Platform: Xbox Live Arcade, PC, Mac (forthcoming)
Genre: Puzzle/Platform
Developer: Jonathan Blow
Release Date: August 6, 2008
ESRB Rating: E10+ (Cartoon Violence, Crude Humour, Lyrics, Suggestive Themes)

One major change to the console world with this generation of consoles is the addition of download services, which publish small, inexpensive games through digital distribution. Xbox Live Arcade, WiiWare, and the Playstation Network provide independent game developers with a new means of distribution, backed by the promotional resources of the large console manufacturers. One developer that has come to prominence through these services is Jonathan Blow, with his popular Xbox Live Arcade game, Braid.

Braid is, on its surface, a lushly animated, beautifully orchestrated 2D platform game. The player guides the protagonist, Tim, though a series of worlds in search of the elusive Princess. However, the overall theme of the gameplay is focussed on the manipulation of time in the game world, and it is in the intricacies of the time manipulation mechanic that we find the meat of the game. At any point, the player may hold down the X button to reverse time. This power is, unlike in such games as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, completely free and unlimited. You could reverse all the way to the beginning of the level if you wish, and this is occasionally useful. Other time powers appear in parts of the game, each lending their own flavour to the puzzles in the various worlds.

With a basic grasp of the time manipulation abilities the platforming is quite straightforward and a skilled player can quickly traverse the full five worlds that make up the main game. Upon completing these worlds, though, the game does not progress to an ending; there is an additional world that is only unlocked when all the puzzle pieces scattered through the worlds are collected and assembled to reveal a picture for each world. The puzzle pieces are hidden in plain sight through the worlds, with the path to the piece sometimes obvious, but more often requiring an involved sequence of platforming and time manipulation. This puzzle aspect is what elevates and extends Braid's gameplay beyond that of your generic platformer. Of recent games, only Portal combines mind-bending puzzle elements with otherwise standard mechanics as effectively.

Visually, Braid is quite impressive, with detailed, hand-painted graphics and fluid animation. The few enemy types are all animated well and display a whimsical sense of humour which extends to the sound effects. A sweeping musical soundtrack adds to the pastoral atmosphere of the levels; the overall dreamlike atmosphere complements the thoughtful, reflective puzzle gameplay.

The fractured, ambiguous story of Braid is presented through books in the game's hub section. These books are placed as an introduction to each world and obliquely describe each world`s time power. For the interested player, there is much symbolism to be found, especially in the brilliant final level and subsequent ending. That said, the game is still deeply enjoyable without delving deeply into the story.

Overall, Braid is one of the best games available on the Xbox Live Arcade. The clever gameplay and strong atmosphere combine to make a compelling experience equal to the most immersive 3D games on the market. While its relatively high price of 1200 Microsoft Points (approximately $15) may be offputting, its unusual qualities make it stand above the pack. If you enjoy puzzle games and have an Xbox 360, you could do much worse than downloading and playing Braid.