Thursday, July 7, 2011

Texas' Twisted Pixel Two-Step

Twisted Pixel is a small team development studio with big ideas, and each game they make gets more epic and more impressive. With Ms. 'Splosion Man and The Gunstringer right around the corner, I felt I should take the time to spotlight one of Austin's better known "Independent" game studios with a review of two of their bigger projects: 'Splosion Man and Comic Jumper.

'Splosion Man skirts a very thin line between playing it safe with known gameplay and mixing it up with a bit of experimentation, to (mostly) great success. At its heart, the game is nothing more than a simple 2.5D platformer in the same vein as New Super Mario Brothers, but don't start hunting for those fancy platforming moves just yet. Mario might be able to spit fire, pound the ground, spin and float to help him reach the end of the level, but in 'Splosion Man you only get one thing: exploding. The game even goes so far as to make a gag achievement to get you to try and change the controls, only to find that all 4 buttons are mapped to 'SPLODE'. There are a few things you can interact with or pick up along the way that involve not exploding, but the majority of the game is pure platforming. There are a few basic rules to follow:

1) You can only get 3 consecutive jumps in a row, after which you must wait for your power to recharge. This can be avoided by moving across streams of fire to automatically recharge you back to a full 3 jumps (they use this to give you the ability to do long, continuous jump sequences late game while still providing areas that require precision jumping and timing).

2) This 'jump' mechanism is also tied to your health. Taking damage with no jumps remaining will kill you, while taking damage with jumps remaining may not, depending on the enemy. Falling into pits/spikes/electricity/etc will still insta-gib you.

3) Making other stuff explode (barrels, other players, some background devices) can give you a small increase in your jump distance.

Using these basic rules, the team at Twisted Pixel is able to offer an extremely impressive variety of gameplay options to challenge you throughout the course of the game. Add in the bit of extras, like the cakes you can find for exploring or getting to hard-to-reach areas of the level, and the amount of content available for the dollar is extremely impressive.

Now don't think that because there isn't much else to do than jump means the game is easy: far from it. 'Splosion Man has an extremely satisfying difficulty curve that helps you learn new techniques and enemies before being completely overwhelmed by them. Overall the content is challenging and it feels good to beat a level, but some levels do feel a little annoying/cheap in that the only way you can learn to time certain jumps is by first trying and then dying. Most of the more difficult platform sequences do a pretty good job of letting you see in advance what you are up against and plan your timing, but a select few feel that the best way to ramp up difficulty is just to send you full speed towards the side of the screen and hope you either knew what was their already or have split-second trigger fingers. These bits can be frustrating but are few, far and inbetween so if you just power through it you'll be back to great level design in no time.

'Co-op' platforming is an interesting feature and when I first heard about it I thought it would either be awkward or lame. I mean, a platforming game designed for single player but allowing multiple people? This promises nothing but chaos! (Which games like New Super Mario Brothers Wii also later proved). Twisted Pixel seemed to think the same way, though, because they designed co-operative levels to be 100% unique to co-op which let them put in platforming 'puzzles' that required 2 people. This requires a very strong level of co-operation between players to finish levels and adds and even greater sense of pride and accomplishment when you pull off some ridiculous feats with your quick timing...

Or, it would, anyway, if it wasn't so bogged down with issues. The idea was great and is amazing fun for the first dozen or so levels, but as they ramp up in difficulty the timing required to pull off different tricks becomes almost impossible to pull off correctly. This makes long sequences of timed jumps nearly impossible to pull off and infinitely more frustrating to play, because now you feel like you are fighting against the game, not playing it. And that's just local multiplayer! The game launched with Xbox LIVE multiplayer which sounds great, but it was plagued with terrible latency and HUGE synchronization issues from the start that could completely ruin your chances of finishing a level halfway through it. To be fair, they worked on it and it got better over time after a few patches but to this day I'd still only try to play local, if at all, because of the absolutely precise timing required to finish some of the levels properly.

What I also don't understand is why they even allowed it to be 3-4 players "co-operative" to begin with. There are no specific levels for this number of players, and exploding near anyone can cause them to just fly off in the wrong direction and die. This makes 3 players pointless because someone will always be missing a partner and die, and 4 players just absurd because it's just 2 pairs of 2 players trying to make it through timed levels without somehow killing each other (hint: you still do). 2 player mode is challenging enough, but 3-4 player co-op seems to serve almost no purpose other than to be there and be absolute mayhem. Come to think of it, maybe that IS the purpose...

The inclusion of leaderboards was a somewhat interesting idea to give the game a bit of replay value - see how fast some people were smoking you on levels that took you several minutes! - but after a few weeks/months the game was so overrun with exploits and hackers that almost all of the best times were simply impossible '2 seconds' times that you know could not actually be real. It's fun for a while to check out some of your friends' times and see if you can beat them, but as is often the case in asynchronous competitive events like this, it doesn't really hold you for too long before it becomes boring, especially since it's not something most of your friends will be constantly watching and trying to beat.

The single player game itself oozes with humor and charm that adds a flair of style to game that really helps set it apart from other solid platformers. Wrap all of this up in a VERY reasonable price, and 'Splosion Man has what it takes to stand out as one of the best games to date on Xbox Live Arcade.

Comic Jumper, on the other hand, is an entirely different experience. Part side-scroller, part beat-em-up, part twin-stick-shooter, Comic Jumper is an attempt to mix a good number of known genres together to make something unique and interesting. While it can certainly be described as unique, some of the gameplay elements don't work out as well as they could and the whole thing ends up feeling like a great idea bogged down by some awkward execution.

Comic Jumper's strongest asset is its story and its characters. Twisted Pixel once again does an amazing job taking a unique idea and combining it with an intriguing story and filling it with zany, larger-than-life characters full of... well, character. The duo of 'The Captain' and 'Star' make for an excellent comedic pairing, especially since they have such a symbiotic relationship with one another. This means they can be placed into situations that might seem implausible for two true individuals to actually participate in.

Their sparring also helps make other characters have even more to play off of, and to great effect. One of the best 'enemies' is the Captains "arch-nemesis" Brad. Star is overly infatuated with him (much to the Captain's chagrin), so once the three in the same room the laughs just keep rolling in. Other enemies - like the Puttmaster or Mistress Ropes - are just as hilarious and memorable. A few of them (like Nanoc and the Cutie Cutie Kid Cupids) are still funny even if they don't stand up as well to the others.

The worlds themselves are also varied and well designed. Each 'comic' is unique and gives the feeling of a specific genre/time period of comics, and even the protagonist gets a new look for each set change. It means that even at the end of the game, you are getting to see something new and different that you haven't seen before - something that can't be said for most games today. When you don't have copy/paste/recolor to fall back on, variety is sort of forced upon you. This doesn't mean that you won't see the same monsters reappear from time to time (because you will), but over the course of the game you will definitely see a wide range of unique models and even art styles.

The over-arching story is adequate, though a bit awkward at times. The amount of direct reference to themselves in the game is occasionally funny but sometimes borders on feeling a bit too egotistical. It sets up some good jokes and some really laugh out loud moments (like the hilarious 'animation' behind the 'help me!' ability) but mostly just feels overdone or overused. The live action sequences are well shot (and thankfully high-definition friendly) and do help add that 'someone is reading a comic book' feeling. And despite my earlier warning of overusing themselves, the final shot of Twisted Pixel at the end is (dare I say it?) priceless!

I would be a little remiss for not at least mentioning the music - 'Splosion Man may have had the  'donuts' song go viral, but it can barely compare to the pure awesome that is "Brad's Theme", or the unfortunately catchy 'I love u'. They get most of their power from actually experiencing them in-game, so don't expect to be blown away if you just decide to look it up on youtube, but many of the original songs in the game are truly exceptional and only add to the experience.

The gameplay is good, with a high difficulty curve and a scoring system to keep perfectionists coming back for more, but often suffers from the sudden shifts in genre and a not-quite-there control scheme. Sometimes the genre shifts work well, keeping the game fresh and adding a nice change of pace to prevent the gameplay from becoming stale. Unfortunately, some transitions occur too suddenly and are quite jarring, throwing you off and often times getting you killed. It doesn't help that the controls feel a bit overwhelming at times. During twin-stick-shooter portions, you are expected to be in control of both analog sticks, fire with triggers, jump AND slide. I don't know about you, but with thumbs on analog sticks and both index fingers planted firmly on the triggers, attempting to jump while maintaining control of my current position, current target and current rate of fire can be daunting. Then again, maybe I'm just old now >-<

The game itself is fairly long, propped up a bit by the necessity to replay harder parts over and over again when you die. You can also go back and replay small sections of older missions to try and get 'best scores' or 'longest streak' for cash to buy upgrades, or even special bonus content. Which is actually fairly extensive, now that I think about it. The amount of concept art, music, video interviews and other 'behind-the-scenes' goodies rivals (and actually exceeds in some cases) what many companies offer for money in "collector's edition" boxes. All for free, and all for just playing the game! Certainly a nice touch, and it really goes to prove that this was definitely the game Twisted Pixel founders dreamed of making when they started the company.

In the end, Comic Jumper is a collection of several ideas put together that both succeeds and stumbles in equal parts. It may not win many awards for anything other than originality, but the game is by no means bad. My only true 'complaint' here is that the gameplay sometimes doesn't hold up to the otherwise incredible production values, and even this is rare. The game may not be for 'everyone', but for someone looking for challenging gameplay in a funny, unique world with over-the-top characters with tons and tons of unlockables, all at an extremely reasonable pricepoint (and soon to be even lower!) you would be hard pressed to find anything better than Comic Jumper. The real shame here is that there will be no DLC to continue the Captain's wild adventures with.

So there you have it - two reviews for games from Austin's very own Twisted Pixel. They've come a long way from their humble beginnings with "The Maw" and have delivered two original IPs that stand out with their style and humor and keep you entertained for hours on end. Twisted Pixel is most assuredly a shining example of the incredible things being done on the Xbox Live Arcade every year, by small developers with big ideas. And with Ms. 'Splosion Man coming soon, and the western puppeteering Gunstringer on the way for Kinect, there is definitely more to come.


Ash said...

'Spolision man sounds snoozy but I think I could fully enjoy Comic Jumper :-)

Ash said...

i mean..'Splosion man...