Rarely are games able to simultaneously intrigue and comfort, creating a sense that you're exploring both the familiar and yet unknown like a re-architected memory once smudged by time.
Even more rare is an experience of that nature that is as functional as it is beautiful. Meet Monument Valley, an M.C. Escher-inspired puzzler for iOS from Ustwogames, a subsidiary of digital design studio Ustwo, that borrows the artistic wonder of Japenese woodblock prints.
The short game -- it takes anywhere from 90 to 120 minutes to beat all 10 of its levels -- is a restrained gaming experience that, while not completely ground-breaking, is a pleasure each and every time it's reincarnated. Think the intriguingly ambiguous atmosphere of indie breakouts Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP and Limbo with the overwhelming aesthetic punch of Thatgamecompany's Journey.
"Like listening to an album or walking through a museum for the first time, Monument Valley is about discovery, perception and meaningful beauty," the developer neatly outlined on the Ustwo blog.
The story, a light mystical tale, puts you in the shoes of Ida, a capped princess donned in white who must make her way through a series of increasingly mind-bending environments. She's guided through without much emotive response thanks to your omniscient onscreen tapping and topological tinkering.
Each puzzle, of which each of the 10 sections contains many, presents you with a simple-seeming locational goal. But begin rotating columns, shifting tower spires, and sliding ledges with finger swipes and half-circles, and you'll discover that traversing the elaborate architecture is harder than it seems.
Pathways will erase space; connecting edges will pull perspectives inside and out; and gravity will turn on its head not by way of in-game magic, but tricks of the mind that form the basis of graphic design's most ingenious optical illusions. Each successive simulacrum shattered produces cognitive bursts of delight when you realize that no holes were poked in the logic.
Monument Valley never ventures into the insensible, or produces something out of thin air. The game's internal mechanisms are airtight, only cleverly recalibrating -- never fundamentally changing -- how you thought you understood and observed the path in front of you.
And neither is it too hard nor dumbed down. It gives no direction, letting you intuitively find your path and the possible geometric subversions through visual cues. The game's music, effectively created as you play each time you alter the architecture, is a mix of plucked strings and piped-out organ tones punctuating a swirling mass of ambient background noise.
With each step of progression, you'll find yourself frustrated only with the quickness of your solutions. The game is highly replayable for its sheer beauty, but the first time you play -- like a now-favorite album or painting's first impression -- is special. So it's best to employ some restraint of your own to extract the maximum amount of aesthetic enjoyment here.
The game was released Thursday, April 3, and goes for $3.99 in the App Store. An Android version is on the way. But trust me: If you have an iOS device in the vicinity -- a friend's, parent's, or co-worker's -- throw them the few bucks, or convince them of what they're missing themselves, and venture into Monument Valley as soon as possible.
It's a place you'll feel like you know right away, but with always more hidden -- through contortions of space and logic -- in a deeper layer.