Cyber Protocol brings retro puzzle insanity to PC

Cyber Protocol
RedDeerGames/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Cyber Protocol is an ’80s-retro, cyberpunk-themed indie game that places the player in the shoes of a computer hacker. The character discovers a mysterious floppy disk and sets off to crack its encryption, reviving his robot friend and sticking it to The Man.

While this seems like it could be the lead-in to a Watch Dogs-esque action adventure game, Cyber Protocol’s “hack the mainframe” backstory is conveyed purely by a stylized animated intro cutscene. With Cyber Protocol, the narrative provides just enough of a foundation for 100 arcade-style levels of high-speed Pac-Man-inspired maze puzzles, made out of pulsating neon and set to a badass synthwave soundtrack.

The core gameplay is deceptively simple. The player controls a glowing puck that can be moved around its 2D grid environment in any of the four directions. For any direction chosen, the player icon will continue moving in a straight line until it hits something. If the object in its path is a safe wall, then the player can survive long enough to find the finish line — but there are usually a combination of traps, error walls, traveling bogeys and various other obstacles between the start and end points. The puzzle grids are also populated with orbs and collectibles, providing an optional side goal for perfectionists.

The basics are easy to grasp, but indie developer RedDeerGames keeps things fresh by constantly introducing new obstacles into the puzzles. Early on, Cyber Protocol has the player learn to navigate ghost blocks that solidify into safe walls, but potentially create dead ends and time traps that count down to a deadly error once triggered. Just as players have understood these concepts, components such as portals and magnetized lifts are introduced, allowing the player to explore areas of the map that would otherwise be inaccessible, while massive laser guns that repeatedly charge up and fire blasts of energy make doing so more complicated.

In addition to a constant stream of new maze dynamics that refresh the challenge, Cyber Protocol also creatively reemploys elements the player is already familiar with, twisting the difficulty and preventing the player from growing too complacent — or too cocky.

Like many arcade games, there is no single correct path to solve Cyber Protocol’s mazes. Some players may choose to head straight for the end goal, using the fewest possible moves and maximizing the time bonus for solving the puzzle quickly. Others will prefer to explore each part of the map, navigating through extra obstacles in order to collect items that may unlock new player icons, aesthetic themes or music.

Cyber Protocol’s single player puzzles are also accompanied by an even faster paced arcade mode. In this mode, up to four players are pitted against one another on the same map, but with limited lives. Players must race to the finish line, avoiding obstacles and solving the same maze with a higher score than opponents.

Previously released on Nintendo Switch and Xbox One, Cyber Protocol’s PC release still features some annoying flaws. The menu system is a little too retro arcade-inspired to the point of being unintuitive, occasionally causing a loss in progress. As it is, the checkpoints are placed sparsely, making the difficulty at times feel dated rather than nostalgic. Some sections require precise timing and knowledge of the course ahead, but when players are made to repeat sections they have already mastered, the creeping sense of monotony is only barely repelled by the compelling soundtrack. Although the gamepad is preferable to the keyboard controls, unpredictable input lag results in an inconsistent delay before the player icon registers a direction given to it, often costing the player a life.

Though this PC release is essentially the same game, Cyber Protocol feels like it is better suited to the Switch’s portability. Cyber Protocol has an addicting quality reminiscent of the best mobile games, and an ability to engross the player that would make commutes pass by in a blink. There is also enough replay value to the mazes — barring some frustrating sections — that players will want to keep retrying levels and improving scores, extending Cyber Protocol’s long-term playability.

Neil Haeems covers video games. Contact him at [email protected].