Imagine being a curator at a museum of fine arts. It’s the day before the grand opening of a new exhibition, but you still haven’t finished hanging all the paintings and you are kind of panicking. The rooms of the museum keeps changing, looping, bending in on themselves. It’s just your imagination, though. Of course. Must be. It’s the stress. Busy schedule and no vacation.
You sit down for a moment. Go through all the rooms and paintings in your mind. You’re good at this. It’s just the new security system that fails you. Getting on your nerves a bit. You could call them, but the name of the firm slipped right out of your mind the minute they left… or no, wait… One of the guys was called Bob… but the other? It sounded foreign, Danish maybe, but she said you could call her Bill: “It’s easier that way.” Her full name was something else, though… something like… Bilse? You quite cannot remember. What’s even weirder is that they did it for free: a pretty sweet deal, but you’re starting to regret it. There’s no turning back now, though, so you take a deep breath and get started.
Impresja by Adam Tarnowski is a puzzle game set in a mysterious art museum where nothing seems to ever stay as it is. Machine translation tells me the title is Polish for “impression” — which might be wrong, but it does make sense: the game really is about “a difference made by the action or presence of someone or something“, but also “an effect produced on someone“, because the game had quite the impact on me when I was just minutes into it.
I easily got lost and also a bit of a headache. I even had to restart once, because I was progressing without knowing why. I knew I wasn’t going to beat the game without the proper research, because that is what the puzzles are about: you are told only the basics and then it’s up to you to figure everything out — even the very rules of the game are left unexplained, unmentioned. You’re on new ground here. Nothing is given to you unless you put your mind to it, so I reset my progress and started figuring things out for real. That’s when the game started paying off.
You could say that the game made an impression on me: I was impressed by how well everything connected not only locally, but globally. There were some issues, but I’m going to recommend this right away to anyone who likes a challenge.
So, the puzzles are easily likened to research: you see a phenomenon, but don’t yet know how to explain what’s happening, so you set up a first hypothesis, test it, restate it, test it again, restate it again, and so on until you have a better understanding of what’s going on. Then you see another phenomenon. You think the two might be related, so you test your previous model on this new phenomenon and it turns out to still be true. Your model is reinforced, but then a third phenomenon is introduced and this one doesn’t fit your model at all: what do you do?
The puzzles are also about moving paintings from one wall to another, passing through security checks with cameras watching your every move. At the same time, the whole museum is like a huge jigsaw puzzle with the rooms being the pieces. You will not be told what to do or where to go, and you might have to trial and error a couple of times before you learn the rules, but once you do, things will get a lot easier. A good visual memory will help. Colour and the tracing of lines play an important role too.
The art style is low-key: clean, calm, minimalistic. Lots of white, but also colour where it counts. The music is electronic ambience with no beat to speak of except your own footsteps.
The whole place looks bigger than it is due to how the rooms interconnect, loop back, and appear to be part of an impossible layout. You can get lost without even leaving the room you’re in and the game plays with both your sense of direction and location.¹ Before learning the rules, it was a bit like talking to one of the old ones: they warn you that the human mind is not ready, but you insist and then you go mad.
I got utterly stuck at one time and had to look things up². Turned out I had missed that you can interact with some paintings in more than one way, but after getting that little fact, things went smoothly (relatively speaking). I was so used to it not working like that, so I didn’t notice the signs telling me otherwise (in hindsight, I should have noticed, but didn’t).
Because of how things take place inside a 3D world, you lose the overview, making you rely entirely on your memory of where things are — unless you make your own maps on paper and continually update them (which I didn’t). This also means a lot of running back and forth, especially towards the end:
I had the most fun with the first three quarters. Even if the last quarter was a bit of a relief, it was also the least fun, because the focus switched from slowly figuring out the rules and quickly performing the needed actions (more thinking and less chores) to quickly figuring out the rules and slowly performing the needed actions (less thinking and more mindless chores).
I think the last part would have benefitted from being reworked: The concept in itself was great, but maybe it didn’t have to be repeated as many times as it was. One suggestion could be to allow some form of fast-travel, for example via a subset of the paintings (many paintings would probably have to be locked).
There is a slight delay every time you stop walking, as if you are walking on ice and can’t help but slide a bit before halting completely. It does mess with precision, but I stopped noticing after a while, so it wasn’t as annoying as it was at first.
The only real bug I ran into was when right-clicking an easeled painting and then a figure who was holding another painting, but clicking the held painting instead of the figure: this resulted in the game entering an infinite loop, which meant I had to close the game window (via Alt-F4) and restart the game. The game always started at the same spot afterwards, though, so nothing lost. I learned to avoid this by always clicking directly on the figure (for example its legs).
¹I could have wished for clearer landmarks discernible from a distance, allowing me to tell apart two rooms of the same colour without having to enter them and look closer. This would have provided clearer feedback and allowed the player to immediately see a change. Then again, I could also wish for a more efficient mind, but, hey, it’s easier to complain than change yourself, isn’t it!? 😉 😛
²Spoiling a solution is something I always think twice about, but I had a review to write, so I went ahead, but tried not to spoil things more than absolutely needed.