Valve defined and then perfected a new subgenre with a pair of games called Portal. In the decade since we last visited Aperture Science, we’ve seen countless developers try to capture that magic with their own first-person puzzlers. Some simply set the scene at a new location and call it a day, others attempt to forego the ironic comedy of the source material to present something unique, and every last one of them comes up with their own inevitably high-tech puzzle-solving gimmick. While no one has matched the superb writing of Portal 2, there have been enough games that stand on their own and move this category beyond mere Portal clones. The Entropy Centre, a new puzzler from Stubby Games and Playstack, has no such ambition. Cubes, an impossibly cheery AI, and a science lab in disrepair await anyone who visits this center, but the throwback didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would as I played through the game’s upcoming Next Fest demo.
The Entropy Centre‘s familiar concept is front and center from the jump. Players start off as a small cog in a massive scientific operation orbiting Earth. Your job is to complete puzzles using a gun that can rewind static objects like cubes and bounce pads, but you learn this through context clues since you have narratively convenient amnesia. Your companion is an AI installed onto the gun that offers a running corporately approved commentary on the events. Your character is also voiced, which seems odd to me. The back-and-forth banter with an unhelpful computer elicits a few chuckles, but most of the basic emotions and set dressing your character spews out feel better left to the imagination.
The early challenges I sampled all require you to unlearn how cube and switch puzzles work in other first-person puzzlers, which could be a clever twist if the developers continue to stretch it in the full game. I got stuck a few times, even in these first levels. It was easy to slip right back into the mindset of trying every possible scenario to discover an answer. I wish I could have gotten even a taste of some of the scenarios The Entropy Centre teases in its trailer, but I know it’s rather tricky to demo this type of game in the first place. The best in the genre build for hours to beautifully complex Rube Goldberg machines of mechanics and guesswork, and I see no reason why that can’t be the case here.
As far as the story goes, there is some potential there, although it’s already clear that the game isn’t going to deliver a narrative tour de force. Despite the spot-on cheery disposition of the AI’s voicework, the writing feels like nothing to write home about. This also goes for the narrative collectibles that try to build out the world through emails that sometimes hint far too heavily at what’s going on in the mystery-filled campaign. The demo is clearly very early on, so this all could change for the final release. However, the demo’s tidbits of fiction don’t stand out from the countless other games of this ilk I’ve played and forgotten over the years.
Having said all that, The Entropy Centre seems like another Portal-esque game that won’t stand out from the crowd, but I do sense something beyond the standard gameplay and story that draws me in. Many of the problems I’ve had with first-person puzzlers since Portal is how much they want to reinvent the wheel. I’ve played through surreal dreamscapes that meditate on life’s hardships instead of going for any sense of story. I’ve tried my hand at games attempting to scare me between logical nightmares. I’ve laughed at those that run with Valve’s goofiest tendencies and take them to off-the-wall extremes. These games have their place, but very few stand up to scrutiny compared to the original.
What I haven’t played much in this genre, especially recently, is a game that tries to live in the same space as Portal and its sequel. The earliest days of the genre certainly had this, but I feel like they were all also trying to add to the formula in ways that didn’t work. We’ve spent a decade trying to recreate the puzzle gun scenario while assuming that the science lab setup is disposable. The Entropy Centre (and a few others like the underrated gem The Turing Test) understands that the scientific trappings are just as crucial to the overall package as the physics-defying action.
So, while you’ve almost certainly played games like The Entropy Centre in the past, you might find a lot to like in its familiar trappings. The game feels like a return trip to the labs, and that familiarity makes things all the more interesting when the puzzles ask you to defy everything you know about moving cubes onto switches. If Stubby Games can continue to expand the scope of their puzzle chambers and introduce a few exciting narrative twists, their game could turn back the clock for players everywhere, letting them experience a renewed dose of the Aperture Science magic that we’re all searching for.
TechRaptor previewed The Entropy Centre on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher.