- Format: PC, Vita/PSN (version reviewed)
- Unleashed: Out Now
- Publisher: Twisted Tree
- Developer: Ed Key and David Kanaga
- Players: 1
- Site: http://www.visitproteus.com/
Independently developed videogames with an artistic streak are like snowflakes: they’re lovely and unique but there sure are a lot of them. Originally released for the PC in early 2013 and now launching on the PSN and Vita, Proteus is one such indie game that goes way out on a limb, offering players a living piece of pixel art to explore without any objectives or story to speak of. Comparisons can be made to a handful of other titles– the procedurally generated landscape of Minecraft and Journey’s spiritual quest come to mind– but Proteus is far more ethereal. If poking around inside a moving painting sounds intriguing to you, this might be your thing; if it sounds dull and rather pointless, your princess undoubtedly resides in another castle. If it sounds like a little of both… well, you’re probably right.
Zero instruction is administered at the outset of Proteus, and that’s for the best; after all, you’re essentially relegated to strolling about and looking at things. A three-dimensional world built up of two-dimensional sprites unfolds through a first-person perspective, creating a pastel world always in motion. The hills are indeed alive with the sound of music as a natural improv band reacts to your every step. Flocks of monochrome birds scatter with the plucky notes of a dozen feet and standing stones chime with mystery should you approach, while the top of a mountain quiets the soundscape to a hushed whisper. Taking in this mesmerizing mixture of audio and visual splendour is a key part of enjoying your time in Proteus, but the march of time presses you ever onward.
Dawn turns to deep night, spring to summer, and fall to winter, shifting with the weather and animal populace. Once you’ve had enough a particular season you can launch yourself into the next, wherein the whole island transforms. A warm summer day is worlds away from an overcast evening in autumn, whisking away carefree joy to be replaced by an oppressive blanket of uncertainty. Delving into each period of time unearths mysteries made more unpredictable with a light touch of randomly crafted terrain for each playthrough, but the impatient will quickly be thwarted. There’s plenty to see in Proteus– often joyful and occasionally frightening– but there’s precious little to do.
The whole adventure will be over in about forty-five minutes, and unless you’re itching to discover every little detail or soak up the atmosphere all over again, there isn’t much reason to go back for more. Like a painting hanging on the wall, its ultimate value hinges on how long you’re willing to gaze at it. The last thing anyone wants to do is size up a Monet and stick a qualitative number on it, but when you run with the videogame crowd, that’s exactly what happens; and as a fulfilling product worthy of your money, Proteus stands on shaky ground.
The PSN release certainly does nothing to change your mind a second time around, but newcomers will find a picture-perfect version of the game well-suited to a large TV and a DualShock controller. The download also comes with a PlayStation Vita copy of Proteus that includes a few bonus features (most notably an option to generate the island using your GPS location), but we weren’t able to test them as our reviewer does not have a Vita because he spent all his money on Star Wars LEGO sets. Either way, the PSN and PC versions of Proteus are essentially indistinguishable from one another, so let your own conscience guide you.
There’s nothing wrong with attempting to deliver an experience of the senses devoid of cumbersome gameplay, but it takes a strong emotional reaction to carry it onto success. Even Dear Esther, a game as non-active as they come, manages to interweave a complex narrative throughout several hours. The thoughtful, relaxing nature of Proteus begins and ends with a simple idea executed with imagination, and if that’s enough for you to take the plunge, then godspeed and have fun. Just know that not everyone will come out the other side with a satisfied smile.