Sunday, November 28, 2010

Review: "VVVVVV"

VVVVVV for Vendetta
review for VVVVVV, 1 player puzzle/platformer, available now

This year in gaming has been a perplexing one. While last year big-name developers were firing out hits like Batman: Arkham Asylum, Modern Warfare 2, and Plants vs Zombies this year pretty much every mainstream title has been a load of crap. In particular, this year's two biggest Christmas-time sellers, Call of Duty: Black Ops and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, have come off as shovelware. It's almost paradoxical that this year's big-name titles like Red Dead Redemption and Halo: Reach can't compete with the likes of LIMBO or Super Meat Boy - for one of the first times, the independent scene is making better games than the mainstream crowd; in previous years, the playing field was laughably even.

One of the first of this year's indie games (and possibly the first sign that the indies were going to whip the mainstream like their little bitches) is VVVVVV, by Terry Cavanagh. I think I can safely compare it to Portal, as in, it's a puzzle/platformer with one, simple mechanic, that is used to brain-melting effect with the devious and minimalistic level design. You play as Captain Viridian, a brave starship captain, and your ship and its crew are sucked into a strange alternate dimension. All the crew go missing, and it is your job to rescue them. Easy. Well, not so easy. While design-wise its closest contemporary is Braid, difficulty-wise I can all but compare it to Super Meat Boy - ├╝ber-challenging, pure difficulty, with a perfect curve that never gets frustrating. It's no-BS gaming fare. It removes all and any obstacles that might make the game difficult beyond the difficulty itself. It's a very clean, pure design principle, and it helps launch VVVVVV into the realm of "genius," alongside the aforementioned Braid.
It's a meticulously crafted fiend of a game, with every individual element working so well with each other. VVVVVV's signature mechanic is that you can't actually jump. You can flip gravity at the press of a button. Standing on the floor, press the button and you're rocketed towards the ceiling. Standing on the ceiling, press the button and you're rocketed towards the floor. However, you can't flip gravity unless you're standing on a surface - so you can't just keep flipping in mid-air to hover through obstacles. It is around this simple mechanic that the fiendish puzzles are constructed. Like Super Meat Boy, the checkpoint system is pitch-perfect, and eliminates frustrating difficulty in favour of just... difficulty. So it's hard - cruel, evil, sadistic. The level design is artistic in its simplicity - solving the puzzles isn't the hard part, much like in Portal it is the execution which you must work on nailing. It's a gameplay principle which is really easy to get wrong, yet VVVVVV gets it right. That alone, is worth a purchase.

So. VVVVVV is good, right? So you should buy it? Yes. Yes, you should. I can't talk about it a lot without revealing either spoilers, or just ruining it for you. It's just damn good, nigh on perfect. Actually... okay this is going to sound supremely pretentious, but it probably is perfect. The graphics are charming, the gameplay is amazing, and, while certainly not a lengthy game, is still the perfect length - it never outstays its welcome, while still reaching that critical mass that makes you yearn for more. The controls are great, its compulsive and enriching, and... well. Okay, spoilers ahead.

Veni, vidi, vici!

Every game has a "best" level. In many games, this is the first level where you finally open your eyes and say, "woah, hold up. This game is amazing." Not in all games, mind you - I'd argue a lot of games, the first level is the best, a "big bang" of sorts (see The Darkness, Ghostbuster's Stay Puft Marshmallow Man boss, God of War II) - but in most games, somewhere halfway through, there is the first genuine signs that the game is better than the sum of its parts. Veni, Vidi, Vici, is one of these levels.

Watch the YouTube clip above, but basically, the gist is - fall up, avoid spikes, get to end, flip, fall back. It took the man in the video about 500+ deaths before he got it. It took me, a seasoned expert (heh) at least 1200+ deaths. It's probably the hardest level I've played all year, even compared to the Kid's warpzone in Super Meat Boy (I suspect Team Meat took a lot of their inspiration from Veni, Vidi, Vici). But I digress. This is the level in the game that made me decide that this game is perfect. A one-man team designing this sort of hell is nigh on unheard of, and yet Mr Cavanagh pulls it off like he's been doing it for years. Oh wait... he has.

Now, I'm here, writing this review, and I'm struggling. I'm struggling to say anything bad about the game. I'm struggling with what arbitrary score I should tack onto the end of this glowingly positive review. But... hold on a second. Comparable to Portal and Braid? Nothing bad about it whatsoever? To hell with this. I haven't done this, ever, but VVVVVV deserves it. It truly is a magnificent feat, and one that people have seemingly been trying to replicate all year. The success of VVVVVV lies within the whole of the experience, the sheer joy of throwing up your hands and being able to say you've finished Veni, Vidi, Vici. The excitement, the awe, the wonder while playing this game, is second to few, and first to all. It's even better than Super Meat Boy, in so many ways - and, I feel like I'm awarding some kind of mysterious nether-prize here, but y'know, if any game deserves it, VVVVVV does. The first "Perfect" score I've ever awarded on Andy Plays Games.

You'll do well to remember the name Terry Cavanagh.
Andrew Deavin is flippier than a flippy-floppy. Flip, flip, flop, spike death, restart. Illicit screams of, "weeeeeeee - urk". Heh.