The first iOS release from two-man team Stegabyte, Under the Sun is a refreshingly streamlined puzzle experience that requires players to make every step—and second—count. With time control inspiration drawn from Braid, surrealistic world-specific rules reminiscent of Back to Bed, and its own twist on aging as a gameplay mechanic, Under the Sun combines the familiar and the novel into a new mix of delightfully difficult challenges.
The only plot provided is in the game’s store description, explaining simply that you are a castaway trying to make it through a series of deserted islands. We’re not given any who, how, or why of our character’s predicament or the strange cube-shaped islands he’s trapped upon: these and any other story points are up to the player’s imagination. The lack of a straightforward narrative works here: Under the Sun’s focus is on clever, engaging puzzles without fluff, which it provides in full.
Each of the game’s current 60 stages is a standalone puzzle, with every stage featuring a different island shape and layout. Our castaway has a designated starting point on each, and his only goal is to reach the lone campfire poised at some other spot on the island.
At first, this seems like a simple task. Our shirtless wayfarer is controlled directly by moving him forward, back, left, or right one square at a time. He can climb ladders and drop off cliffs of any height without being injured. He is able to push single objects, like a rock or beached jellyfish, by walking into them. If the only obstacle was the trip from point A to point B, this would be little challenge.
But this isn’t the case. It quickly becomes apparent that the islands of Under the Sun are special, and there is another obstacle ever-present in our wanderer’s world: time. In game terms, the limited time available to reach the campfire is presented as a finite number of moves left to the player. In world terms, these moves represent the passing of time and the inevitable changes that accompany its progression.
Our castaway grows older with each step, transforming from a robust young man to a hunched, white-haired elder. The world around him changes: day becomes night, plants sprout and grow into trees, turtles wander the sand and eventually turn to stone, tides rise and cover the once dry shore.
These changes and the progression of time alter and affect our protagonist’s path. He may begin on an island only a few feet from the campfire, but after two steps the rope bridge between them deteriorates and crumbles, forcing him to find an alternate route. Inaccessibly high cliffs can be reached by standing on the small sprout of a future tree. Distant areas with no path may be reached after the tide comes in (assuming you have a jellyfish floatation device).
Although these events will occur naturally as you progress through movements, you can also control the flow of time directly via a sun dial on the right side of the screen. Often, an island may appear unsolvable until you scroll time forward to reveal what changes will occur: seeing a tree sprout or a turtle move a rock will reveal a potential solution and help you plan how to set up before those events.
Each island is designed so that you have the exact number of moves needed to reach the fire: if you are even one step off, your castaway will run out of moves, resulting in death from old age. This means you’ll often have to plan out, test, and then retry slight variations on the same path before finding the optimal one.
Luckily, Under the Sun makes all these attempts extremely quick and easy to enact. The sun dial lets you scroll forward or backward freely at any time and with no consequences: you can scroll all the way from step one to your death and see how things play out, then scroll back to your youth and try something new. Everything since your last move is considered, so if you push a turtle to a new space and then jump forward in time, you’ll see how that turtle’s new location affects his movement.
This also makes undoing mistakes mercifully simple: since the dial stores every move in one notch, you never need to start over from the beginning but can always scroll back only the number of moves you want to undo.
Thanks to these player-friendly features, the act of solving each stage is easy and intuitive. The puzzles themselves, however, are extremely challenging and mentally demanding. We ran into a few head-scratchers as early as world three (out of ten), and they only get harder from there.
Although this level of difficulty could be daunting, it works in Under the Sun for a number of reasons: first, the sun dial system and lack of any real death makes failure a learning process instead of a punishment. Second, levels are self-contained and small enough that it’s usually easy to come up with your first few steps, or at least something to try. Third, you can play levels in each area in any order and only need to complete three (out of six) to move onto the next area. This lets you take a break from levels you’re stuck on without abandoning the game, and still make progress even if you can’t get past a specific stage.
On top of all of this, the levels are simply well designed and fun to play. Although your castaway’s moveset is limited, his contact with the ever-changing islands and their responses to both him and time create a number of clever interactions and results. Often you’ll encounter an “ah-hah!” moment in a stage that helps you solve a later puzzle (or one you’ve previously skipped). A rock may be a stepping stone in one stage and a turtle blocker in another. The islands share rules, objects, and ideas, but they also build upon each other to introduce fresh concepts every level. This helps stretch the 60 stages to their maximum: you and the castaway will continually encounter something new, challenging, and timeless.