In the mid-’90s, the time came to transport Psygnosis’ loveable Lemmings into the world of 3D. Like a lot of mascots stepping into the third dimension, this foray was slightly misguided, resulting in a game soon forgotten. While it wasn’t the end of the Lemmings franchise, it did signal the start of the decline, with future releases failing to garner as much press attention as Lemmings 3D. Just like Team17’s Worms, the concept of Lemmings was perhaps better suited to 2D.
Or so we thought. Skip forward to 2023, and the code has finally been cracked – Tin Hearts is a puzzle adventure tasking you with guiding a platoon of toy soldiers around an interactable 3D environment. It showcases a lot of ingenuity, as instead of presenting a small diorama or playfield, puzzles are contained inside individual rooms – varying from a child’s bedroom to a basement workshop – that you’re free to walk around in first person. This makes each puzzle multi-layered, as not only do you need to solve the teaser in front of you – setting up a path to guide the soldiers to the exit – but also scour the shelves and worktops for puzzle pieces. Keyed puzzle blocks can only be placed on their accompanying bases, while others are rotatable and can be placed anywhere. Upon entering a room for the first time, you may find yourself working backward to get a rough idea of the solution before opening the soldier’s toy box and commencing the action.
Set in the Victorian era, and casting you as a talented toy maker, there’s a story to take in too. Each act takes place in a different location and cut-scenes involving the protagonist’s family are frequent, some even commencing mid-puzzle. Interacting with discarded letters initiates spoken dialogue – revealing that the toy maker hopes to sell his ideas. Over the game’s 15-20 hour duration (depending on your puzzle-solving mettle) you’ll see first-hand how his work starts to consume him, ultimately impacting those he cherishes most.
The soldiers are, of course, his latest creation. They emerge from a magical box and can only patrol forward, simply turning around if they hit an obstacle. Balloons, bellowing fans, extending bridges, and toy drums help them to get around, while cannon balls are used to destroy or weigh down obstacles. Wooden trains can also be possessed in order to position them as make-do blockades. Often it’s vital to create impromptu pens to keep soldiers fenced while your attention is turned elsewhere.
If the precious playthings fall from a height, they’ll break on impact – and it’s up to you whether to rewind and try again or carry on a man down. Indeed, punishments are restrictions are few. There’s no time limit, which gives the experience a slightly relaxed vibe as you figure things out at your own pace. In addition to rewinding, the action can also be fast-forwarded and paused, with pausing also helpfully showing an outline of the soldier’s current path. There are no warnings when losing soldiers, however – one puzzle ended with a soldier AWOL, and at no point was their demise alerted.
A few other shortcomings are noticeable, including button prompts on the Xbox Series version showing incorrectly – something hopefully patched by the time you read this. The camera sometimes misbehaves too, especially when aiming cannons in first person. There’s nothing here too detrimental to the experience though, helping the magic to flow relatively freely. That said, one area had me stumped for a good twenty minutes, requiring a vase to be broken to reveal a trapped puzzle piece – with no indication that said vase could be broken. At times like this, I did feel that some extra playtesting would have benefitted the experience. This is also true of the pacing, with act three long overstaying its welcome.
Still, and more positively, there are plenty of surprises along the way. You aren’t simply ushered from one similar-looking puzzle room to another – each is remarkably different, and the second act eventually leads our gifted creator, and his family, outside – where a colossal, multi-layered, puzzle is spread out across the entire garden. This teaser required both time and concentration, being far more involved than the puzzles before it. Lots of puzzles also involve controlling a soldier directly, adding impromptu platforming into the mix. The controls here are a little slippery, though, reminding that this is a puzzler foremost and not a dedicated platformer. You may have to rewind a few misjudged jumps.
During the third act, the puzzles evolve to the point where they’re initially daunting, presenting rooms full of various contraptions and hazards. By this point, the majority of puzzles take the vicinity of 40 minutes to finish. Not so much because of their difficulty, but because of the number of steps involved. Even with the hint system in mind, I did wonder if younger gamers would struggle.
The presentation is generally pleasing, carrying the experience over the occasional bump. The title screen doubles as a free-roaming study, where you can check progress, blueprints, achievements, and replay stages. Throughout, there’s a soft piano-lead musical score, proficient use of distance blurring, and a smattering of particle effects that successfully convey a sense of whimsy. Environments feature a lot of detail, such as various knickknacks strewn on shelves, although there is an inconsistency in the sharpness of textures. It seems safe to assume the Switch version was the lead.
Tin Hearts has a lot going for it, being surprisingly challenging, innovative, and long-lasting – this certainly isn’t something you’ll blitz through in an evening or two. Despite technical hiccups, most of which could be patched, it comes only with the caveat that it does require a degree of commitment. I came expecting dozens of bite-sized puzzles, but for better or worse, was presented with brain benders taking upwards of an hour. So, while I was a little fatigued by the time the credits rolled, I also felt a rare sense of accomplishment. A hearty experience indeed.
Developed by Rogue Sun and published by Wired Productions, Tin Hearts is out May 16th on PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series, and Xbox One. A Switch version launched in April.