2DArray's Fixation is the prequel to 2009's acclaimed The Company of Myself, but as you might suspect knowing Eli Piilonen, it's got more than a few tricks up its sleeves. This moody and surreal puzzle platformer stars Kathryn, a young woman with a lot of baggage and not much desire to confront it. Instead, she's focusing on other things... her roommate's boneheaded boyfriend, for instance. Or maybe the strange people she meets who don't seem to have control of their habits. But if the root of her stress was just as simple as "he's annoying" and "she's a bimbo", then Kathryn probably wouldn't be about to embark on the journey she is. Lasers? Bottomless pits? Personal conflict? Oh, I think we've all been there.
Use the [WASD] or [arrow] keys to advance dialogue or move around and jump, or double-jump. The mouse, you'll shortly discover, is used to trigger and direct Kathryn's smoke; she's a habitual smoker, and the stuff she exhales can be used for a variety of things, aside from getting kicked out of restaurants, such as flipping switches and blocking lasers. It's not just belching like a dragon, of course; like any smoker with her salt, Kathryn can also blow rings with the right timing to flip other switches. Despite what Kathryn may think, however, she can't go it alone; you'll find yourself teaming up with other characters who will follow you around and help out. Oh, and if you're not digging the mellow tunes, right-click the game and select "mute" from the pop-up window.
Analysis: Fixation is a trip. Combining an evocative soundtrack by David Carney, expressive artwork by the talented Ben Jelter, and Eli Piilonen deft touch with crafting a narrative, it's an extremely strange but compelling little package. Strange because, well, we are talking about a world where everyone reacts to magical smoke and smoke-related switches blocking off parts of their scary floating houses, and compelling because its ability to flesh out the people and circumstances around them is really impressive. It's surprising how well everything matches, and the detailed sprites and animations look fantastic. Once you stop focusing on how weird everything is, however, you'll discover that Fixation has some serious puzzle platforming chops to go with its introspection.
The layout of the levels varies from "that was neat" to "how did I get so bad at games"? Getting the hang of Kathryn's smoke is what might be trickiest for some players, especially since the timing for smoke rings can be maddening to wrangle when you're hurrying along on several timed switches at once. If you're not a platformer by trade and just want to experience the narrative, you might find it a bit of an uphill climb in places. Fortunately, like any good puzzle game, once you figure out the trick to any given level and stop trying to do things the wrong way, you'll have a much easier go of it. This is easier said than done, of course, since Fixation is no slouch in the clever department, and there's more than one stage that will manage to make you feel both simultaneously brilliant and dumb when you get the hang of it. It's part of what makes Fixation so very satisfying. Well, that and knowing the pink overalls I wore when I was six are coming back in fashion. The difficulty level feels sort of like it swells and ebbs; certain stages midway through the game I felt were tricky but immediately solvable, while others had me running back and forth in utter bafflement, ready to quit. As the game advises you at the beginning, don't be afraid to take a break; sometimes a set of refreshed eyes is the answer.
While the puzzling is definitely worth checking out, however, you'd be missing out if you just focused solely on it and skipped all the dialogue. It's interesting to see how Kathryn's character is revealed through her interactions with the characters she meets, especially when they cause her to rethink something about herself. Like its predecessor, Fixation excels at weaving a very character driven narrative, and the cast is almost universally likable, and of course more complex than they initially appear. You'll need some steady reflexes and some patience to get through it, but Fixation a creative and clever game isn't just blowing smoke.