Friday, September 22, 2006

Blinx: The Time Sweeper

You know, it's rumored that Blinx the Cat, star of both Blinx: The Time Sweeper and its eventual sequel, the imaginatively titled Blinx 2, was meant to be Microsoft's answer to Mario, Sonic and Crash Bandicoot - a sort of unofficial franchise player for the Xbox. The feeling was that Halo's Master Chief was too maturely themed for outright mascot status, and that the system needed something cute and fluffy to fit in with the competition. Of course, in hindsight it's easy to see that the Xbox and PS2's lack of emphasis on any one trademark character led to more evenly-spread attention throughout the consoles' respective libraries. Not to mention that the so-called "coming of age" of the industry, which had begun in earnest midway through the previous generation, was already working to make the kid-friendly mascot a thing of the past. At the time, though, it was deemed important for the Box to have a single public face, and only after Blinx's first in-game appearance failed to make immediate waves was the plan aborted.

Just something of an interesting aside I discovered while digging into the short history of Artoon's Xbox-exclusive platformer. But then, promising big things and completely falling flat on the follow-through is something of a moral for this title. IGN ranked it highly, Microsoft clearly thought good things were in the cards, and even the game's packaging proclaims it as the "Best Xbox Game of E3, 2002." Truly, at a glance it would appear that all the pieces are in place for an absolutely wonderful game. Playing is believing, I suppose.

From the outset, I thought something smelled a little fishy. As the opening cutscene introduces you to Blinx, the supporting cast and the particulars of his upcoming adventures, I found myself trying to wrap my brain around the basic premise of the story. The idea is that a secret, off-world clan of humanoid cat creatures, armed with souped up vacuum cleaners, are responsible for the development and dispersal of time itself to every known plane of existence in the galaxy. It seems that time, when compressed tightly enough to be transported by said cats, takes the form of one of five different brightly-colored shapes. If these crystals are left out on the open for too long without being properly decompressed, they turn into monsters. I could go on, because the game certainly doesn't stop there, but I think you get the point. I like to think that there's a fairly thick line drawn between cartoony fantasy and super-detailed realism. Generally, a lot of the physics and environmental details are taken for granted in a realistic game, because they're almost exclusively set in a photorealistic, lifelike location. Cartoons, on the other hand, generally don't worry themselves with the particulars and are primarily concerned with delivering a good time. How much fun would the Wile E. Coyote cartoons be if every time the lead character suffered a grisly fate, it strictly obeyed the laws of gravity and aerodynamics? Blinx tries to straddle that line by delivering a story that's overly detail-centric in an environment that's right out of a kid's variety show. The result is a tale that comes off as way, WAY out of left field and almost completely abstract. It focuses on things that would be better left to the viewer's imagination and ignores the importance of a good underlying story along the way.

Beneath the needless discussions of why there are monsters in the world, how time compression works and how cats are actually responsible for all that we hold dear, the actual plot is almost laughably straightforward and generic. There's a princess, evil pigs have kidnapped her, and it's up to you and you only to rescue her and save her world. That's it, no side-stories, no reasoning, no subplots - just a straightforward rush from Point A to Point B. And here I thought the phrase "save the princess" was universally recognized as an ages-old cliche.

Now, I don't want it to sound like I'm railing on this game just because it's got a few more nitpicky details than its peers and it reuses an old phrase from way back in the platformer handbook as its sole driving factor. It's also completely lacking in character development, general storytelling and ongoing motivational factors. None of the characters in Blinx really establish themselves as individuals, including the lead character himself. You don't hate the pig on the spaceship because he's trying to destroy the world, you hate him because every time he shows up he tries to steal your money. I honestly forgot there was a princess at the end of the game after level three, because she's never mentioned between the game's start and its finish. I mean, the very first Super Mario Brothers at least reminded you that the princess was in another castle at the end of every boss fight.

I'll freely admit that platformers are not traditionally known for telling good stories, so naturally I wasn't looking for a whole lot in that respect anyway. Historically, the genre is more known for delivering mindless fun and action-packed adventures than thought-provoking tales of conquest and character enlightenment. That's one of the things that really made Jak II stand out from the pack - a great story to go along with all of the raucous and firefights. So, of course, a great story is not a prerequisite for a great platformer. It's too bad, then, that not only does Blinx spin a dull tale, but it's also not a whole lot of fun to play.

I don't honestly think the game was really designed to be enjoyable so much as it was geared to be overly challenging. The first level and a half are set up in the standard "get to know you" format, with the simplest of enemies, the most routine of stage layouts and plenty of opportunities to mess around with your tools. Shortly thereafter, you're thrown to the wolves. For the most part, the level designs are very short, with more of an emphasis on cheap hits than on complexity and true challenge. I noticed a lot of overlap in the stage layouts, whether it's retracing your steps time and time again or walking along a catwalk (har har) way above the beginning of the stage and invariably plummeting back to the start point. You'll almost always know what needs to be done, but actually accomplishing that act is the real trick. I just can't overemphasize how unbearably cheap most of this game really is. If there's a bottomless pit nearby, (and chances are very good that there is) Blinx will find a way to force himself into it, regardless of what you're hitting on the control pad. If there's an enemy two feet in front of you and you hit the attack button, he'll aim at a random switch on the other side of the room, rather than the imminent threat.

That's not to say that the entirety of The Time Sweeper is totally without merit, because it does bring a few fresh ideas to the table, but for the most part those insights are hampered by their surroundings. The ability to control time, for instance, was at the time a really fresh, interesting new play mechanic and still stands out today, despite the limited field of imitators that have since emerged. You can rewind a few seconds to catch an enemy unaware or to rebuild a crumbling bridge, pause the action and take advantage of the frozen time, knock the level into slow motion, etc. All the while, Blinx is moving around in real time. It's a great idea, but the implementation is painfully short and underutilized. Why can't I use two controls at the same time? Why don't more aspects of the stage encourage the player to experiment with and solve problems with these powers? Why doesn't the ridiculous ten minute stage time limit pause, speed up or rewind when I use my time powers? Why is their duration so brief, and why can't I hold more than a dozen uses at a time? I mean, this could've really been a fantastic experience if the time control aspect had been beefed up a little further and treated as more than just an auxiliary function of an otherwise run-of-the-mill game.

Likewise, the concept of using a vacuum cleaner as weaponry is a fresh idea that just doesn't live up to everything it could've been. Throughout each stage is a variety of discarded objects (a love seat, an old fridge, a rusted pipe) that can be sucked up, stored and fired at an enemy, which is admittedly a unique twist on the "limited ammunition" angle used in modern third person action titles. The vacuum's storage capacity is a bit limited, even when powered up, so constantly finding a new source of ammunition is a needlessly constant headache. In a few very isolated instances, the developers introduced some truly interesting, playful applications of Blinx's vacuum-of-doom, but I think they really only scratched the surface and cut short the potential in this area, as well. For instance, you can suck a thick, dangling chain halfway into the cleaner and use it as a sort of makeshift tarzan vine, or pull the cord of a giant balloon into the pipe and float across the board. It's obvious that, when they put their minds to it, these guys can produce some really unique, smile-inducing ideas, so why are these occasions so few and far between?

The controls, too, are an undeveloped, undertested nightmare. Blinx himself is often sluggish to respond, especially when implementing his time controls. He has difficulty making a precise turn, whether in midair or on solid ground. He stops to briefly celebrate when gaining an item in the field, which leaves him open to constant enemy attacks. He routinely moves in the direction of certain death, as though pulled by a magnetic field, whether you've instructed him to do so or not. He'll occasionally refuse to perform a double jump, particularly when attempting a difficult, precise leap across a gaping chasm. As I mentioned above, he'll aim his weapon wherever he pleases, regardless of where you're specifically pointing him. I can recall an instance where I spent several minutes asking him to stand still and fire straight ahead, yet his head kept locking onto something on the other side of the map and that's where he'd continue to aim. It's a nearly limitless list of complaints already, and I haven't even begun to scratch the surface.

I think it's the controls that most make Blinx so mind-squashingly aggravating. At a glance, you'd imagine they'd be fairly difficult to screw up. You've got a jump button, a suction / fire button, a time control button and an analog stick to control movement. Not to mention the long, established line of three-dimensional platformers released to the market in the years before the title's release, paving the way to an ideal control experience. Super Mario 64 had its issues, sure, but nothing like this, and it was the trailblazer for the entire genre's jump to the world of 3D. It's like they had a map leading them right to the treasure and decided to forge their own path anyway.

I can't even say I'm impressed by the graphics showcased throughout The Time Sweeper, either. With the exception of the lead character himsef, (who I'm sure was the subject of dozens of stuffy board meetings, endless criticisms and hollow committees) these are some incredibly cheesy, preschoolish character designs - they feel unfinished and hurried, less purposeful than you'd imagine (especially in contrast with Blinx himself). Particularly insulting is the large population of simple blobs that roam around the levels, tirelessly attempting to bump into you and cause a fatal injury. Here's a finely detailed main character, with such close attention paid to his wardrobe that even the gloss of his shoes was obviously debated time and time again, and he's pitted against a set of monsters that could've sprung to life directly out of the pages of a four-year-old's sketchbook. I felt like I was working my way through an acid-influenced segment of 3-2-1 Contact or Sesame Street in the late '70s, with all of the primary colors, numbers, letters and google-eyed monsters floating around. Everything mobile is super-bright and minimal, which isn't my cup of tea, and really looks obscene next to the dull, dreary muted colors of the environments and building structures. Even the main characters themselves are really scary-looking: imagine an entire society of child-sized cats that walk upright with a full set of sparkling, human-proportioned teeth. Yeah. Yikes.

I did, however, really like the barbershop quartet-bred-with-bovine appearance of the villain masterminds, if just for the pure tackiness of it all. If the entire game were a battle between Blinx and these vaudevillian clutzes with a penchant for flying machinery, maybe it would've earned a higher mark from yours truly. Although, upon closer inspection, they do bear more than a passing similarity to Dr. Eggman of Sonic the Hedgehog fame. That should probably come as no surprise, since Naoto Oshima, who founded Blinx developer Artoon, is generally credited with many early Sonic character designs.

Despite featuring a spoken dialog track, there's no English voice acting. I couldn't pinpoint the language, but Autumn seems to think it's either French or some close variation of it. It certainly didn't sound Japanese. While this does add a touch of personality to the title, and it's not every day that you get a chance to hear a cat shouting something in the language of love, it all seemed really odd and out of place coming out of my television. Everyone's vocal personalities are so black-and-white, too, that I feel like a great chance to establish some much-needed individuality amongst the cast was once again lost here. The bad guys all have the same deep, gravelly, transparently evil tone, while the good guys are all bright, cheery, squeaky and high-pitched like the monkeys in Super Monkey Ball. It's almost a parody of the games that had come before, but I won't give the developers enough credit to assume that they were doing it on purpose.

The game's original soundtrack is largely a miss, as well. Well, maybe calling it a "miss" is a bit harsh - let's just say it's far from the most memorable arrangement on the market today. I'd believe it if you told me Artoons ran out of time and budget before the guy they'd hired to score an original soundtrack had begun his work. It seems like the development team rushed out to the store and bought the cheapest "royalty free music" CD on the racks. At the very least, they grabbed the disc with CARTOON written in big black letters on the front cover, because it matches the environment fairly well. It's suitable, but I wouldn't bother trying to find a CD of it.

Overall, Blinx is really just a few promising concepts thrown together in one package, strapped to the shell of a far-below-average third person platformer and unleashed upon an unsuspecting public. At the time of its release, it was still in need of a lot of polishing, some serious scrutiny behind closed doors and a re-evaluation of just how far some of these concepts and half-hearted character designs could be conceivably stretched without losing any quality. On top of that, I really don't know which audience they were targeting with it. The game is ridiculously difficult, which betrays the childlike demeanor that surrounds it and leads me to believe it was meant for the serious gamers out there. But it's so bright, kid-friendly and annoyingly cutesy that I can't imagine anyone in the hardcore demographic rushing out to the stores on release day. The sheer number of spontaneous controller hurls in my living room shot through the roof during my time with Blinx, reaching near-Marvel vs. Capcom 2 levels with its unashamed, excruciatingly cheap hits. Especially in later levels... I have no idea how I acquired the willpower to finish level eight. The game is adequately lengthy and offers some replay value, with hidden cat medals in each stage. Collecting sets of these medals will eventually unlock production sketches, promotional materials and the like. Once you start hunting for floating cat heads in those super-tough later stages, though, you'll remember why you were so happy to be finished with the game in the first place. This is a weak title that falls well short in almost every category. Unless you feel like pulling your hair out in clumps (I shaved my head after the experience as a part of the cleansing process) and enjoy self-mutilation, I'd recommend you stay far away.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 1.9

No comments: