There have been a number of claymation games over the year—which I’ve been rather happy about, as I’ve always liked the claymation aesthetic—but I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a game quite like Claybook. In Claybook, the entire world is part of a clay diorama that is sitting on a table in someone’s house. Even the player character is a clay shape. It’s an interesting concept and one that I was very curious to try out for myself. With the game set to launch on Steam Early Access next week, I was given a chance to try it out early and share my thoughts.
At its core, Claybook is somewhat of a physics sandbox. The game is split into levels called “chapters” that are part of worlds called “books.” Each level is made up of differing clay structures, with any of several types of objectives scattered throughout that you must complete in a specific amount of time, which is usually five minutes or less. Objectives range from simply reaching a certain point to emptying a vat of liquid to filling set locations with clay. You take on the role of a clay shape that has to complete these objectives by rolling and/or flipping through the level. Each level can potentially have several clay shapes throughout it, which you can “possess” to achieve different goals. Certain shapes, primarily the one that you start as, can even morph into different shapes to help you get around and solve puzzles that may require a different shape. Because of this, rather than offering different forms, the alternate shapes offered in each level are usually shapes that the basic shape gives you access to, instead offering varying sizes of said shapes. For example, one of the early levels gives you a larger square shape to get around with.
As you roll or flip around, the game’s detailed clay simulation will simulate damage to the environment that is caused by your shape. Depending on the velocity of your shape at the time of impact, the environment may also do damage to it in return, but, in my experience, each shape has a set of parameters that keeps it from getting too deformed by the environment. Should your shape become deformed to a point that it is no longer useful for the task at hand, switching shapes will reset it to its original form.
I was immediately surprised by just how much damage your shape does to the surrounding environment and at what rate it does so. Flipping around as a cylindrical shape will leave massive indents where the ends of the shape collide with the ground. The square shape’s corners will leave similar, but lesser indentations. Even simply rolling around as a sphere shape will leave a semicircular trail in your wake.
This creates an experience that is not entirely unlike that of the mud simulation in Spintires. You have to be careful just how much you interact with each part of the environment because you could literally destroy it and be unable to reach a specific objective as a result. It takes some getting used to, but it’s in-depth and it just feels fun to interact with. It’s rare that environments in games are this malleable and watching the results of your interactions play out in such a way is a uniquely wondrous feeling that is rarely experienced in gaming.
However, gameplay is not quite as simple as just rolling and flipping around as different shapes. The game also features a rewind mechanic that leaves a “stamp” of your current shape in the place where you started the rewind. This allows you to escape pits, create bridges, and fill in the aforementioned objective locations with clay. To avoid any sort of collision issues, if you don’t rewind far enough after stamping a location, you will clear whatever part of that stamp is currently colliding with your shape. This is an interesting mechanic, as it requires you to be extremely careful with the way that you stamp your environment. In the case of the locations that you have to fill with clay, clearing part of a stamp could easily end up leaving just enough of the stamp to make replacing what was cleared extremely difficult. As stamps act like any other part of the world, not filling the entire location in one attempt could also be hazardous, as you may destroy as little as 2% of the clay in said location and be required to carefully replace it.
I also found that there are other uses for stamps. The objectives that simply require you to reach a specific location are used to create race tracks in some levels. These levels often feature a number of narrow, winding paths that are easy to fall off of. You can rewind back onto the track, but your velocity is saved, so, if you don’t rewind far enough, you’ll simply be thrown back off and waste even more time trying to rewind properly. However, if you time your rewind exactly right, it will create a stamp that is just above the track on the side of it and rebound you back onto the track. It’s a neat little trick that really exemplifies the flexibility of the game’s simple, physics-driven mechanics.
Complementing the stamping system is a mechanic that allows you to “eat” the environment, destroying it at a much faster rate than you would naturally. This is primarily used for objectives that required you to empty a vat, sometimes into another vat, but is also used for the destruction of various other objects in the environment, such as bridges. Creating a path for water to travel through is usually straightforward, made easy by the mechanic in question and the game’s fairly tight controls. However, destroying an entire bridge is a much trickier process. The catch is that, as you destroy an object like a bridge, you have less and less to stand on and, as a result, less and less space that will allow you to reach certain parts of the bridge. Using the eat mechanic will also destroy objects like bridges at such a rate that I’ve simply fallen straight through them on several occasions, which can cause the process to be more time consuming than you can afford. It’s a surprisingly strategic process as you try to map out the best way to complete the objective as quickly as possible.
The water simulation is about what you’d expect. It appears to be a 3D version of a system that’s used in many 2D games, where each body of water is broken into dozens, if not hundreds, of spheres that have less strict collision rules than other objects. It also appears that their surfaces are smoothed out so that they don’t appear to be spheres. I had a decent amount of fun attempting to alter the flow of water by placing stamps in its path, it’s fairly apparent that it’s not quite as sophisticated as the clay simulation.
Now, while there is a great game at its core with a well-thought-out initial set of objectives that is already being used for a variety of tasks, there is one glaring flaw: there isn’t a whole lot of content yet. While this is generally okay due to the fact that the game is going to launch on Steam Early Access next week, you should be aware of just how little content you’re getting. There are currently two books, which have a total of thirteen chapters. Most of these chapters have a mere five-minute timer and are fairly easy. Even if you fail some of them a few times, it likely won’t take you more than two hours to see all of the developer-made content thus far.
Fortunately, there is a level editor, which allows players to build their own levels and share them on the Steam Workshop. However, this also means that, during Early Access, at least, the game may very well live or die based on whether or not players are motivated to create content for it and, unfortunately, I’ve found that the level editor can be a bit unwieldy. Only allowing the camera to be moved at all while holding the right mouse button makes adjusting your view fairly uncomfortable, while using the Spacebar to deselect, rather than just clicking somewhere that there isn’t currently an object, only adds to that feeling. For some odd reason, Scale is set to R, while Rotate is set to E. While the game also supports gamepad controls, I found the level editor to be unusable with a gamepad, as I could not find a way to move or rotate the camera, even though I was supposed to be able to change the camera mode by either moving or pressing down on the right joystick.
The actual process of building a level is also unwieldy. While it is fairly easy to change objects from adding to the environment to subtracting from it and to change their color, scale, and other settings, I couldn’t find a way to scale only one axis; I could either scale all axes at once or none at all. Because of this, and the fact that there seems to be no way to create a custom object, it seems that the only way to create objects that are different shapes than those that are offered by default is to carefully place objects that are set to subtract around them. This makes the entire process far more difficult than it needs to be.
Although it is soon to be released on Steam Early Access, Claybook already offers a solid core experience. Its clay simulation is impressive and, moreover, fun to interact with. There are a variety of objectives that are already implemented and are being combined in interesting ways. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of developer-made content just yet, but there is a level editor in place for the community to create their own levels, even if it is currently unwieldy. In a rare case these days, I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything quite like it, which, in and of itself makes it worth keeping an eye on. That being said, as it has yet to be released, it’s difficult to tell whether it will be worth it during Early Access.
Claybook is set to be released on Steam Early Access on October 18th for $19.99.
Important note: Second Order sent us two copies of Claybook for the purpose of writing this article.