Bonfire Peaks from Corey Martin is an isometric, 3D voxel puzzle game about bidding farewell to your past. As a Sokoban-based puzzler (think of any crate-pushing puzzle you’ve done in a video game; that’s Sokoban), Bonfire Peaks has found a suitable home amongst publisher and co-producer Draknek & Friends’ portfolio of similar games such as the sublime Monster’s Expedition (play it immediately if you haven’t already) and A Good Snowman is Hard to Build. One of their games is even called Sokobond. Despite most of Draknek’s games adopting the Sokoban design, they all manage to have a distinct take on the genre and Bonfire Peaks is no different.
Instead of the traditional act of pushing crates, the central mechanic in Bonfire Peaks is your character, a nameless bloke clad in a plaid jacket, picking up crates filled to the brim with his possessions and pushing/placing them onto a pyre. The game opens with the character arriving at the bottom of a mountain peak after pedalling across a body of water on one half of a two-seated swan-shaped pedalo. As you reach the peak, a clear and succinct message is displayed: burn your belongings. It’s rather on the nose and the overt symbolism definitely wasn’t lost on me; this guy has clearly been through some sh*t, presumably a break up, and is purging every facet of his previous self. But to be honest, it works. The catharsis of purging old possessions, either to say goodbye to a former version of yourself or just to get rid of some old tat you’ve held on to for far too long is similar to the euphoria and relief of solving one of Bonfire Peaks’ cunningly crafted puzzles.
Once arriving at the titular peak your character is met with a series of unlit bonfires. Sitting down at each bonfire transports you to these individual single-screen puzzles. The goal: pick up a wooden crate with your belongings and place it on top of a burning pyre to complete the puzzle. Like a lot of the Draknek & Friends games, and a lot of Sokoban puzzle games in general, Bonfire Peaks’ looks can be deceiving and its perceived simplicity often belies some of its devilishly difficult puzzles. A lot of the puzzles take place in these bite-size isometric dioramas, sometimes as small as a 5x5x5 voxel-based area, but developer Corey Martin has made excellent use of the limited space to craft wonderfully concise and cohesive puzzles. This type of approach is what I relish in puzzle games; all the information is available to you in a single screen and the controls are simple: your character moves linearly, one block at a time with the directional buttons and there is a single action button to pick up a crate. All that is required of you is to figure out how to get that crate onto the pyre. And with that simplicity comes some challenging but immensely satisfying puzzles.
New mechanics are introduced after every few levels, keeping the puzzles fresh and interesting. For example, I came across a bunch of levels where there’s a waterfall that pushes any crates set in its path in the direction of its current, resulting in a crate careening unhelpfully into the surrounding waters if you’re not careful. In another set of levels, there were pressure plates that would trigger a piercing arrow to be shot, which, shockingly, results in your character being impaled if they’re in its path. With every new mechanic comes not only a new set of challenges but also the epiphany of realising they can be used in various different ways. Mechanics like arrow traps and flowing currents are not just obstacles and can instead be used to your advantage. Even the standard additional crates present in most levels that are mostly used to reach higher heights can be used in creative ways, such as making disappearing platforms by singeing them on the bonfire before standing on them or using them as battering rams to knock or push other crates into more favourable positions. You begin to think that the basic mechanics in the game provide endless possibilities for puzzle-solving and you relish discovering what the next puzzle brings.
After completing a level you’ll be transported back to the mountain, the accompanying bonfire will be lit and you’ll earn a crate for your troubles. The reason you get a crate upon the completion of the level is because the mountain itself acts as a sort of overworld where you have to solve miniature puzzles in order to ascend further up the mountain. It’s a nice approach to the presentation of the game instead of just choosing levels from a list, especially when whole clusters of puzzles are hidden just off the beaten track and it’s up to you to find them.
The puzzles in the overworld are mostly straightforward so as not to gate progress, which contrasts with the challenging nature of the individual levels. Bonfire Peaks strikes a nice balance between mixing some moderately challenging puzzles amongst some truly fiendish ones so expect to be scratching your head for quite some time trying to solve the latter. Quality-of-life features such as the ability to undo an infinite number of steps or reset the puzzle entirely in an instant facilitates the trial-and-error approach to the puzzles and finding the solution through sometimes a mix of both deduction and attrition is always satisfying.
Well at least that’s the case for the puzzles I have been able to solve. Whilst I have progressed (I think) a fair way up the mountain, there are a couple of puzzles I haven’t been able to wrap my head around, despite scaling back down the peak to tackle them with a fresh pair of eyes. Bonfire Peaks doesn’t feature an in-game hint system, which I’m always a bit torn on when it comes to puzzle games. On one hand it forces you to be a bit more patient and studious instead of reflexively gorging on a spoon-fed solution as soon as you get a bit stuck. But then again, as with the nature of this type of game, and puzzle games in general, it is not a case where you can become ‘better’ at the game by mastering its controls or mechanics over time. Sometimes if you can’t see the solution, you’ll never see it, no matter how long the break is between attempts. Inevitably you’ll need a little nudge and with many smaller games, searching for a walkthrough may be a fruitless affair. (Shout out to Trophy Tom whose level-by-level walkthrough videos have been a godsend).
Fortunately, the game gets around its difficulty by not making every puzzle mandatory to progress. At each phase of your ascent up the peak you’re often provided with a set of puzzles that can be tackled in any order and you only need to have solved a handful of them to get the requisite number of crates to scale to the next elevation. This relaxed approach to progression also sometimes means that you’ll discover a new usage of one of the game’s mechanics and take that acquired knowledge back to a previous puzzle you had been stuck on. Solving the puzzles in almost any order you choose means that you’ll seldom get frustrated making your way through Bonfire Peaks’ 200 or so levels.
The presentation of Bonfire Peaks also helps to ease any frustration. Being a lone figure scaling a sylvan mountain by night, guided by the flickering and crackling bonfires that pierce the inky blackness makes for a tranquil setting. Whilst Bonfire Peaks’ character doesn’t have the fluid animation of that in say Monster’s Expedition (seriously folks, play it!) and he looks a bit awkward and stilted holding the crates, especially when he’s moving backwards (which you’ll do a lot), it fits with the voxel art style as he too is made out of Voxels. The most obvious comparison to make is with Minecraft and your character moves with the same charming rigidity of Steve. I’m sure the mention of voxels elicits the notion of ‘simple’ but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Each voxel in Bonfire Peaks is so detailed to the point where you’ll notice the imperfections in the mossy crags and the discolouration of the water caused by algal bloom, all enhanced by fantastic lighting and an isometric perspective that provide contrast and depth to the world. I played Bonfire Peaks on a Nintendo Switch in undocked mode, which meant a lower resolution and slightly blurred textures but on PC (there’s a demo!) it looks tremendous.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the soundtrack, which is a bit too sparse and repetitive, especially when you can (and will) spend several minutes on a single level. I think there’s meant to be an otherworldly and isolating tone to the music, which works conceptually but in practice simply sounds like the drone of a vuvuzela. Even worse is that it sounded tinny and distorted coming through the Nintendo Switch’s admittedly not-so-great speakers.
Bonfire Peaks’ soundtrack being my only qualm speaks to the exceptional quality of the game. For puzzle game fans it’s a delectable treat; one that I’ve been indulging in over time as I bite into its excellent puzzles knowing that a new mind-blowing revelation on how to use its existing mechanics could arrive at any moment. Bonfire Peaks is one of the most clever and confidently crafted puzzle games you’ll find in 2021 and I cannot wait to see what gem Draknek and Friends treat us to next.
Should you play it? Absolutely
Why… challenging but fair and superbly crafted puzzles. The revelations you’ll have when solving puzzles are frequent and always satisfying. The quality-of-life features eliminate the frustration that can often come with this type of puzzle game.
But… maybe turn the sound down to a minimum and put on a podcast instead.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch
Developer/Publisher: Corey Martin/Draknek and Friends
Playable on: PC (Steam, Epic Games, itch.io) and Nintendo Switch
Released: 30th September, 2021