Mired in the dregs of quarantine last summer, I engaged in an activity I can only attribute to acute boredom: I became extremely invested in Netflix’s Floor is Lava. The game show challenged its participants to re-enact a childhood ritual so universal that it seems to be encoded into our DNA. Its sets were designed to interpret the titular game as it appears in a child’s imagination; couches and ottomans floated precariously on a lake of red liquid while contestants swung from drapes like vines to safety.
That may be why I felt a twinge of familiarity when I started playing Glyph, a novel 3D platformer developed for the Switch by Danish studio Bolverk Games. It taps into the same primal urge to keep one’s feet above ground, amplifying that simple concept to fantastic heights.
Taking control of the eponymous Glyph, a robotic scarab beetle that spends much of its time rolled into a ball shape, players explore a post-apocalyptic desert that can only be traversed by jumping from platform to platform. Cracked pillars and stone slabs are safe to stand on, but touch the sand below and Glyph is cybernetic toast—back to the start of the level you go.
Both visually and mechanically, the game is composed of basic elements that Bolverk manages to wring good mileage out of. The pared-down approach works for the most part, offering a fast-paced experience with little distraction. Though not groundbreaking, it is fun.
Given the shape of Glyph’s protagonist, it has drawn inevitable comparisons to Sega’s Monkey Ball series, which aren’t really warranted. While the latter’s cast of sphere-confined simians are mere vessels for the player to protect, completely at the mercy of the physics of tilting platforms, the former has much more autonomy in regards to movement. Samus’ morph ball is a better analog, but even that doesn’t do justice to Glyph’s hypermobility.
Glyph’s core mechanics—jumps, chargeable double jumps, downward smashes, and brief spurts of flight—remind me of the acrobatic jump sequences players could pull off using Cappy in Super Mario Odyssey. They’re gradually introduced over the course of a 15-to-20 minute tutorial before letting the player dig into the remaining levels. Of the levels, 30 are time trials that are essentially mini speedruns to the exit, while the remaining 80 are devoted to exploration. Completing these stages requires you to collect a couple of keys to unlock an exit portal, which can take just a few minutes in a rush. However, you’ll likely spend loads more time scouring their nooks and crannies for collectibles.
The easier-to-find goodies like coins and gems are required to progress to the game’s later stages, initially inaccessible in Glyph’s hub world: the ancient ruins of Aaru, populated by a single robo-beetle named Anobi who hopes to restore his home to its former glory. If you’re a completionist like myself, though, you’ll put in the extra effort to figure out the perfect combination of aerial maneuvers to reach the better-hidden treasures. In addition to a gold token that will grant access to time trials, each level contains an unlockable cosmetic (called an “avatar”), which is usually worth the effort to nab. There’s a pink Jack-’o-lantern piloted by a bedsheet ghost, a cyberpunk dragonfly, and a spooky Lovecraftian mollusk—and those are just the tip of the iceberg. Glyph boasts a massive amount of content and replayability if you’re patient enough to master it.
While the variety of unlockable cosmetics is astounding, the game’s environments begin to feel same-y over the course of your 110-level campaign. Glyph’s smooth surfaces and comic-book color palette are easy on the eyes, but fail to immerse the player in the story Bolverk wants to tell. Your aforementioned sidekick Anobi divulges information about Aaru’s history at random points midway through each stage, giving a little context to what is usually a chaotic assemblage of rocks and pillars. Until you reach later stages of the story, however, there’s not enough synthesis between game and lore to add up to emotional impact. I wouldn’t mind leaving more up to the imagination, especially when it’s the thrill of finally solving a frustrating puzzle that makes Glyph compelling.
That said, there is something almost hypnotic about these empty spaces. I love the clanking sound of Glyph’s metal feet against stone and the pulsing synth drones that make up the game’s soundtrack. It’s easy to kill a couple hours exploring Aaru without realizing how long you’ve been there. Part of me wishes there was an even larger hub world to explore without worrying about time or progress. It’d be relaxing just to bounce around in the same way that swinging between buildings in a Spider–Man game never gets old.
It’s that simplicity at Glyph’s core that keeps it fresh. Piloting the insectoid protagonist feels like learning to play with a toy (and it does kind of resemble a Bakugan, come to think of it). Even when you’re failing at landing a jump time and time again, the looming sense of accomplishment on the other side makes the struggle worthwhile. Before you know it, that double jump to glide sequence might come as naturally to you as a jump from sofa to recliner.
[A review code was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review]