Games have been good to Halloween over the last couple of years. DLC packs have provided us with the likes of Borderlands’ Zombie Island of Dr Ned, and more recently, InFamous 2 has gotten in on the act with the slight but loveable Festival Of Blood. Then, of course, there’s Costume Quest, Double Fine’s equivalent of a Peanuts seasonal special. It may not be a particularly deep RPG, but with its freshly mown lawns, its tidy piles of autumn leaves, and its grinning, gap-toothed pumpkin lanterns, it’s a victory for pure atmosphere.
And now Nitrome’s come up with Stumped, a wonderfully seasonal action puzzle game that’s as challenging as it is spooky. (Although, in the spirit of trick as well as treat, I’m very sorry to report you may have to sit through a brief advert for Noel Gallagher’s new album in order to get to it.) Playing as a disembodied foot – freshly wrenched from some poor Frankenstein’s monster, by the looks of it – your job is to hop through a series of increasingly hazardous gauntlets, collecting pumpkins and making it to the exit without running foul of any enemies or environmental hazards.
As is always the case with Nitrome, each level introduces a handful of new ideas, with locks and keys turning up early on, alongside flaming vents, turrets, and electrical spikes. What makes the game truly devious, however, is that you have control over only one aspect of your movement, with each press of the space bar turning you to your right by 90 degrees (or on certain surfaces, left by 90 degrees).
There’s something truly nightmarish about limited agency in any game, and it only gets worse when you’re not able to arrest your forward momentum at all. When faced with a particularly nasty obstacle in Stumped, you may often find yourself falling into frantic holding patterns as you turn endlessly on the spot while working out what to do next. Many of the game’s later levels initially struck me as being flat out impossible when I first saw them.
They’re not, of course, and they always have a smart best-case solution laced through them, taking you from pumpkin to pumpkin to exit in a tiny number of moves, and with no bother from the roving enemies. Stumped is ultimately one of those games where victory comes from understanding that your own limitations may actually be strengths: in that respect, it reminds me a little bit of when you’re starting to learn chess, and you’re struggling to get the best out of the knights. There’s that special moment with chess that comes when you finally understand exactly what those problematic horses are good for, and there’s a similar epiphany waiting for you within Stumped: the controls start to make sense, and suddenly you can soar through each level in twists and turns that mirror the loops and arcs of the theremin soundtrack.
Don’t play it today, then – play it on Monday night when you’re waiting for the doorbell to start ringing.