Review | 12/3/2013 at 8:00 AM

Tiny Brains Co-Op Review

Even a tiny brain can tell co-op doesn't get much better than this.

Tiny Brains is a co-op puzzle adventure created by Spearhead Games, a team of wacky designers with some former Assassin's Creed, Army of Two and Dead Space members on board. The studio's goal with its first release was to make a truly cooperative experience that, in their words, is "super fun". Mission accomplished, Spearhead! Tiny Brains is some of the most blindly entertaining co-op action you can find, with just the right mix of puzzles, action sequences, and miniature chickens that go squish.

The basic idea behind Tiny Brains is that you control tiny lab creatures that have developed superpowers (semi-super, at least) after being experimented on by a mad scientist. Now they're trying to escape from the lab that holds them, busting through test chamber after test chamber in pursuit of freedom. Delicious, cheese-flavored freedom.

It starts with a few simple rooms to test your salt in a variety of situations. Push the ball into the goal, get the battery to the connectors so you can raise the cage, don't let the sawblades meet your squishy body, that sort of thing. A pink chick suddenly appears in the laboratory (as in, the baby chicken variety) and starts doing things like pressing buttons and breaking walls. When Pinky encourages the tiny brains to hop out the window, things suddenly get a lot more dramatic.

Each of the characters in Tiny Brains has its own ability along with a distinct color. Dax the purple ultrasonic bat has a handy skill that shoves things away, pushing blocks across the screen and over gaps. Stew, the highly-charged green bunny, is the inverse of Dax and can pull objects towards him. The red mouse Pad can swap places with just about any movable object, useful for placing yourself in out-of-reach areas and getting blocks down from odd locations. Minsc the cold-fusion hamster can form a rectangular block of ice that will stick around for a few seconds. This can hold down switches, block things from rolling down undesirable pathways, give characters a height boost, or even function as a surfboard!

All of these abilities are useful on their own, but since Tiny Brains is a game of cooperation, they have to work together to actually be effective. Each power has its own subtleties you'll learn to utilize and exploit. When trying to get a block to a specific location, for example, it's generally easiest to get Pad to swap places with it. His power can target at long-range, but unless he has a clear view, teleportation is a no-go. Instead, grab Stew and break out the attraction power. Its range is limited, but it can move objects located at steeper angles. Also, try loading everybody on top of an ice block, then using Dax to give the thing a shove. Fun times!

After working your way through several puzzles you'll smack into one of Tiny Brains' action sequences. These are tests of speed and reflexes, dropping the brains into rooms riddled with holes, ramps, moving pistons and other obstacles. The goal here is to move the ball to the exit, but since you can't just roll it with your tiny paws, you've got to use your powers. This ends up being challenging because A) the ball almost never comes to rest and B) just about everything in these levels shreds the sphere to pieces. Again, you have to work together to make it to the end, but in this case it's about working fast.

Breaking up the puzzle and action sections are the Protect Pinky interludes. Here, that cute little pink chick is helplessly positioned in a room with all manner of dangerous things crawling around. Maybe it's evil chickens wielding weapons, or maybe it's hot flames firing from below. Either way, it's your job to protect Pinky through wave after wave of danger. These sections of the game can be a real challenge, especially if you don't have a full team of players at your disposal.

Co-op is what makes Tiny Brains truly special. It's as simple as "everybody plays at the same time", but the game was obviously built for a bunch of people to get together and have a blast. Four players can drop in/out online, locally or mixed. Surprisingly, the game is perfectly playable solo, but you'll miss out on all of the hootin' and hollerin' that occurs when your friends are along for the ride. Having a dedicated player for each character is an enormous boon, and it siphons out the bits of frustration that creep in when attempting to switch between characters and juggle spheres on your own. Luckily the game will adapt to puzzles on the fly based on the number of players. Have a player drop online? You'll see the game remove a switch or lower a gate that would have otherwise required another player present.

Tiny Brains' setting, sense of humor and presentation are miniature works of art. The laboratory is built out of cardboard, glass tubes, breakable popsicle sticks, bits of magazines and other found objects your evil overlord scraped together. You'll also catch pieces of story scribbled on papers dropped here and there. It's a treat to just stand there and play around, and Spearhead seemed to be aware of this, too. As you're walking from one chamber to another, you'll often get to play with objects using your powers. Nothing is more satisfying than being half an inch tall and using your telekinetic powers to try to make a phone call. Nothing.

The chief complaint raised about Tiny Brains before its release was its reported length. Five hours is a good estimate for a single run through all of the game's content, which includes five chapters in story mode, handfuls of challenge levels, a team vs. team soccer mode, and two additional unlockable modes. There's incentive to go back and beat your own times as well as compete with global times, which adds quite a bit of replayability. More importantly, Tiny Brains doesn't overstay its welcome. When you complete the story you'll crave more, which is where the other modes come into play. Beat those and you're left with a nice, satisfied feeling.

Tiny Brains is a co-op game that knows exactly why co-op play exists. Its brand of crazy teamwork is an experiment in controlled multiplayer chaos, and it hits all the right notes at every turn. The challenge level is just right, encouraging you to press forward but not punishing you for trying and failing. Get some people together and give Tiny Brains a go. Their brains are so small, they need your help, you know.

Note: This review is based on an early release of the PC version and final retail PSN code of the game. The content for the console versions is identical.