Sequels can be an extremely tricky enterprise. Take it from someone who (accidentally on purpose) watched Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull last night, even the most anticipated sequels can blow up in your face—with nary a refrigerator to hide in! As it stands, They Need to be Fed has a strong record; its debut was a clean, minimalist presentation of a brilliant new idea, and its second installment upped the ante in the best possible way. So, does the third attempt earn Sean Connery’s shtamp of approval or a drunken rant from Shia LeBeouf? Honestly…it doesn’t earn either.
For those of you unfamiliar with TNTBF, here is a brief rundown. It’s a 2D platformer where you complete levels by guiding your mute, bug-eyed character into the gaping mouths of hungry creatures. Your secondary objective is to collect as many diamonds as you can along the way, in order to be crowned the Diamond King (I like to think that an alternative tagline for this game is “Get rich and die tryin.”) The tricky part is that you can only advance by jumping far enough away from one free-floating platform such that you get sucked into the gravitational field of the next. It’s a really cool core game mechanic, one that subverts traditional platformer structure by forcing the player to constantly think in four directions.
As far as visual differences between the first through third, TNTBF3 has taken a departure from stark geometric backgrounds and instead opted for a more subdued ombre effect (where one color gradually becomes more or less saturated from the top of the screen to the bottom). The sound design has also evolved, exchanging quaint handclap-like rhythms for a synthesized snare drum layered with techno beats and occasional mechanical whirrings. These choices are all perfectly fine—the colorization is pretty and the soundtrack is definitely less repetitive than before. Still, something about their shift in aesthetic makes it feel like they’re trying to show how grown up they are, snubbing their noses at the kids menu, even though chicken fingers can be pretty goshdarn delicious.
This attitude is reflected in their decision to include a separate adventure mode just to make the game appear meatier and more sophisticated. Even putting aside some glitches and issues I had with the game losing my autosaves, there was just no fun in it whatsoever. The whole thing is a tedious escort mission without any story to propel it and no challenging puzzles to solve. Mostly you just walk back and forth from portal to portal, collecting enigmatic tokens and handing them off to people apparently in need of enigmatic tokens. Maybe it’s supposed to be a more meditative affair (it seems like meditative games are trending right now), but there is a thin line between meditation and masturbation. And frankly, wandering between portals for hours is hardly my favorite way to get carpal tunnel.
But there is good news! All the stuff that was great in the first two installments is still present in the third. The AI has gotten more sophisticated, so don’t expect the obstacles to move in set patterns. There are rolling spike balls that will tirelessly pursue you from one platform to the next. There are also spiky-headed villains that conceal themselves in the platform and are extremely good at predicting where you’ll land next—so they can re-emerge right under your feet. There are a few gameplay additions that didn’t quite work for me (including a force field within a dotted line that sends you across to the other side in a slow, agonizing fashion), but overall the gameplay is smart, addicting, and hardcore difficult.
TNTBF3 also seems to crescendo as you move between worlds, culminating in a rising lava hellscape that swallow platforms whole, without any checkpoints to save you. To a certain extent you can cheat and ride lava-resistant platforms all the way to the top, but you’d miss out on all the diamonds, and that’s no way to be crowned Diamond King. So it’s time to ask yourself: are you gonna be a Sean Connery, all-around bearded badass? Or are you going to settle for Shia LaBeouf, like an Even godforsaken Steven? I think you know which choice to take. Go forth and get thosh diamondsh, Junior.
Even though it doesn’t feel like TNTBF3 pulled out all the stops like last time, there’s still a very good game underneath the content fluffing.