Thursday, September 2, 2010 at 10:02PM
Q-games and I have developed quite a history based on the experiences I've had playing and writing about their games. From Star Fox: Command on the DS, the Pixel Junk Eden demo (PS3), to Digidrive (DSi), it's time to add one more... game to the queue; X-Scape. Its style caught my eye, the company name kept me interested, and a 20$ Nintendo point card was the final step in bringing X-Scape and me together. I downloaded the game months ago, and had a very rough experience getting things off the ground. So, it took me until recently to break back into the game. In about 3 days, I pushed through the game and completed it. There's a lot to say about this game and I even have some suggestions for a repair. I haven't done a review and repair in a while, so it's about time I got back into full form.
The first thing you're likely to remark about X-Scape is its graphical style. Not only is it a fully 3D DSiware game, but it uses stark colors and simple polygonal models to accentuate lights, darks, and edges. The result is a truly unique style. When it comes to describing style, I'm a fan of using a medley of examples in a sort of stylistic equation. I did it in my Pixel Junk Eden Demo article and it seems quite fitting to do here as well. The visual style of X-Scape is a mix between the intro of Cowboy Bebop and Star Fox (SNES) with a HUD similar to Metroid Prime Hunters.
The attention to detail adds a lot to the visual presentation. The bouncing particle effects after destroying enemies, the scattering power ups, and the trailing bullets/missiles/bombs punctuate the solid areas of color very nicely to give the space a sense of depth. Factor in a touch of colored shadows, screen warping, static, and light flares and there's plenty of tech for the presentation to stay fresh the whole way through. The only thing that would improve the visual impact of X-Scape if it were designed with 3D technology for the upcoming 3DS.
X-Scape really tries to deliver a rich and epic story. Unfortunately, the developers chose the medium the farthest away from how video games communicate stories best. If personal introspection and revelations are best delivered through writing, interpersonal/character drama best delivered via stage dialog, and conflicts between a character and a large entity/force are best communicated via film, then video games can surely do all of these things. But what games do best is story telling through action or player mechanics, through context via gameplay challenges, and/or through interactive setting. What X-Scape does is simply tell an "epic" story of a man versus a large force/corporation via stunted, one-sided lines of dialog from a computer navigation unit. This is a problem. Old war heroes, past battles, and current predicaments are all explained plainly and rather matter-of-factly. Not much is shown, and there is nothing offered along the lines of personal thought. Thus X-Scape represents the worst of both methods.
The story would have been much better communicated and developed if the developers harnessed the power of their incredibly alluring visual style. I know space is limited for this downloadable DS game, but it shouldn't have taken much extra work or space to include a few stylized slides providing visuals to the the story elements in addition to describing them in text. As far as visuals go, only a few images of Dr. Yamano and the former commander are provided. The star chart is steadily filled out as you progress through the game so that by the end you can really see how far you've traveled in pursuit of your ultimate goal. If there was an image of each planet, its inhabitants, or other such content visiting different words would be more impactful. As it is now, the biggest differences between most planets is a pallet swap, which is not interactive and therefore not very engaging. As with most games, the more engaging part of the experience is the interactivity or gameplay. So to further consider the X-Scape's experience, we have to consider gameplay. Any discussion of gameplay starts with mechanics.
The mechanics mostly use the touch screen with the buttons all mapped to SHOOT (using the default settings). Aiming is smooth and is mostly horizontal unless flying. DRIVING forward and in reverse is done by holding the stylus on the upper or lower region of the touch screen respectively. With many touch screen buttons and indicators including proximity to key items, proximity to danger, and a nifty radar the mechanics and HUD are simple and contextual. As you might suspect from the video above, there's little more to this game than moving and SHOOTing. Some games like the 2D Super Mario Brothers Platfomers have iterated masterfully with just the move action. Other games like light gun shooters, have done much with just shooting. And there are many widly successful genres and game series that make the most out of moving and shooting. Unfortunately, X-Scape doesn't develop many layered, challenging, varied, or (in my opinion) interesting gameplay challenges with its game actions.
The various gameplay challenges in the game can be categorized as one of 4 modes; flying, tank, tunnel, and turret. The aim assist in the flying and tank modes help players shoot down moving targets. Ultimately in the tank mode, you'll move around occasionally strafing and SHOOTing enemies that are mostly just cannon fodder. A bit into the game, you get the power to fly from tank mode which punctuates ground based travel and combat. While flying you constantly fly forward like in all range mode in Star Fox 64. These two modes arguably make up the majority of the gameplay experience. When you're not tanking or flying on a planet, you're traveling between them in short (10-30 second) tunnel sections. The controls are the same as when flying. The major difference is instead of having the freedom of movement, you're funneled down scripted obstacle courses. Finally, there are a handful of missions where you can swivel around and shoot down incoming enemies in the turret mode.
With these modes the gameplay challenges in X-Scape are very shallow. The problem is there isn't any counterpoint or layered challenges. Consider what happens on just about every planet of the 20 in game locations. Enemies wander around. When you kill them they respawn. Drive or fly around and collect power crystals, which are mostly just out in the open. Some require players to fly to reach, others become accessible after players hit nearby hidden switches, and very few are unlocked when players drive/fly through rings. When you collect enough power crystals, you can unlock a gate that will take you to another planet to repeat the whole process (after passing through the 10-30 second tunnel section). If you want, you can accept missions on most planets that are more of the same kind of gameplay. A few missions are unique offering boss battles or the rare turret mission. Regardless, aiming, shooting, and practically ignoring danger will get the job done effectively.
To put it another way, the level elements hardly matter, the enemies are hardly threatening, and all the parts of the game are mostly separate like Wario Ware micro games. What's worse is that the game greatly suffers from a lack of variation. I could hardly tell if the enemies were getting stronger or trickier as I progressed. Each planet looks different but plays almost entirely the same. Even the solar flares of Zagueel or the sand storms hardly added any challenge to the game. You'll spend the whole game doing the most simple tasks and actions over and over. Games like Assassin's Creed are analogous in that both contain a bunch of greatly labored over parts and detail, yet the gameplay seems to be the least cared for part.
But if you know your Q-games games, the shortcomings of X-Scape should remind you of Star Fox: Command. Bite sized challenges. Open "all range mode" aerial combat. Somewhat awkward and cumbersome non-combat gameplay interspersed between the combat sections. An attempt at a rich story. Nice graphical presentation. But ultimately missing something key.
The best parts about X-Scape are the style, the smooth controls, the 3D engine, the story (yet not the telling of it), and the boss battles. Though I put gameplay above all other aspects of a video game, this doesn't mean I can't appreciate other aspects when gameplay falls short. When I think back on my experience with X-Scape I recall a distinct sense of adventure, drive, and isolation. The game could be better in many ways, but what Q-games pulled off with the space and the price is noteworthy. Beating X-Scape put a smile on my face, which perhaps is the only test that matters.