Claybook has one major problem.
It’s not the core concept of the game, which gives players a relentlessly realistic clay based physics engine to mould to their will. It’s not the unforgiving camera or floaty control scheme, or even the monotony of the aesthetics and music.
No, Claybook‘s major problem is that it’s just not fun.
Developed by Finland based studio Second Order, Claybook boasts an admittedly fantastic ‘back of the box’ list of features. Everything in the game is built around the core physics system which Second Order created just for Claybook called Clayfield.
As you may have guessed from the name of the engine, and the game, this system is all about letting you play with virtual clay. Moulding it to your will is the key to completing the tasks given to you by Second Order and eventually creating your own custom levels.
Claybook comes with 20 built-in challenges which showcase the Clayfield engine’s range of clay-based tricks. You assume the role of a piece of clay that transforms into four different shapes depending on what is needed to complete the puzzle.
These puzzles are somewhat limited in variety due to the nature of the clay system, with most levels only requiring you to complete rudimentary tasks such as consuming other pieces of clay, manipulating liquid clay and reaching certain points across the level in a timely manner.
These puzzles end up feeling like demos for the physics rather than compelling gameplay. The tasks the game sets for you rarely require much more effort than holding the stick forward and awkwardly clambering around the level. Claybook also offers a robust player creation toolkit which may eventually be used to create something more gratifying or engaging.
For now, though, Claybook doesn’t seem to know how to make the best use of its admittedly impressive systems.
Let’s Get Physics-al
The Clayfield engine is a completely immersive system which is simultaneously technically fascinating and endlessly tedious. Any movement around the level will cause the physics to start reacting as you roll across the play area, with even the surfaces begin to compress and shift beneath you.
Given that everything in Claybook is crafted from this malleable material, everything is susceptible to its physics. This makes a simple task such as ascending a staircase needlessly frustrating as the stairs themselves begin to flatten into untraversable mush.
The range of movement is also greatly restricted by the engine’s physics also applying to your clay avatar. Despite appearing to have the trappings of a platformer Claybook doesn’t allow for jumping, meaning that all traversal causes some kind of damage to the stage.
Which is a shame because the pre-built levels in the game are a genuinely neat array of treehouses, mazes and confectionary-themed delights. By the time I was done awkwardly reaching my objectives, however, they often resembled something else entirely.
These frustrations only grow deeper as the unyielding physics are paired with an inept control scheme. The game’s camera is the biggest offender, offering a limited range of viewpoints while also whipping wildly around the stage. It would frequently become obscured by blocks and the rapid pace at which it would attempt to keep up with my movements was disorientating.
In the camera’s defence, my movements throughout the game were rather sporadic. There is a definite weight afforded to your clay avatar thanks to the physics. You get glimpses of it when you finally pull off the perfect tumble over a ledge or stop at just the right corner but these satisfying moments were the outliers.
The majority of the game is a clumsy pairing of weighty forms with floaty controls. I rarely ever felt in control of what was happening, but rather I was just hoping the game would decide to let me complete my goal.
Claybook does accommodate for its less than ideal control scheme by giving you access to a rewind mechanic. Though even this safety net is hampered somewhat by its tethering of the rewind to a cloning mechanic which sees you leave a copy of your current clay form in the place where the rewind begins. This mechanic is used in certain platforming challenges and is a useful buffer in its own right but by linking it to the rewind it renders the latter occasionally useless.
Claybook also features a comprehensive suite of creation tools for players to craft their own clay worlds and share online. This mode is also a little clumsy in execution, featuring no discernable tutorials and controls which take a lot of fumbling with to get used to.
Once that high barrier to entry is crossed, however, players will find a robust tool kit in which imagination can run relatively wild.
You’ll still be restricted by the game’s core systems and as such, it is possible to create some wonky clay mounds but mastery over this tool will doubtlessly yield interesting results. In my time with the creation suite, I created an ethereal plane of blue trees and towering bunny sculptures with a maze of tunnels inside it.
To craft something closer to a traditional gaming level would take infinitely more patience than this game inspired in me but for those willing to dedicate the time it may prove worth it.
Beyond the physic mechanics, Claybook doesn’t have much of a personality.
Its visuals are colourful and bold but rarely pop with any distinguishable style. With the exception of the small child who looms over every play area with a wide-eyed stare and blank expression. Though his ominous presence lent my time with the game more amusement than I’m sure was intended.
The soundtrack is an equally unremarkable collection of soft tones and playful, child-friendly beats. Overall, Claybook‘s presentation isn’t bad, it’s just completely ordinary.
Which is a brand that Claybook never really elevates itself above; despite the obviously well-crafted core mechanic. The game’s systems are functionally impressive and its attempted transition from tech-demo to a game is admirable but ultimately fruitless.
In the end, with all of its child-like wonder, the abundance of clay mechanics and colourful disposition, I never really had any fun playing Claybook.
Claybook was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a digital code provided by Second Order
Game Title: Claybook
Game Description: Clay based platforming and creation.
Clay based physics - 7/10
Creation toolkit - 7/10
Clever level design - 6/10
Uninspired presentation - 4/10
Clumsy controlls - 3/10
Dull gameplay - 3/10