Developer: Spiky Snail
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
I must admit to approaching The Splatters with a certain degree of cynicism. Here we see a colourful puzzle game releasing on the same day as the phenomenal brawler Skullgirls, and going toe-to-toe with massively anticipated indie darling Fez when it finally launches this Friday. We often see smaller games released as filler in big weeks, consigned to die against the biggest and best that Xbox Live Arcade has to offer.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that The Splatters is arguably the best XBLA game of the year thus far; an exceptional display of quality, surprising depth and three years of painstaking development.
As is so often the case, The Splatters' premise is disarmingly accessible, so much so that it could have worked as a smartphone app on a basic level. Players control the power and trajectory of a number of coloured blobs who are tasked with clearing 2D stages of luminous bombs. These bombs will only detonate when immersed in liquid, meaning that you'll need to splatter (there it is) your amorphous pals in imaginative, surprising ways. From a control standpoint, you'll simply designate a direction to fling your blob and hold down A to set the power behind the throw, a familiar mechanic that will resonate with fans of Worms and Angry Birds. Fling your limited number of blobs, destroy the bombs, complete the level with a star rating and move on. Simple, effective and derivative.
But not for long.
The Splatters then proceeds to thoroughly up the ante by introducing stunts. Your blobs can be fired through ramps, bounced off of fluid containers and subjected to all manner of spiky torment - all of which increases your points threshold - but you'll also be introduced to plenty of active skills throughout the starting campaign. Chief amongst them is the Air Strike, which allows you to change the direction of a blob mid-flight in a tense slow-motion aiming session. Doing this properly results in a devastating ground pound that can knock bombs out of position, and the increasingly complex levels throw new kinds of bomb formations (many of which stick to walls in gooey, bizarre amalgamations) that need to be softened up before their eventual detonation. Plus, having to manoeuvre your splatter around corners soon becomes a basic gameplay staple.
Other skills include the ability to combine blobs into insane liquid-drenching powerhouses and a powerful ballistic attack, but one major game-changer acts to flip the gameplay completely on its head. Which is, erm, the Flip. Once learned, holding the left trigger causes your blob's actions to rewind by a few seconds... but physics and momentum continues to act in real time. Using it lets you fire a blob through a ramp, knocking bombs out of position and drenching them in fluid, and then transferring your momentum in the opposite direction - thus flinging your splatter across the screen and entering new areas. Better yet, you can use it to chain stunts and air strikes together into massive combos that you'd scarcely believe was possible. It's so powerful, so unbelievably flexible, that you'll discover near-infinite possibilities for racking up huge numbers of points lurking beneath the deceptively simple veneer.
And once you've realised how versatile the stunt system is, The Splatters transforms from an idle distraction into a cerebral, tense work of brilliance. Thoughtful level design lets you approach each particular stage in multiple different ways, and you're free to return to earlier stages once you've mastered more advanced techniques. Chaining together unbelievable combos, manipulating time and physics as you do so, becomes as tricky and rewarding as anything we've seen from the Tony Hawks franchise, and just as addictive. Patient practice brings yet more rewards, not least a selection of excellent free avatar items.
This level of depth only becomes truly apparent when you take advantage of the Splatter TV feature. Leaderboard replays can be downloaded near-instantaneously, and you can easily spend hours watching the best of the best take advantage of mechanics, flips and combos that you'd never believe were possible. Critically, The Splatters is as fun to watch as it is to play, and infinitely more so when you can behold a master at work.
The Splatters also happens to be one of the best-looking games on Xbox Live Arcade. It's 2D, sure, but it's a crisp, colourful and thoroughly gorgeous affair that's clearly been lavished with serious attention to detail. Solid fluid physics make the action visceral and engaging, My one gripe would be that single bombs can sometimes be hard to discern against the vibrant backgrounds, but I'm loathe to criticise a game for being too eyecatching and visually arresting.
Sadly, many players will probably end up either not picking it up after only briefly watching a gameplay trailer - or quitting before the Flip and other mechanics are introduced. Don't let first impressions cheat you out of enjoying this surprising tour de force.
- Insanely deep, flexible, hectic and accessible puzzle gameplay
- Powerful physics engine ripe for clever manipulation
- Luscious and colourful visuals
- Bombs are occasionally difficult to see
- Simple early gameplay may prematurely deter impatient players
The Short Version: The Splatters is a surprise masterpiece: a sensationally deep and engaging puzzle game masquerading as a cute and colourful distraction. Leap into it head-first, marvel at the flexible mechanics, watch the replays and master its subtle intricacies. Whatever you do, don't dismiss The Splatters as 'yet another' simple puzzle game.