A door opens. Light falls upon a plant. It responds with a great arboreal blossoming. The heavily bloomed tree sits on a revolving base. I turn it until the flowers become stepping stones for a woman on a journey.
While playing Ustwo Games' Monument Valley 2, this is the moment that makes me smile the most. But there are other occasions for pleasure, little vignettes of a surreal world that works its socks off to make me happy, at least for as long as it lasts.
Its structure is much the same as the 2014 original. I regard an isometric world of blocks, stairs, doors and elevators. I touch the screen to move a character called Ro along pathways, until she comes across an obstacle. I manipulate clearly signaled artifacts in order to aid her progression. One puzzle leads to another, in which I operate screws and hoists in order to create pathways, or I turn the screen to create more advance-able perspectives.
This is a fantastical world of Escher-esque nonsense, in which two-dimensional illusions create impossible three-dimensional spaces. As my point of view changes, girders transport themselves from one state of being to another. Lines cross and create baffling new realities.
My brain is being tricked into believing impossibilities. Ro walks upside down, but if I twist the screen, she is magically corrected. The world gives itself over to physical whimsy. It's a delight, just as it was in the first game.
Puzzles reveal their solutions through trial, error and a real sense of play. Ustwo's genius is finding the balance between simplicity and complexity. Each level feels like it wants you to succeed in your own good time. There is no frustration, no sense of urgency or hassle.
There are welcome differences and additions from the last outing. Monument Valley featured a single princess. But Ro isn't the only playable character this time around. She is joined by a small child, her daughter. Some of the puzzles require that mother and daughter work together in order to progress. I move them separately onto trigger buttons where they set-off openings for one another. I like them both for who they are and for what they do for one another.
This twining of characters is played out in an elementary story about independence and growth. Ro consults a mysterious oracle, which advises her on the importance of letting go, of allowing the girl to be herself. There's a videogamey Journey-esque mysticism at work here that, to be frank, feels a tiny bit played out. The oracle declares its austere lessons as we progress from one level to the next.
Despite the story's prognostications, this is a world of bright abstractions. Ro and her daughter communicate through expression only, via hugs and hand-holding. The game does a good job of painting the story using a limited palette, but it never really hits any emotional highs, and mostly serves as background to the puzzles.
The aesthetic of this world is catholic, ranging from severe Moorish geometry to Cubism. It plays freely with shapes and colors, and with the drama of movement. Blocks slide with satisfying heaviness. Stairs drop into place with perfect grace. Strong audio effects complement the sense of a concrete reality.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a sprinkling of adventurous puzzle elements such as light, which give the game the sort of progressive sense expected from a sequel. Without a doubt, new ideas are at play here. Perhaps I'm being overly demanding here, but I feel there might have been a good deal more. By the end of the game, I'm surprised, even disappointed that it's over so soon.
Monument Valley 2 is longer than its predecessor, up to 14 chapters from the original's 10. Even so, it is miserly with its innovations. Flirtations with sunlight, water, balance and cooperation all feel as though they lack consummation.
The sequel-ness of the game is compromised by a timidity to push its possibilities into unexplored areas of the imagination. Just at the point when the game teaches you its exotic language, it flits away. There's a lack of commitment to its own shining soul. A part of me — cynical and such — wonders when the DLC levels will drop and if they are already well on the way to being made.