Thursday, August 20, 2009

'Splosion Man is decidedly meaty

Andrew posted some impressions of the 'Splosion Man demo a few weeks ago, and came away a bit dissatisfied with the measly three levels therein. Upon playing the full game I can say that the size of the demo seems about right. Three levels is only about 6% of the game, but the demo gets you more than acquainted with the single mechanic the game explores in the other 47 levels: and oddly enough, it's not explosions. Well, I should say it's not exactly explosions as we've come to know it: particle effects, ragdoll physics, big guns etc. More precisely, it deals very wonderfully with kineticism (although 'Neticism Man would be a bit cumbersome as a title).

It's difficult to write lushly about any aspect of 'Splosion Man, and the game will either seem simplistic or refreshing in its austerity. The entirety of the game's 'story' can be deduced from the title sequence. The fact that you are a man that explodes at will and you are exploding your way through an exploding-friendly laboratory and all of its exploding-friendly/suicidal scientists is all you get. It's sort of like Sonic was, before all of that. Even the bosses that cap off each of the game's three worlds do little to establish your motives. Something about that is a little sobering. How often does a game come out now that eschews morality or drama or character development in a non-self-conscious way? Humor does emerge in other details, like 'Splosion Man's idle animations--as Ashley Davis gushes over--and the many morbid compulsions of your would-be captors. Even the humor bolsters the fact that all other aspects of the game are just a vehicle for that one simple gameplay mechanic.

'Splosion Man himself retains the same exact abilities throughout the entire game. All of Xbox controller's face buttons make you explode into the air and you are allowed to explode twice more before you hit the ground and recharge. This manifests itself as wall-climbing, platform jumping, switch activating, and only occasionally as an attack maneuver. What's interesting is that the levels he finds himself in, about 16 or so in each one of the three aesthetically similar worlds, grow increasingly chaotic. There are gameplay trends that characterize the three worlds, although even these are fluid. The first world pits 'Splosion Man most regularly against the scientists, who flip switches to activate turrets and other obstacles. The second world highlights rather lengthy timing sections, wherein rising water or giant indestructible robots will force the player to quickly run across platforms. The third world features twists on these trends, combining them, and introducing free-fall levels reminiscent of Irritating Stick. Individual levels vary rather dramatically in length from one to the next, which works especially well to disorient the player. I had considerable trouble getting through a few sections of each world and usually it was rote pattern learning that got me through in the end. Even relatively easy sections involve some trial and error.

However, once the patterns emerge and you find yourself in the rhythm of some remarkable feat of timing and improvisation, the game really shines. In most of the puzzles, the fact that 'Splosion man explodes is irrelevant. The visual manifestation of jumping or triggering exploding barrels that act like chutes could easily be something less volatile. (In fact, I think the title of the game does it an initial disservice. It would easy to conclude from the name and logo that the game was just a regurgitation of one gaming's many common articles. Fortunately Twisted Pixel inject enough extra-presentational gags to counter) I'm ashamed to admit I haven't had the pleasure of playing the co-op version, but I've heard it only accentuates the game's focus on acrobatics, coordination and kineticism. In the fifty levels of the game, the developers exhaust the mechanic and little else.

Perhaps my one complaint with 'Splosion Man is about its presentation. In the middle of some of the more dynamic motion puzzles, it's difficult not to notice how the level designs have been configured around some rather dramatic player movements. The camera pans in and out rather frantically to capture the important aspects of each platform section. Aside from activity the foreground however, there is not a whole lot going. I know I've been championing the game's simple approach thus far, but I can't help but feel like there was a missed opportunity to add some eye candy or pad out the settings a bit more. It would have been window dressing at the very best, but a nice touch.

I wholly recommend 'S
plosion Man, especially for the price. Its irreverence betrays a neat sort of grace and, in some ways, facilitates it.

P.S. The live action reimagination of the game that accompanies the credits is almost worth the price of admission.