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escapeVektor Review

Posted by Chad Habel On Monday 21 January 2013Comments Off

Available on PSV (PSN) and 3DS (ES) l Published and developed by Nnooo l Classified G l Supports 1 player

REVIEW IN BRIEF > With the big name franchises faltering, it looks like it might be up to the indies to show what the Vita can do. From Sydney based developer Nnooo, escapeVektor is one of the best things I’ve played on Sony’s latest handheld. Highly polished, it combines warm and comforting retro aesthetics with highly sophisticated gameplay and fiendish level design. Unfortunately, the trailer doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the game and how enjoyable it is to play.

REVIEW IN FULL > Taking its cue from text-based narratives, the storyline of escapeVektor appears a bit thin at first. A blurry headshot of protagonist Vektor appears to tell you that he is locked in the CPU of your device and it is up to you to help him escape. Upon completing each level, a few more lines of text adds to the developing plot, until suddenly you become engaged in Vektor’s emerging memories and the tale of his incarceration by the CPU. The story has surprising depth and a few interesting twists, but really only serves as a sideshow to the main game.

As you near the end of the node, the screen flashes red and the security agents enter a heightened state, more determined than ever to catch you.

The core gameplay involves negotiating a simple arrow (Vektor, we presume) around lines to close off cells and open an exit point. This simple mechanic is elegant but lends itself to much deeper complexity. In moving around the nodes, you are pursued by a variety of security agents of the CPU: guards who follow a predictable patrol pattern, hunters who chase you much more doggedly, turrets which fire in patterns, and munchers which erase your progress and drop mines. There are also switches which toggle interceptors (electric gates) to block your path, and switches which spawn new enemies. As you near the end of the node, the screen flashes red as the CPU senses your escape, and the security agents enter a heightened state, more determined than ever to catch you. This creates quite a bit of stress, which makes the gameplay surprisingly immersive. You have one life and death means you start the node again. If you used a wildcard in the hopes of doubling your score on that play through, it is lost forever.

To deal with these environments and enemies, you are endowed with particular abilities. You can boost your movement for a limited time (which is replenished by completing cells) and you can detonate bombs which eliminate enemies in a fixed radius. There are also light RPG elements: upon completing levels your abilities are enhanced. At the same time you are rewarded with a star on each level that you complete without using the detonator, which becomes increasingly difficult as the game progresses. Oh yes, and there are one hundred and fifty levels across 27 worlds, with opportunities to jump ahead a dozen or so nodes every now and then (you quickly learn not to take it too far). There is a highly sophisticated medal, achievement, scoring, and leaderboard system for you to check your success against previous performances as well as those of friends, the world, or randoms nearby.

This game is a shining example of the retro-futurism in indie game design at the moment. The simple geometric shapes, bright colours, and charming synthesised music is reminiscent of the golden age of arcade, but the developers have built in such clever gameplay and social functionality that it is as contemporary as game design can get. It is also highly addictive, extremely replayable, and thoroughly engaging. The difficulty ramps up gently but alluringly, and towards the end some of the very difficult levels have you cursing the level designer for a sadist.

…highly addictive, extremely replayable, and thoroughly engaging.

Of course, there is some room for improvement. You may find the need to press the right shoulder button (zoom) to see the whole level a bit oppressive. Clearly the intention was to restrict your view in order to force some twitch-reflexes or more sensible use of the tilt mechanism, but you may end up practically taping the zoom button down the whole time you’re playing. Carpel tunnel, anyone? It is not always easy to negotiate the worlds and chapters as the exit points to different nodes are not labelled until you sit on them. That’s about all there is to fault in the gameplay and environmental design, though.

All up, this is an outstanding game. Considering the comparative price points, there is a thousand times more value here for Vita owners than in the abominable Black Ops game or even in the handheld versions of Uncharted and Assassins Creed. At the same time, it far outshines most of the indie mobile offerings now available. Also available for the 3DS, it feels like an IP developed specifically for the handheld space, not a AAA home console game given a dodgy port in hopes of defibrillating flagging system sales. I would recommend escapeVektor in an instant to anyone, especially those of a retro bent, who wants to play a high quality game.

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