There’s something charming and just plain weird about a game that allows custom mapping of your controls, but only has one control to map to any given button. The creators of ‘Splosion Man are obviously aware of the joke, as you are given the option of mapping the X button to “Splode”, “Splode” or “Splode”. In fact, the same goes for every button on the controller. It’s an early indication what the game’s tone is going to be: absolute absurdity.
Twisted Pixel, creators of The Maw, have put together another Xbox Live Arcade title, this time the first in the Summer of Arcade series. The game starts you out as some sort of experiment that has burst out of a laboratory to exact some kind of revenge on the evil men of science who have held you captive. You are Splosion Man, a strange, stick-figure like creature seemingly made of fire and armed with the ability to explode at will. This serves as the primary mechanic for the game, as “sploding” propels you throughout the level, acting as your jump, wall-jump and even your defense against any enemies you come across. It is, in effect, a harking back to the platforming titles of old with a start and a set of jumps you need to execute to get to the end. There are no build up of powers or abilities and any complicated button combos, you simply splode to move throughout the level and do your best not to get burnt out along the way.
The world of ‘Splosion Man may sound simple, and that’s because it really is. The game’s context is implied with little to no dialogue, and the character himself is a wild character who relishes the fact that he can burst into flames at any given time. Even running through the level, he will wave his arms pretending to be an airplane – complete with sound effects – or drag his knuckles and grunt. As you travel throughout the level, he spouts out random movie phrases, often with the word splode thrown in for good measure, and each level loading screen starts with a random meat being yelled out enthusiastically. And that is effectively the violence theme of the game, with every enemy you encounter turning into a pile of meat when you splode near them or they happen to fall into the one of the many traps in the world. The environment stays pretty consistent, as well, with you simply trying to move throughout this laboratory filled with enemies seeking to do you harm or simply stop you from progressing. It’s simple, cartoonish and doesn’t feel overdone or forced. Even the game’s soundtrack includes a song about donuts whenever you run into one of the more rotund men of science, which is one of the first times I laughed out loud while playing a game in quite some time.
It is an easy game to pick up and run through, with a simple control scheme that allows the levels to be the progression in the difficulty and mechanics rather than relying on your mastery of various abilities. Some levels will be filled with pools of acid, raising water or charging robots that offers very little chance for error and can see you returning to that spot frequently just to get the jump sequences perfect. That progression is gentle enough to ease most into the game, but there are certain levels that are jarringly difficult even for some of the most experienced players, but never feel unfair. The solution is always not but two feet ahead of you and you are always made aware of the next step you need to make in order to progress, so it makes that precision in button presses the real opportunity for expertise.
Unlike The Maw, this game does not approach you with a gentle hand. The tutorials are sparse, and you are given the opportunity to experiment with the various elements of the world – such as exploding barrels, turrets that you must disable and complicated jump sequences) simply by moving through the worlds as they progress. You are given the grace of infinite lives and a reasonable amount of checkpoints in the 50 levels that you traverse, and you aren’t likely to spend more than a few minutes in each (ideally) so the commitment isn’t high if you’re feeling particularly frustrated with one sequence. It is situated as a title for people willing to suffer through trial and error, without needing to offer so much as a hint due to a well designed level structure that always points you in the right direction, even if you have to struggle just to get there. Die enough, and you are even given the option to skip in ‘The Way of the Coward’, which is certain to deter some of the more persistent players and perhaps embarrass those with less experience. Especially considering that if you take this option, you must play the next level wearing a pink tutu.
Feature wise the game offers a vast improvement on Twisted Pixel’s previous efforts, with the aforementioned 50 levels to explore (including 3 bosses) for single player as well as 50 different levels for multiplayer. Each level has a collectible cake that ‘Splosion Man is eager to devour and offers a great carrot to really explore the levels, even offering a significant level of additional challenge for some worlds. By completing the game you are also rewarded with gamer pictures and a premium theme for your Xbox 360, a practice that all developers should be trying at this point and something that The Maw happily delivered, as well. Leaderboards for each world offer a challenge to the players who are eager to compare their scores, with each scientist you dispatch, cake you find and the amount of time it takes you measured up against the rest of the world.
The single player experience isn’t exceptionally varied, but does provide enough of a progression that it will keep you moving. Each world ends with a boss level where you are killed in a single hit, which is a bit of a stumbling block for the most part, but does show glimmers of how the sploding mechanic can be used for a little more than simple platforming. These ideas feel like they could have been explored more and perhaps toned down in the brutality, but once you understand the exploits of the bosses they are much simpler than any of the more complicated levels. There are some moments that even encorporate a cinematic element to the game where you will be mid leap and the game will zoom in to see your character grab a scientist and fall through several panes of glass and explode. While you’re not controlling this sequence, it is a great variation and a break from the play and continues the context of the game offering you something new to look at. The overall game really misses out by not including more of these types of sequences, but it doesn’t detract from the level design throughout which feels well put together pretty much the entire way through. The multiplayer is equally as interesting, offering up a totally different set of levels designed for players to splode off of each other. This is not always easy to time, so the game offers a mechanic that brings up a counter – 3, 2, 1, SPLODE – that seemed useless until you realize the constant chatter and bad timing people have over voice chat can be distilled down to a much easier to recognize form. It’s a lot of game to play through, especially if you’ve got a set of friends who want to give it a try, even in the same room.
Graphically, the game may not be the highest of high definition, but the colourful palette and great character design make the game consistent and great to look it. The action is usually at a pace where you can enjoy the scenery, but the environment and backgrounds can become a bit stale. The game certainly would have benefited from a Portal like progression that brought you outside the stale, metal lab setting and into something more suited to the “escape” narrative of the game. The audio on the game is excellent, with every explosion being crisp and rewarding, the characters’ chirps and oft-quoted phrases never grating you. As mentioned before, the few songs that have been scattered in the game, like one that plays when you grab a donut-shoveling scientist is fun and matches the light and insane tone of the whole experience. The game handles the overall world very well, all being very light and colourful, though I still get a bit creeped out when I watch a scientist have his arm blown off and pieces of meat slowly leak out of him as he slips away.
What I’m really trying to say is…
‘Splosion Man is one of the best experiences I’ve had with Live Arcade. While the gameplay isn’t exceptionally varied, it handles what it has very well and progresses enough to keep you interested throughout. The characters are kooky without feeling overly forced, and you can tell from the credit sequences and other small touches that the game developers are aware of the insanity of the whole project, so the game never feels like it tries to take itself to seriously. For playing the game, you get gamer pics and a premium theme, which is something that is a really great gift to anyone that’s put their money into the game. Single player game can be quite challenging, but getting the right flow can feel as good as hitting the right jumps in a game like Mirror’s Edge without the complex control system. Multiplayer offers offline and online four player co-op that is different and just as challenging as the single player. It’s a lot of game to get through and one that I can not recommend enough.
‘Splosion Man is developed by Twisted Pixel and is available for 800 Microsoft Points on the Xbox 360 Live Arcade. Single player played to completion, including all cakes retrieved. Multiplayer played through to second world. Total time spent with the game is roughly 6 or 7 hours.