I've grown to quite like the Xbox Live Arcade. It's a format that allows middle-tier developers to take risks and push the boundaries of the gaming experience. There's a slice of pretty much everything on there, from pure platforming to near-complete RPGs. It's a little frustrating that some of the bigger studios haven’t thrown a bit more cash its way, as it would be interesting to see what they’d come up with.
But there is one studio that is stamping its name all over the platform - and that’s Twisted Pixel. Since 2009, the Texas based studio has put an indelible mark on the alternative independent scene. Ms. 'Splosion Man is the sequel to Twisted Pixel’s breakout title, ‘Splosion Man, and - as far as sequels go - it's a stunner.
The gameplay mechanic is simple, and doesn't deviate very much from the successful format that Twisted Pixel has already laid down. Ms. ‘Splosion Man (lets just call her ‘Splosion Woman shall we) has been created by a bevy of clumsy, ingenious scientists, and she sets about trying to escape from their world. This is achieved through a complex platforming mechanic where, like the original, ‘Splosion Woman can jump her way across challenges by spontaneously combusting.
The gameplay mechanic is not new, but it doesn't really need to be. The first time I saw this I had a blast (hah), and having more of the same is a welcome experience. Thankfully Ms. ‘Splosion Man is not a carbon copy of what came before. It has its own new gameplay elements, its own new style, and its own engaging characterisation.
First up on the list of new additions is the use of innovative gameplay elements. The original ‘Splosion Man was interesting - but its design was a little repetitive. The sequel hasn’t quite managed to shake off this problem, however any duplication you feel is clearly mitigated by a swath of new challenges and tricks.
Present still are well placed bombs and boosts, but you can now add to that list sliding rails, spinning guns, bouncing energy cells, trampolines, and even a poor scientist’s floating car or two.
The inclusion of all of these new gameplay elements is both more interesting as it deepens the experience, and more engaging, as it gives the game more atmosphere and narrative complexity. Not to mention its just more fun.
One of the most exciting parts of the first title was racing against the clock to finish a level. With these new gameplay elements (some of which verge on the near-manic), the explosive challenge of stringing together a series of well timed moves becomes dizzying. It’s also rather difficult. But, thankfully, challenging sections can be skipped, and the really hard levels can be by-passed entirely.
But form and content aside, there is one final aspect that sets Ms. 'Splosion Man aside from her peers . And that's that serious thought, energy, and commitment has been made to how this game feels. The attention to detail in its elder brother was pretty good to begin with, but this second time around Twisted Pixel have left no stone unturned. The result is a game that has some of the best characterisation that I’ve seen all year - and I make that claim mindful of some of the multimillion dollar blockbusters I’ve slogged through.
Just controlling ‘Splosion Woman is an experience in itself. When racing through levels she will suddenly begin prancing like a ballet dancer from Swan Lake, after completing an especially difficult section she will start reciting lyrics from the Spice Girls or No Doubt’s “I’m just a girl”. But none of those compare to her parody of Beyonce’s “all the single ladies”; dance moves and all.
It's quirky, irreverent, and incredibly endearing. Sure, its also rather garish - not all girls like pink, pop-songs, and giggling - but Twisted Pixel has managed to give ‘Splosion Woman enough depth to ensure that this comes across as clever parody, not careless sexism.
But a flair for characterisation and fun is not the only thing holding this title together. In addition, there are some important stylistic elements that give the title a greater sense of depth than its predecessor.
The first is that the environments you’ll find yourself in have been expanded. The original ‘Splosion Man was devoted to the clinical confines of the scientific lab. This time around, ‘Splosion Woman manages to fire herself across glimpses of the outside world. This doesn't change the way action happens, but simple scene changes like this have a profound effect on the games context, and that's a good improvement.
There is also careful homage made to the events of the first title. 'Splosion Woman’s first real challenge is to take on a mangled boss that ‘Splosion Man also dealt to - its a great way to start the title and reminds gamers of the story that exists beyond the story.
The game’s depth is also manifested quite practically. In reality, it's two games in one. Along with the interesting singleplayer campaign, there is the also rather hilariously named “2 Girls one Controller” mode that delivers an entirely new experience. The mode is cooperative, and it means it. Gamers will need to work together to complete some of its complex and innovative platforming challenges.
The result of all of this is that Twisted Pixel have managed to upstage some of the industry’s best developers simply by doing the basics right. They’ve written well, they’ve characterised well, and they’ve developed well. And that’s all it takes to make a fantastic experience.
Ms. 'Splosion Man’s gameplay provides a manic, engrossing, and dizzying experience. But its feel and its humour add so much more. If you're a fan of innovative gaming from one of the industry's most creative developers, then download Ms. ‘Splosion Man.
You’re sure to have a blast.