Chump Squad's Lab Rat puts players in the role of an unfortunate test subject tasked with completing a number of puzzles under the watchful "eye" of a statistics-loving AI named S.A.R.A. What is the point of these puzzles? What does the collected data prove? Well...you're not entirely sure, but the only way to find out is to keep going.
It's a simple concept, but an addicting one. Puzzles primarily consist of moving large metal crates onto specifically designated spaces. Sometimes, you will have to "charge" up the sides of the crates by shooting them with electrical guns. (As S.A.R.A helpfully explains, the guns were added to make the puzzles more enjoyable, because players find guns to be exciting.) A charged player can only interact with the charged sides of the crates, and vice versa. Some special puzzles give the player control of the guns and allows them to move them instead of the crates. From that very straightforward premise come hundreds upon hundreds of puzzles for the titular "Lab Rat" to complete.
This might sound easy, but the puzzles are actually quite tricky. There's a definite learning curve involved. I struggled for a while with even the earliest levels, and there were several times that I forgot the rule about needing to charge the player in order to push a charged box. I heard every single one of S.A.R.A.'s small library of voiced "you are doing something wrong" warnings within the first few puzzles.
There isn't a lot of puzzle variety, which means that they can get repetitive fast. However, the game does allow you to try out "special" puzzles (marked by a beaker icon) with different rules. These are a lot more fun - the first one I encountered let the player be the one shooting the gun during several stages which focused more on destruction and shooting than puzzle-solving. It was a nice distraction from the norm, and I definitely found myself wishing for more puzzles like that.
Completing a puzzle is extremely satisfying, although this had less to do with any "sense of pride and accomplishment" I might feel at overcoming a difficult trial and more to do with seeing how the ever-observant AI would respond. S.A.R.A., the central figure of the game, is a triumph - as she needs to be. If S.A.R.A. had not been a compelling character, the entire game would likely be a lot less fun to play, because she's the only real interaction the main character gets. She has big virtual shoes to fill, and she does so effectively.
Luckily, she's hilarious. Less outright snarky and cruel than the inevitable comparison which comes to mind - Portal's GLaDOS - this AI wants to make your stay as successful and enjoyable as possible. Unfortunately, she's kind of terrible at her job. The "data" she collects from you leads to some hilariously misguided conclusions. For example, she decides that all test subjects wear yellow coats because you do and that you successfully completing a puzzle means that you would like nothing more than to immediately do more of the same. Her responses are the best part of the game, and I found myself disappointed when the demo concluded because I wanted to see more of her bizarre "journey."
One element of the game that I did not feel I could properly judge during a preview was the statistics that S.A.R.A. sometimes presented to the player character. These revealed facts such as how many people had attempted the puzzle before you and what percentage of those players had successfully completed it. As it is now, the data is fairly minimal and made me feel pretty dumb because most had a 100% completion rate. Once Lab Rat has been widely released, this data will be a lot more dynamic and interesting, and will truly allow players to feel like part of a community. I think it will be a great addition to the game once it can be used properly. (Although I did laugh when the AI informed me that one of the other testers considered me a friend, as the one I was assigned to was apparently named "Horny Potato.")
The aesthetics of the game are extremely fitting for a laboratory setting. Lab Rat's color scheme is predominantly black and grey, with lots of industrial machinery scattered about. Even the music and background noise fits the theme, as does S.A.R.A's smooth, generally inflection-less voice. While this creates a very effective environment, the unfortunate truth is that labs are a fairly grim and unpleasant setting. The game's commitment to the lab theme is sometimes too strong, as several times I found myself feeling bored, frustrated, or even weighed down by the sheer oppressive nature of being "trapped in a lab." While it was probably exactly what the team was aiming for, it could get a little tiring during longer sessions of play.
In terms of performance, Lab Rat runs fairly smoothly and is generally bug-free. The only frustrating element I encountered while playing is that, occasionally, the game would have trouble differentiating between my character attempting to push a crate and climb on top of it, which would sometimes result in me making a wrong gameplay move such as stepping into the path of an electrical charge too soon. Additionally, the game's input is extremely sensitive, and a few times registered me as having moved two or three squares when I only wanted to step one square to the side. However, this problem is not too much of a big deal because Lab Rat does allow you to rewind moves and restart puzzles at any time.
Lab Rat is a decently fun puzzle that currently stands out from other entries in the genre due to the excellent AI central character. The "interaction" with other players, although it occurs through S.A.R.A's algorithm rather than directly, will likely be more satisfying once the game is fully released due to the larger number of "test subjects" who will be playing. There are a few minor gameplay issues, but nothing truly enjoyment-ruining. It's definitely the sort of game that fans of puzzles and the concept of machine learning should check out once it releases!
TechRaptor previewed Lab Rat on PC using a copy provided by the developer. The game is set to launch sometime in 2021.