The Indie scene is doing wondrous things with the platforming genre. Even as triple-A slides into a creative bottleneck, independent studios have been continually redefining the notions of space, time and dimensions to deliver incredible, unprecedented game experiences. Sideway: New York deserves to be heralded as one of these platforming masterclasses, and now that it's available on PC, this imaginative former exclusive has an entirely new audience.
After his girlfriend goes missing, youthful parkour enthusiast, graffiti artist and general reprobate Nox is sucked into a bizarre parallel universe based on his own artwork, dominated by an evil omnipotent tagger. Teaming up with a sympathetic doodle, he sets out on an epic quest across the city in order to save the girl, save the day and stop the sinister villain's master plan. It's a cheesy premise that's worthy of any Saturday morning cartoon, but it sets up Sideway's main selling point: the fact that your character consists of living paint brought to vivid life on the side of a building.
If Jet Set Radio and Comix Zone were thrown into a blender, shoved into a spray can and handed to Banksy, Sideway: New York would undoubtedly be the result.
As a piece of living art, Nox is only free to move within the two-dimensional confines of New York's walls and ceilings. Windows, pipes and posters all present impassable obstacles or useful platforms depending on the situation, and as the game progresses, the flat protagonist learns powerful new skills to help him get to grips with his bizarre new environment. Nox can jump, slide, punch and swing his way around the levels, which are quite literally a canvas for some exceptionally satisfying and technical platforming challenges.
Of course, these skills will be tested to the limit. Spray's painted minions are varied and legion - from evasive goop-spewing blobs to powerful bosses - and numerous hazards such as spiky urban artwork or water sprays (deadly to a man made of paint) will soon tax your reflexes to an insane degree. As Nox's abilities evolve, you'll learn new aggressive combat moves as well as different ways to move around the levels. Platforms can be sprayed into existence to cross looming chasms. Paint can be used to swing between tags. Ground pounds and diagonal airborne kicks provide new ways to solve puzzles as well as delivering serious pain. An uneven learning curve and some major difficulty spikes occasionally make for an infuriating experience, but you'll push through regardless thanks to the excellent pacing.
Playbrains haven't finished innovating yet, and their final flourish is nothing less than a full-on, no-nonsense game-changer. The action may be two dimensional at first, but you'll soon realise that city exists in three. Nox can cross over from walls to ceilings, run around corners and completely change the perspective and direction of gravity in the process. Learning how to move between different planes to advantage is a disorienting visual delight and a surprisingly deep gameplay mechanic, elevating Sideway into a league (and genre?) of its own. This concept also allows Playbrains to litter their stages with secret areas and collectibles that can only be achieved by throwing out everything you know about physics, gravity and the real world. Which, frankly, is what games need to do from time to time. Nabbing all the collectibles will increase your score - but be aware that you'll need a valid PSN ID to access the leaderboards.
Sideway came under fire for its controls when it released last month on PS3, which were deemed to be a tad too floaty and imprecise for their own good. However, on a PC keyboard, the trusty WASD keys serve to make the experience much more responsive. There's always a flip side, though, and Nox's abilities are uncomfortably crammed onto a counter-intuitive selection of keys that can be difficult to wrap your brain around. Plug in a controller and the floatiness returns; whichever way you slice it, the controls are going to find some way to kill you stone dead from time to time.
And it doesn't matter. Because you'll be too busy gawking at the scenery to notice.
From a visual standpoint, Sideway: New York is absolutely breathtaking. The cell-shaded graphics are a colourful juxtaposition of New York's gritty urban scenery with bright, vibrant graffiti; a revitalising breath of fresh air that's reminiscent of Jet Set Radio and other venerable standard bearers that challenged the norms of dust, rust and brown of all descriptions. Perspective shifts frequently display your platforming from a three-quarter view, bringing mundane city life itself into the foreground and continually reinforcing the unique twist of simply being a smear of paint on a wall. After a long session, you'll be forgiven for glancing over your shoulder at tags and urban art in your local commute just to make sure that it isn't following you with sinister intentions. Smooth animations and attractive character design round out the graphical package.
The soundtrack also harks back to Jet Set Radio with an upbeat selection of toe-tapping, pop-locking Hip-Hop and Dance grooves. I just wish there were more of them, because you'll hear each track an enormous number of times before you get to the end, and even multiple times in a single level. Quality is right up there - but a little more quality would have been nice.
And like SEGA's legendary Dreamcast skate-em-up, Sideway is definitely too cool for school. It's radical, hip and mega to the extreme - but presented in an endearing and unabashed way (much like Playbrain's own Madballs: Babo Invasion, which you should stop ignoring and buy already). The storyline and preppy quotes take a back seat to the platforming action, and when the goods are this good, I couldn't care less. It's enough to make me want to put a baseball cap on backwards.
- Physics-defying, unique platforming
- Recklessly, brilliantly inventive
- Visually stunning and artistically rich
- Control frustrations
- A few aggravating difficulty spikes
- Not enough music
The Short Version: Sideway: New York shiftily sidles up to traditional gameplay conventions, gravity and physics before recklessly spraypainting its own vision all over them. A couple of minor flaws aside, this inspirational gem deserves a place in your downloadable library.