming with mystery gives the game a magical aura despite the few concerns that ground it. I’m looking forward to seeing what surprises the game’s story and gameplay will deliver, and hopefully, I’ll be at home with my best friend by the time it comes out to resume the story together.