Tin Hearts is a puzzle game all about time. Its story revolves around technologies ahead of their time, features a story told out of time, and you, yourself, have the power to pause, speed up and reverse the passage of time.
When people first think of little tin soldiers in a video game they probably think of something in the strategy or wargaming genre, however, Tin Hearts is actually a cheerful puzzler wrapped around a slow, deep narrative. It’s an incredibly smart and well-paced puzzle game, with new elements and components introduced gradually and thematically throughout its three acts.
Most of your time with Tin Hearts is spent moving around the rooms of Albert J. Butterworth’s family home and workshop. You’re spectral in form, but can’t move through objects, instead hovering around the room, occasionally gaining new abilities and capabilities as you try to guide tin soldiers to an exit gate within each room.
The preview build that I played was a careful bundle of levels that took me from simply moving loose pieces into fixed spaces to activating treadmills that power electric generators to extend bridges. On the way, there are toy cannons that can directly interact with things like toy blimps and ladders; drums that can propel the soldiers through the air; and even moments where you can explore the level as one of the tin soldiers. While the generators, and their associated elements, feel like they’re a mile away from the game’s core, toy-themed pieces, the change from kinetic to electric matches the change from the house to the workshop and from happier memories to the obsession of the main character.
That journey from a quiet, family home life into deep obsession isn’t something that was covered much in the preview build, however, it’s been very present in the trailers that have been released so far. It really felt like a different game than the ones in the trailer, with their teased dark, underlying story. Tin Hearts, for me, was a puzzle narrative about wonder, and maybe about secrets, with only a little nudge toward a darker path. Maybe that narrative has shifted since those earlier trailers, some things certainly have; For a start, unlike the current Steam listing, all of the characters I saw in memories were also spectral.
Each level follows a simple goal of getting the soldiers from point A to point B, and even as new mechanics are added into the game, it’s very clear that the developers, Rogue Sun, have made a lot of effort to not break the major rule of puzzle games; when I was stuck it felt like it me not understanding something, and not bad game design.
A large part of that is due to the implementation of time control. Shortly after starting Tin Hearts you get the power to speed up, slow down and outright pause time. This feels a little unnecessary at the start beyond rewinding your soldiers to life so they can take a corrected path, however, before long you are having to course correct around them, reusing pieces from earlier in the level to help them progress. It feels like a natural progression and it’s only when you think back to the earlier levels that you realise quite how far you’ve managed to develop your puzzle-solving ability within the game’s framework.
But, Tin Hearts is aiming to be more than just a simple level-based puzzle game. Most of the levels take place around scenes from Butterworth’s past, sometimes even altering the level by triggering the right objects (walking over a piano, marching past a castle) and that’s where the narrative really starts to feel as though it is tied to the puzzles. It’s a clever way of buckling a narrative onto a game, however, most games force you to watch any moments of narrative by locking the screen, taking away your control, or forcing it into your face in a quick, attention-stealing manner. Tin Hearts doesn’t do this, and its story moves quite slowly — at least from the levels I saw — and so I’m not too sure if it will persist quite as strongly as the idea of the tin soldiers as puzzle elements for players.
That said, I am interested in the story; Obsession, Inventions and Victorian threads are rarely things that knot up into a narrative, and, hopefully, the playfulness of the earlier levels find a way to persist as the level locations change. But, of everything, I’m most interested in trying out Tin Hearts in VR, on which it’s due to launch later this year.
Tin Hearts is set to release later on this year, when it does it’ll do so on Switch, PC, PS, Xbox and also on Oculus Rift