Drawing clear inspiration from the likes of Journey, Flower, and Rez, Entwined certainly looks the part of an artsy indie classic. Telling the story (more or less) of a bird and a fish who repeatedly fall in love and reunite over the course of nine lifetimes, it delivers dazzlingly abstract visuals and a beautifully atmospheric soundtrack. It couldn't possibly scream "art-game!" any louder if it tried--but as lavish as its concept and production values are, the underlying game is nowhere near as vibrant.
Each of Entwined's "lifetimes" takes the form of a circular tunnel, surrounded by stunning visual effects that suggest volcanoes, ice caves, cityscapes, and other environments you can't actually interact with. The heroes sit on the circle's perimeter, with the orange fish confined to the left side and the blue bird to the right, and each corresponds to a different analog stick. As they rocket through the tunnel, your job is to maneuver them through rhythmically appearing orange, blue, and green tiles, producing chimes that complement the music without quite being part of it. Hit enough tiles, and they'll eventually merge into a green dragon that… just sort of flies around for a bit.
I'm oversimplifying, but not by much. There’s a decent amount of variety within the game’s narrow framework; tiles move around (and sometimes expand and contract) as you approach them, which makes them harder to hit, and they often come in uneven stacks that require increasingly tricky, weaving movements to hit them all. Most of the challenge comes from having to spot and react to two targets at once; one stack of tiles might require the fish to move in a downward arc while the bird moves up, or the bird to waggle up and down while the fish stays still, and so on. It’s enough to keep you on your toes, but not really compelling enough to sustain hours of play.
Success fills a pair of meters that, when full, begin to unite the fish and bird while the level speeds up and the music hits a crescendo. Missed tiles shrink those meters (and separate the duo if their merger has started), but unless you're playing Entwined's more minimalist, three-strikes Challenge mode, there's no cutoff fail state; you just continue flying through the level indefinitely, frustratingly, until you can score enough hits to pull the heroes together and move on. Yes, I realize that's probably a metaphor for endless reincarnation until enlightenment is achieved. No, that doesn't make it more enjoyable.
Transforming into a dragon at the end of each level is triumphant and liberating, in no small part because it's a switch from the confinement of tunnel gameplay to flying freely through big, beautifully realized arenas. The novelty wears off quickly, though, because all you really do in these sequences is collect colored dots to fill yet another meter. (They're also a little tough to control; directing the dragon with one analog stick feels slow and unresponsive, while using both in concert makes it easy to oversteer.) Once full, you burn that meter off by leaving a neon trail of skywriting, at which point the exit appears and you can move on to the next lifetime.
The story, such as it is, follows that same arc throughout its nine levels; nothing’s really explained or even progressed, apart from the landscape. It’s just a fish and a bird turning into a dragon nine times, with tons of visual flair and a rousing, but ultimately vague, finale. It’s mysterious and moody, but there’s no real narrative payoff or sense of discovery to pull you through to the end.
Bare-bones as its gameplay is, Entwined still manages to be moderately fun for the few hours it lasts, and nailing the more complex, complementary bird-fish maneuvers can feel awfully rewarding. Make no mistake, though: it's the presentation that makes this worth playing. Entwined's abstract worlds are wonderfully pretty, its music ranges from softly hypnotic to downright stirring, and its premise is intriguingly strange. Strip all that away, and you're left with a very shallow game about guiding colorful blobs through colorful holes--and where aesthetics might hide or distract from that in a more cleverly designed game, here they’re just window dressing for a fairly dull game mechanic. Entwined clearly wants to be something meaningful, but sadly falls short of anything more than eye candy.
A disappointingly bare-bones color-matching game that doesn't measure up to its artsy promise.