You press shift to create one of the titular Boxmen, who are essentially orange, autistic clones who’ll compulsively do whatever you were doing when you created them. If you were running, they’ll keep running, arms flailing behind them. If you were standing, they’ll /stand/ there, and they’ll stand /hard/, clenching their little implied fists. At first, this is incorporated into Zelda-level stuff: you place a dude on a button, which holds open a door, and you run through and grab the box. Easy. Then it expands nicely, for about eight levels, demanding that you gently stretch your brain in ways that Portal or Braid have probably already stretched out for you. The last two of these levels start to rely a little on your reactions, but I didn’t find it to be a problem executing my plan, once I had one. At this point, it’s shaping up to be a lovely little game. Then there’s level 9. Level 9 has no visible geometry. You have a stock of 14 friends to make. You’re supposed to use them to probe the invisible platforms, but it’s really a terrible puzzle. There are only 13 levels, so this is just under 10% of the whole game here, and it’ll probably kill your momentum. If you can struggle through it, go ahead. It gets a little worse, though. One level, where you must carefully place five crouching Boxmen atop thin spires, then return across, is infuriating. If you fall once, you need to place them again. And again. And again. The last two levels are interesting for me: they’re my favourite puzzles in the game, and it felt great to beat them, but they’re still dependant on timing, planning, trial and error. I don’t know how many times I landed on that switch, only to panic and move off it again, and ruined the puzzle. Or how long it took me to crack the timing of getting those two Boxmen to hit those two switches at the same time.
If you look at it like a puzzler that thinks it’s mario or sonic, it’s not a very good game, is it? And you know, it could be better, actually, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. I’ve read this same complaint all over – it relies on timing. It needs careful timing. I can’t get the timing right, I need to keep trying again. There’s this unwritten rule, seemingly, forbidding Puzzle games from demanding quick player reactions. Did you ever play the last level on Mario? Did you see the underwater fire? We say things like “puzzle” because we like to differentiate between obstacles that are simple and frequent – like a jumping puzzle – and ‘boss’ obstacles that slow us down to a crawl until we can solve them. Really, that’s the truth of it. Level 9 is absolutely inexcusable, and that other level could be made less fiddly, but the game doesn’t need to bow to your expectations, just because you want to smoke a pipe, study the level, and get it right first try. You have to be good to do that. You have to practice. Anyone who beat Mario can jump onto a tiny ledge and hop off again – that doesn’t mean we didn’t fall to our deaths the first hundred times. Where did that patience go? Aren’t games worth that attention from you anymore?
When you let Use Boxmen be what it wants to be, when you let it show you how to play, when you sit down to those final levels and realise you’re actually fighting a boss, when you finally crack the synchronicity on that last sublime puzzle, you’ll taste victory. It’s short and sweet. Ideally, I’d like more of those last two levels, but that’s just a testament to how rewarding and challenging they are. Suck it up, get ready to swear at level 9, and go play them.