Platform: PC (£8.99)
"I love the idea behind Concursion" is a nasty little backhanded compliment, but it must be paid. This astoundingly ambitious indie project is built around a sensational premise: exploring five different classic genres that continually bleed into and feed off one another as the barriers between them collapse. One moment you'll be jumping on nasties and leaping over pitfalls, the next you'll be piloting a spaceship or racing through a Pac-Man maze, experiencing completely different mechanics and combining multiple gameplay styles in increasingly imaginative ways.
It's the sort of radical Big Idea™ that can turn a modest little boutique title into a cult classic, and make an indie experiment more than the sum of its individual parts.
This will be paramount for Concursion, unfortunately, because its individual parts don't hold up under scrutiny. What can charitably be described as a deliciously inventive genre hybrid could equally be labelled as five rubbish games bound together in a uniquely fascinating way.
Our bizarre adventure begins in deceptively derivative style, as our horned hero sets out to save the princess from
Bowser a reptilian villain with delusions of grandeur. We'll soon find ourselves running along some simple Mario-inspired platforming stages, jumping on heads and nailing some floaty landings, but it's just the tip of an genre-defying iceberg. Our nemesis has cracked reality itself, leaving each stage a mish-mash of different gameplay styles. Within a few seconds you'll cross a trans-dimensional barrier and piloting a sidescrolling SHMUP fighter, dodging through bullets and barriers. Then we'll wall-jump and slash our way through hordes of ninjas in a tribute to the Shinobi series, run through mazes collecting pills and pursued by ghosts, followed by a Lunar Lander clone in which we can only control thrust and direction, fighting gravity all the while.
Hackneyed concepts all, but what makes Concursion unique is the way they're smashed together. Genres don't exist in isolation, rather they seep into one another via Portals, which act as a two-way process. When you enter a portal, you'll instantly transform into the respective avatar with unique mechanics, while enemies and even projectiles take on appropriate forms as they cross the threshold. Pterodactyls become space fighters, rockets become arrows. As such, you can cleverly (ab)use the mechanics of one genre to gain an advantage in another, using the extra lift of the Lunar Lander game to secure a lofty hidden gem shard or the Shinobi sword to slice up oncoming projectiles.
Boss battles push the mash-up to even more ridiculous extremes, pulling more genres such as fighting games and JRPG turn-based combat into the mix, constantly keeping you on your toes and appreciating new ways in which the disparate mechanics overlap. After all, they often exist on the same screen, let alone the same level. 70 stages and optional challenges back up innovation with undeniable raw quantity.
A lovely idea. A truly sensational, masterful, exceptional mission statement. But it's clear that Puuba had to spread themselves thin to deliver on their concept, leaving every single one of its hybrid genres half-baked and halfhearted in the execution.
No matter which genre you find yourself in, you'll constantly have to battle sloppy controls (even with a console controller, forget about using a keyboard!), inconsistent collision detection and poorly-defined hitboxes, often dying through no fault of your own. Whereas Concursion's old-school influences were tight and perfectly-paced, the latter day hybrid is loose and haphazard, suffering from disjointed level design, tediously-designed copy/pasted foes and staccato cadence. The standard platforming and Pac-Man segments feel infuriating to navigate, but resemble Super Meat boy when compared to the SHMUP sections, which commit practically every sidescrolling sin in the book. Horribly-imprecise hitboxes, nasty randomised bullet patterns and an overly large character ship sprite make for a miserable experience in a genre that hinges around precision and painstakingly designed moment-to-moment rhythm. In effect, Concursion often feels like five terrible minigames, not a glorious gestalt.
If all the individual gameplay elements are frustrating, now consider having to constantly switch between them at a moment's notice. It's tough, requiring a steep learning curve and trial & error, yet Puuba compounds this frustration factor by refusing to give players a safety net. The level of difficulty is shockingly tough, often including instant-death obstacles centred around chaining together mechanics from multiple genres within the space of a few seconds, resulting in a reset to an all-too-distant checkpoint and repeating content you've already bested just to return to your stumbling block.
Worse, after besting it, you'll then typically perish in the jaws of the very next challenge... and repeat. I love a challenge, but rather than letting us appreciate the gameplay fusion and compensating for the sloppy controls, Concursion is vindictive and punishing in all the wrong ways, rapping you across the knuckles for daring to rely on trial and error.
As such, every satisfying "wow" or "Eureka" moment is bookended by minutes of frustration, annoyance and an earnest wish that we were playing a better example of the genre in question. Fascinating in parts, yet difficult to recommend over firing up a YouTube longplay.
Smart visual design would have definitely helped to claw back a recommendation, but Concursion's presentation is best described as a urinal cake with a glacé cherry on top. Though it's always nice to see small-team indie games break step with the faux-retro 16-Bit rank and file, Puuba's alternative is devastatingly ugly: a tacky and amateurish aesthetic that brings numerous low-quality Newgrounds submissions and Flash games to mind. There's little effort to bring the background and foreground elements together, sprites lack detail and sport incredibly crude animations, while the whole thing feels cheap and nasty. Galling, since in this case, a 16-Bit big pixel art style would have actually made sense given the old-school nature of the gameplay and its inspirations.
Sound design is equally underwhelming, consisting of annoying low-fi recycled samples, though the aforementioned Glacé cherry comes in the form of a chiptune soundtrack from Christopher Hoag, whose oeuvre includes the incidental music to House M.D. It's as sensational as you'd expect, and pleasingly evolves depending on what genre you find yourself in.
As much as I love the Big Idea behind Concursion, as much as I'd love to evangelise it from the rooftops, I simply can't recommend the finished product as a videogame. Typically infuriating rather than entertaining, it's a fascinating yet deeply flawed attempt at something new that just can't deliver quality to match the innovation. I dearly hope that Puuba decides to run with the concept, hone their skills and eventually return with a tour-de-force. At present, it feels like we're buying a prototype for £8.99.
- Utterly unique and fascinating blend of different genres
- Excellent soundtrack from Christopher Hoag
- Plenty of levels and optional challenges to sink your teeth into
- Clunky, imprecise, infuriating and poorly-paced regardless of genre
- Punitive checkpointing and challenge will sap your willpower
- Profoundly ugly art direction and atrocious sound design
The Short Version: Concursion's genre-hopping Big Idea is magnificent, but each of its disparate gameplay styles falls apart in the execution on a mechanical and visual level. Definitely worth trying if you're curious to see how innovative indie developers are pushing boundaries, but difficult to recommend as an £8.99 videogame.
A prototype, perhaps, for a superior sequel that backs up a superb concept with more attention to detail and entertainment.