At the time of writing, Braid is the highest-rated game on Xbox Live Arcade. Some critics are already calling it the most important game of the year, others are describing it as a seminal experience to rank alongside Ico, Half-Life 2 and Bioshock. Unquestionably, it's an excellent game; there are ideas and whole levels in Braid that will inspire some game designers, and leave others green with envy. Is it really as good as everyone is saying? A lot will depend on how much you connect with Braid's melancholic atmosphere and story.
We'll get to that later. For now, what you need to know is that Braid is a puzzle game masquerading as an old-school 2D platform game, but one that has been jazzed up by time control. On one level its hero, Tim, is on a quest to rescue a princess from a castle, but one of the beauties of Braid is that this plot isn't to be taken too literally – the various worlds, with names like 'Time and Mystery' or ‘Time and Forgiveness' are introduced with fragments of narrative that reflect on a past relationship and tie into ideas being expressed within each level. Though your initial mission is to get through each world from beginning to end, moving from level to level in sequence, your real task is to collect all the pieces in that world's jigsaw puzzle, so recreating snapshots that document the stages of the affair. Only by fitting all the pieces back together will you fully understand Braid – or at least your own interpretation of what it's trying to say.
Braid wears its main gaming inspiration – Mario – on its sleeve, with simple left, right and jump controls, plus a nifty bounce attack that eliminates the game's monsters. Each world ends in a stylised version of a castle that will be familiar to anyone who's played the first Super Mario Bros, and a boss battle that recurs is not a million miles away from a typical Bowser scrap from Mario's glory years. What makes Braid different, however, is how tightly and completely time control is integrated into the game mechanics: pressing X at any point sends the game spooling back through the last few minutes of action, back to the very point where you entered the level. This is more than just a rewind feature to save Tim from certain doom; it's the key to the game's ingenious puzzles. Trust me: you might have seen this stuff employed before in Blinx or Prince of Persia, but you've never seen it done as brilliantly as it’s done here.