Strata Review: Thinking with layers
Puzzle games have always had a simple goal: make the player think. Stump them, give them pause, and entertain their brain. As the genre evolved, developers began incorporating narrative into the mix, as seen in games like Project Temporality, Portal and The Swapper.
Perhaps the abstract nature of the genre lends itself to equally abstract storytelling, allowing the player to collect expository breadcrumbs as they follow the puzzles. However, the magnum opus of puzzling has not changed: Don’t just make the player think, make them think differently. Invent and apply a mechanic so unique and pervasive that it forces the player to match their thinking to the game rather than obey common logic.
It doesn’t have a shred of narrative to its name, but Strata, the layer-based puzzler from developer Graveck, excels in teaching its players to think.
Even in the realm of 2x2, there are typically multiple solutions to every puzzle.
Strata is an ostensibly simplistic game, trimmed of fat in order to create an eclectic and stylized experience. With only striking visuals and smooth music for companions, you solve increasingly complex weaves. A soft, quilted backdrop frames your workspace: a grid of varying size, dotted with squares of color. The bottom of the screen displays your tools: ribbons of varying color to be woven through the grid. With that, and that alone, you begin.
The goal is simple: layer your ribbon in such a way that each square within the grid is covered by its color. Each square can have two ribbons covering it, but only the topmost ribbon must match. To place a ribbon, simply select the color you wish to use and click (or for the mobile version, tap) the column or row you want to cover. The two sides of the grid closest to you have are lined with activation squares, for lack of a better word, allowing you to cover the corresponding line of the grid with one ribbon. Each square can only be used once, meaning you’ll have to alternate between the two sides to fully cover all the colored spaces.
This creates an interesting game of back-and-forth, placing and then removing ribbons as you learn how the current grid will play out. Along with the size of the grids themselves, which begin at 2x2 and move toward 5x5, challenge is engineered by the drive to plan your movements beforehand rather than guessing and checking as you go along. Successfully completing a level without having to remove any placed ribbons will earn you a perfect score, a surprisingly compelling reward in such a simple game, and is the truer test of your deductive reasoning.
However, I did find that disregarding perfect scores trivialized much of the game, turning otherwise complicated levels into round after round of randomly placing ribbons until the solution appears obvious. The same can be said for its lengthy sets of levels: no amount of variance can make the latter half of 25 similarly designed levels feel any less repetitive. While I'm griping, I should point out that mapping "switch ribbon color" to the right mouse button would be a welcomed improvement to the interruptive, manual selection currently in place.
Its trailer states that “simplicity, elegance and challenge” were the pillars of Strata’s design. Every detail reflects the three. Levels do not simply start; they fall elegantly into place at the behest of the game’s soft, almost staccato notes. Ribbons are not colored randomly; weaves are carefully tailored to build contrast, flare, and visual engagement. Music and sound are not constant; they are a rare treat, appearing briefly with each move you make and then trailing off, as though reluctant to leave.
Many puzzles allow you to use whatever color you wish for the lower level, adding a dash of customization (if only visual) to the experience.
Every inch of it oozes style and care, but what’s most impressive is how its minimalism comes through in gameplay. The mechanics of placing ribbons and completing puzzles are explained in a scant four levels, played on the smallest grid and with the least colors available. Impressively, this is all that’s needed to set the player on their way. Supplementary mechanics come naturally as the levels gain size and intricacy, and you’ll have mastered higher tier sets before you realize how far you’ve come.
Strata does in a matter of seconds what many games waste upwards of 20 minutes of laborious CGI and text boxes on. It not only implements new mechanics and concepts, but internalizes them. Just by playing, you invariably learn patterns and rules unique to the grids, thereby proving the game’s success in the aforementioned goal of teaching a different thought process.
Strata is a bite-sized and barren puzzler, but one executed so cleanly that you can’t help but love it. Unique, charming and accessible, it’s an excellent fit for PC and mobile—simple enough to pick up for any period of time and so finely polished that you’re sure to enjoy it.