Baba Is You Review — Game is Fine, Reviewer is Dumb
Possibly the most original puzzle game in recent memory, Baba is You is also an exercise in frustration and stretched-out logic.
Despite what its adorable aesthetics may imply, Baba is You is an intimidating video game. It is a magnificently realized high concept idea, one that I can only imagine was even more difficult to craft than to play. Still, I must emphasize that it is quite hard to play. It is a puzzle and logic game that I’d say I’ve had a relationship with, one lasting several months, long after I received review code for the Nintendo Switch version—and I don’t use the word “relationship” lightly.
Like a lot of first romantic partners people have had, Baba is You is confusing, and seemingly has everything you need to know about them written all over like a book, yet there is so much it just won’t tell you about itself. This leads to euphoric happy times, arguments, and eventual on-and-off extended breaks. You don’t quite know whether it’s their fault or your own damn fault.
In the end, I am fairly convinced that Baba is You is a very good game, and at the very least, a great premise for a game. It was a struggle, though, having to reconcile with the logic of it all, and I still cannot tell if my failures were due to intellectual and logical shortcomings, or lines of thinking that are far too out of the box.
During most levels, you are Baba, who is probably a rabbit, let’s say. The player will navigate through a world map, having to solve a puzzle in each level. These levels all have a win condition, but it comes with many other conditions in between. Usually, touching a flag on another part of the level will result in a victory state, but besides in the first tutorial level, it is never quite that simple. In fact, it gets absurdly complex as the game progresses.
This game never has any proper instructions—in lieu of that, you’ll get a catchy level title and more importantly, a series of conditionals to manipulate in the level. “BABA IS [YOU]”, is the most common one, with each word being a separate block to move. “DOOR IS [SHUT]”, “KEY IS [OPEN]”, “ROCK IS [PUSH]”, “WALL IS [STOP]”, and so on. Soon, you’ll learn to move these text blocks and change the conditionals, making doors pushable, making the key into your playable character, and more countless possibilities.
As you progress through more worlds, more options will add on to said countless possibilities. An “AND” or “NOT” block, for example. Perhaps an object can “HAVE” another object that it releases upon breaking. Maybe another option will move alongside [YOU]. Quite often, a failure state will result from touching something with the conditional [DEATH] or [DEFEAT], or if you mess with the [YOU] block too much, resulting in a logic break and total motionless, a fate arguably worse than death.
Like I mentioned, with no instructions to handhold you as you play, you’re just going to have to do things. Experiment with every block, find out what secrets they have to hide, see what interacts well with others, and most importantly, find the limitations of each possible function and every possible permutation. Eventually, players will find out some limitations at the very core that will help them sift through the possibilities later in the game.
For one, the player can’t pull any blocks, only push—if there’s a word block against a wall, you’re likely never move it out of that spot again. Luckily, there is a quick undo button if you do happen to accidentally make that so. You can only push elements one direction forward, so moving through narrow spaces with turns will foil many plans. And of course, you can’t make a conditional statement that is inherently contradictory—you can’t make a rock both [HOT] and [MELT] at the same time, being an example I hope I remember correctly.
You’re going to have to get super clever, and to the credit of Baba is You, there are a number of levels that result in an unparalleled level of satisfaction from problem-solving. Solutions are never as simple as they appear to be, almost like the game reverse engineers the thinking process of any prospective player and goes out of its way to eliminate all but one of their possible solutions (jeez, imagine being a game designer). But in time, there will come a level that boggles the mind to the point that you have to consult online help—and from there, your thought will be “how could I have possibly come up with that?”
I don’t necessarily think that the game ever “cheats” the player, but there are certain functions that Baba is You makes the player figure out that is near impossible to understand from just three simple words. Couple that with the fact that the game has gone through a few updates, changing the layouts and some key parts of certain levels, and I feel that the developers and designers are making a strange effort to make the solutions for Baba is You even more perplexing, and possibly less accessible to players.
Playing on the Switch has led to an interesting habit of mine: I hit the Share button after completing a particularly difficult level. Sometimes it’s due to that satisfaction that I mentioned above, like a little trophy to myself for apparently outsmarting this video game. All of the other times, however, was meant to serve as a tiny instant replay, probably after I looked up a solution on Google or YouTube, one that I would revisit to try to figure out just how the hell that puzzle worked in the first place.
Baba is You has me quite contemplative on the purpose of guides—I’m sure we have memories of Prima books or IGN walkthroughs giving us nudges and hints while navigating long RPGs and adventure games. With a puzzle game such as this one, these guides seem like they’d contradict the purpose of a problem-solving game in the first place. It may be disheartening to see someone on YouTube figure out the solution in less than a minute, but imagine how inadequate one feels when they watch that entire video solution and still don’t understand how the puzzle worked.
In terms of artistic direction, Baba is You is surprisingly unsettling. There appears to be a deliberately and childishly simple look—Baba itself isn’t exactly symmetrical, and it moves and wiggles around in a way that reminds me of a Cartoon Network show like Ed, Edd n Eddy. Same goes for all of the game pieces, particularly the text. There’s something in your mind that tells you that these sprites and their movements are unnatural, so imagine my discomfort when I make a function like “BABA IS [EMPTY]”, resulting in all empty spaces producing multiple weird little bunnies.
The sound design for moving text blocks, winning, and losing/dying provides some good feedback, and the music is light-hearted and whimsy, appropriately changing to something more ethereal or atmospheric depending on the world’s theme (fire, grass, ice, etc). Make a mistake and fail, and the music abruptly comes to a halt—again, something unexpectedly unsettling.
As I finally wrap up my review, I feel that I am honing in on the reasons why it took me so long. I admire the hell out of Baba is You, but eventually, the jumps in logic made my experience less fun, and I fell out of the game hard. Baba is You is a game that I want to hang up on a frame or in a trophy case, point out to visitors and say “yeah, that’s a great game, and you should try it.” But given any free time in the future, I can’t imagine that I’d revisit it for very long, knowing how badly it will bust my brain up.