Bonfire Peaks sees a man in a comfy-looking jacket taking a pedalo to a mysterious island, with but one goal in mind: burn his belongings. What follows is a fiendishly difficult puzzle game that will have even experienced players scratching their heads, even while they decide to give it just one more shot.
Story – Up In Smoke
The set up for Bonfire Peaks is a simple one: your blocky, all-but-faceless protagonist has travelled to a mysterious forest with the intention of burning all of his belongings. Box by box, he must take them to a bonfire and watch as they are gradually consumed by the flames. As he gradually ascends the mountain, his purpose never wavers. All he wants to do is burn his things.
Why this obsession? Difficult to say. What’s even in the boxes? Unclear. What’s the nature of this strange island? That’s too many questions. The point is, he’s a man on a mission, and that mission is: burn his belongings.
The overworld is littered with odd vignettes of bits of furniture or other items. Piles of books pop up from time to time, a crashed car sits near the bottom, a disassembled living room tantalisingly teases a place to put your feet up. Presumably, these are all aspects of the main character’s life, offering glimpses into his deeper workings and whatever events might have led him to this point. But nothing is ever confirmed or made fully clear, and players are left to wonder the broader questions
The infuriating vagueness of the character’s motivations or backstory risks being a little generically artsy at times, but is somehow still one of the game’s strengths. Though not all of us have found ourselves in a position where we’ve put a bunch of our stuff in a box and set it alight, I’m sure many of us have been tickled by that impulse at one point or another. A bad breakup, a life experience best forgotten: perhaps this guy is all of us, haunted by that melancholic desire to see the trappings of a negative part of their life go up in smoke. Or perhaps he’s just got a load of garbage. Who’s to say?
Gameplay – Pivot! PIVOT!
As in its approach to story, Bonfire Peaks takes a minimalist approach to its gameplay. The aim of each level is simple: get a box of your belongings to the bonfire in order to set it alight. Straightforward enough, particularly in the first few levels where the route from box to bonfire is plain to see. But pretty soon, the way forward will be barred by sneaky obstacles and tight corners, leading to some truly head-scratching puzzles.
Even the overworld is a puzzle in and of itself. Each level you complete will reward with you – you guessed it – a crate, and positioning and stacking them will let you access new areas of the mysterious mountain. Luckily, you don’t need to complete every single puzzle to move ahead in the overworld, so if a particularly tricky level is proving too much you needn’t keep bashing your head against it to make progress.
Your character has a rather limited moveset: he can move forwards and backwards, turn in a different direction, and pick up or set down a crate. There’s little in the way of tutorialising, too: the way that different elements and moves work together in context must be discovered organically. The basic controls are simple, but mastering the full mechanics of the game is another matter entirely.
You’ll soon discover that there are slightly different rules when carrying a crate, for example. If there’s a wall in the way you won’t be able to pivot, and if you’re climbing up more than one step you’ll need to move backwards. Things only get more complex from there: soon you’ll find yourself nudging other boxes into place by pivoting on the spot with a crate in your hands, and setting fire to less important boxes to serve as temporary platforms.
There are new obstacles and tools gradually introduced over the course of the game too, just to add some extra spice to later puzzles. 2-square-long boxes can be used as bridges if you can position them just so, and later levels feature running streams that act as conveyor belts that will speed your boxes off to a different spot. It all serves to create a series of often mind-bendingly difficult puzzles that nevertheless rarely seem unfair in their solutions. Even if you happen upon the answer by chance, it will still usually make sense within the context of the mechanics and expectations.
With each turn, you risk knocking something important into the surrounding water, getting stuck on a disappearing platform, or otherwise ruining your chances of solving the puzzle. Thankfully, though, Bonfire Peaks features an extremely forgiving undo feature. Hit the B button and you’ll immediately undo the last action you took, whether that was taking a single step or setting the wrong crate on fire. Hit X and it’ll reset the entire level. Didn’t mean to do that? No worries, for the B button can even undo a full level reset.
It’s a good thing the undo system is so intuitive and convenient, because otherwise the game takes no prisoners. There’s no way around it: these puzzles are hard. The choice not to include a hint system of any kind is a bold choice, though the fact that you don’t need to solve every puzzle in order to progress in the overworld does take the edge off a little. Still, if you find yourself with a critical mass of puzzles unsolved, you might run into trouble.
The lack of much of a tutorial can be felt later on as well. Bonfire Peaks is very good at telling players what they can’t do, whether that’s turning a corner with box in hand, stepping on a particular square twice, or whatever. It’s less adept at making sure that players know what they can do, though. Even basic mechanics like nudging crates around with the one in your hands need to be discovered almost by accident, and later levels really rely on players having an intimate understanding of all the extensions of every gameplay element.
Graphics and Audio – Lo-Fi Graphics to Work/Study To
Bonfire Peaks artfully utilises its low-res, voxel-style graphics. Your character gives nothing away – he doesn’t even really have much of a face with which to emote – but there’s a beauty in the simplicity of the environments. Much like the more impressive constructions created by the dedicated artisans of Minecraft, there’s a remarkable amount of detail in each scene, like a particularly elaborate Lego model.
The music mostly manifests as a mournful synth, minimal enough not to distract from the devilishly difficult puzzles but enough to give you a sense of melancholic calm for the duration. It provides a necessary bit of grounding when you’re troubled by a particular level – “There’s no rush,” the music seems to say. “Take your time.” At times it almost sounds like a musical interpretation of a cityscape’s passing traffic, further fuelling yet more speculation about the player character’s motives (escaping from a stressful urban life?). As ever, though, answers are not forthcoming. But maybe that’s OK.
Bonfire Peaks was reviewed on Nintendo Switch with a code provided by Future Friends Games.