Sunday, June 13, 2010

XBLIG Review - Urban Space Squirrels

There are few genres that define "tough love" like the puzzle platformer. If anyone has played the excellent N+, Splosion Man, or even Trials HD (a puzzle platformer disguised as a dirt-bike game), they should know exactly what I'm talking about. I can't think of another genre out there that will test the very limit of your frustration and patience yet give you such satisfaction once you complete your task. And I am happy to inform you that the recent XBLIG release Urban Space Squirrels can be put safely onto that distinguished list.

Urban Space Squirrels from DTA (Duct Tape Anonymous) Entertainment is a story about a super squirrel, some bombs to help him jump, and about 20,000 things to cause its demise. Your goal is to guide said squirrel from point A to point B using bombs, some climbing gear, and the ability to glide to trigger switches and keep it from dying some horrible deaths. Is there a plotline in all this? And, if there is, who cares? You're a NINJA-LIKE SQUIRREL WITH BOMBS.

When I first started U.S.S., the first thing I noticed was how much the look of it reminded me of N+. The art style, though somewhat minimal like N+, has a Saturday morning cartoon look to it and is incredibly animated. Movement is fluid and stylish, and though the screen isn't filled with colors everything is defined and pleasing to the eyes. The music is a catchy blend of house and funk but, really, as long as you're not listening to Garth Brooks, whatever music you put to you ninja squirrels with bombs will be fitting. The sound effects are a healthy blend of sliding door sounds, bomb blasts, and jarring death knells when your protagonist ends up finding an untimely end on a laser beam.

A game like this needs spot-on controls, and U.S.S. provides those perfectly though they do take a little getting used to during the more precise moments. Left stick moves, right stick aims your bombs, right trigger fires, left trigger detonates, and of course A jumps. Throughout the entire game, I never felt like a single death was the fault of the game or controls. Rather, each fried or crushed squirrel was a result of my need for improvement or my imprecise timing and execution. It was annoying, it was frustrating, and it caused me to say things to squirrels I've never said in my life, but most importantly it was all my doing. And that made each success feel that much more rewarding.

Here is the part where I normally get to tear into a game. Where I get to be a nitpicky little schmuck and tell you how I wish a certain button should be mapped somewhere else or how the designer should have listened to more Coheed and Cambria when they were working on the level design on Stage 2. So I'll tell you the one thing that I wish was in U.S.S.: a button that lets me reach through the TV and shake the hands of each developer that worked on this game. There isn't a single thing I would change about this title other than the fact that it's not on XBLA with dedicated leaderboards, achievements, and unlockable gamerpics and themes. If those few things were added to the game and it was thrown on XBLA, I'd gladly shell out ten bucks for it. Maybe I'm a little biased as I put more hours into N+ and Splosion Man than any other Live Arcade title out there, but I truly think this game is deserving of both that price and that praise. The level design is challenging and genius from start to finish, the checkpoints seem to be in exactly the right spots to keep the game balanced between overly forgiving and too mean, and the final boss stage (only one in the game) forced an on the fly puzzle-solving strategy that felt different from the entire game but just as fun and rewarding. I guess the one bad thing about the game is that it ends, but if it didn't I'd never write this review because I just wouldn't stop playing it. Ever.

In the end, going through all twenty levels and the profanity-inducing boss stage will take roughly five to seven hours, maybe more if this genre isn't something you get right away. Even after that, each stage has collectible pages that, though never really hidden, are difficult to get in full, and you could easily spend another hour or two going back through for the ones you missed. And you won't mind one bit because the gameplay is just that fun and rewarding the entire time. It also goes to mention that the game is only 80 MS Points, according to the info sheet, for a limited time. If this game was 240 MSP I'd say it's an excellent buy, but at 80 MS it's something you should just go buy right now if you have any interest in it whatsoever. Games like this deserve attention and support, and I can't describe how much fun I had while playing this game.

Urban Space Squirrels from DTA Entertainment is available on XBox Live for 80 MS Points. Played game to the end, looking forward to going back for 100% completion, and would place playing and beating this game among my top 10 most satisfying gaming experiences. Also, I saw variations the following screen a lot.

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