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Tightrope Theatre review - "Failure is very much an option"

 

Navigating the tricky waters of the harsh adult world can teach you plenty of things, but three of the most important should always be at the top of your mind: life is short, you can't escape your taxes, and always read the fine print. That last one was likely what got poor Chester in trouble in Tightrope Theatre.


Unfortunately for Chester the clown, the fine print is a note that says, "Theatre not responsible for injury or death." He's now inevitably thrust into a colourful world of deathly spikes and giant cannons, all to pursue a dream of being the hottest tightrope performer in the world - and it's up to you to make sure he achieves that dream.


Helping Chester with his dream aside, the game tasks you with trying your best to traverse all manner of horrors in the theatre - from dodging falling barrels to bouncing off giant springs - all while managing your balancing act on a unicycle. All these are presented in an adorable pixel art style, and while the background environments are simple, they do their job perfectly well in that they don't distract from the task at hand.


The puzzle platformer features retro music and an overall vibe that reminds me so much of Circus Charlie from way back when, and it's an aesthetic delight. Charlie himself is pretty cute, as he's got this perpetual look of fear on his face - you can actually see his eyes darting back and forth as you roll along on your unicycle trying to perform death-defying acts.


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THE GAMEPLAY OF TIGHTROPE THEATRE

Speaking of impossible feats, you'll have to do a whole bunch of them before you can progress through the 100 levels of the game across five different stages. The mechanics may seem simple - get from point A to point B in one piece - but being on a unicycle makes the simple act of moving left and right an absolute horror. Granted, I'm not the most skilled platformer when it comes to the genre, but punishingly difficult games make it even harder for me to appreciate the amount of thought and effort put into them because things are just too frustrating.


Chester will always slip to and fro because of the very nature of a unicycle, which means that you have to be a precision expert when jumping from one platform to the next while avoiding spikes and other obstacles at the same time. As you progress through the stages, you'll also have to think about how you want to traverse the landscape - it's not just a simple linear path, as you'll have to strategise the right ledge you want to hop onto if you want to reach the finish line (or platform) unscathed.


This kind of expert-level difficulty is what kept me from thoroughly enjoying the game. While levels are short, they can be extremely frustrating (albeit making each success even sweeter) especially since you only get one shot. Falling to your death or getting hit by a wayward cannon makes you start from the very beginning of the level, which means that a certain platform you may have spent forever trying to reach will mean wasted effort if you make one wrong move.


After failing about 20 times or so, an option to skip the level pops up as a sort of pity system to put you out of your misery (a boon I often accepted). While it's a relief to have that easy way out as an option, it doesn't feel very satisfying if you keep going for that route more times than necessary.


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The visuals do look lovely, and the mechanics are simple enough that it makes for a great pick-up-and-go title. I do understand that this kind of punishing difficulty has a certain appeal to a lot of players, but perhaps it's just not my cup of tea.

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