de Blob – Nintendo Wii

[Editor’s Note:   For those that don’t know, I’m on staff performing freelance reviews for a web-based game site. I get titles sent to me on a recurring basis and am charged with playing and reviewing them. The upside is free games and exposure. The downside – no pay and some dreadful games from time to time. Read on to see if this is one of them.]

At their big E3 Press Conference in July, Nintendo did a curious thing. They cancelled Christmas. At least, that’s the way it felt to the legions of fanboys (myself included) who have looked to the Big N’s annual briefing for news of the next big platformer or property that would be keeping us warm once the leaves fell and the holidays descended. With no new IPs announced or return engagements from their back-catalog of marquee mascots on order, Wii owners looked with dismay at the cold days ahead. And then, an unlikely hero arrived to color this winter of our heart’s discontent. A true Cinderella man, de Blob is in de house and may just be the cure for what ails us.

Blue Tongue’s de Blob grew out of a college game design project. The developers pulled together and realized they were on to something with their unique mash-up of the quirky game play mechanics found in Katamari Demacy melded with the genre-bending platforming perfected by Super Mario Galaxy. Backed by publisher THQ, the group was given a decent budget to perfect their concept and develop a full-fledged action-platformer. As an oasis to Wii owners parched by so many dry ports, they engineered this title from the ground up to play to the Wii’s strengths – providing one of those few 3rd party efforts that looks and plays as well as Nintendo’s traditional home brew efforts.

de Blob puts the player in control of a Blob who has the chameleonic ability to absorb ‘color’. At the start, De Blob’s world has been overrun by an army of aliens bent on draining his hometown of color. Thus, it’s up to your Blob to maneuver throughout each monochromatic cityscape, completing tasks for the suppressed citizenry and resurrecting these once vibrant vistas.

The game is split up into 10 enormous levels (each containing several sub areas) and players are charged with careening through the environments looking for paint to fill their color meter and surfaces to color. Once the player has transformed the Blob’s surface color, any object they touch will instantly receive a coat of paint, thus adding to the overall World Completion percentage. The Blob will also discover special Challenge Markers that offer up different objectives which once completed will add to your overall score as well as work towards opening up new areas of the map. There are also a series of collectibles hidden throughout the levels that can apply patterns to your color schemes, allowing the player to redecorate the world in some truly funky tones.

Each area contains a number of variables to accomplish which add up to your total completion percentage. In addition to repainting every surface (including the city denizens, billboards and foliage) and hunting down the hidden collectibles and challenge events, the player can also take part in optional speed runs to try and complete the level under a certain target time. All of these events work to unlock extras from a treasure trove of bonus material including hidden levels, concept art, cutscenes and making-of materials.

The start of each new area is striking in its absence of hue. The world is rendered in black and white with a few paint dispensers providing the sole splash of color. A timer ticks down throughout each level lending some urgency to the proceedings however more time can be added to the clock though the successful completion of challenge events, painting a certain percentage of the map or locating Clock collectibles that add seconds back to the clock. The more creative you get with the repainting, the more time will be added. While it’s possible to fill up on one color and go to work literally painting the town red, you’ll find that you score more points by mixing things up and spraying a full spectrum of pigment all over the populace. As you work your way through the game, the challenge level ratchets up forcing players to adopt more complex strategies to maximize their extra time benefits.

At the beginning of the game, the Blob has access to simple primary colors and is usually tasked with simply painting buildings, people and objects in shades of Blue, Yellow or Red. As the game progresses, the player may be asked to paint a surface in a tint that is not readily available on the map. That’s when it’s time to lean on your rudimentary art skills and recall that mixing red with yellow will yield orange. This can lead to some tricky platforming segments where you need to hop between buildings, constantly changing colors to match the color needed for each building. Segments like this pay homage to the classic game Q*Bert where a jump back to a previously occupied square would change the color back to a former, unwanted shade. These challenges act as little brain teasers with the player forced to discover the right path to shading each building the correct color.

The game continues to build on its core concepts all the way through. The first few levels will offer up some easy tasks (i.e. “Paint every building on this block Blue”) but eventually enemies who can hurt the Blob or hit him with paint-draining ink will start to appear, leading to combat sequences that are executed with various wags of the Wiimote and Nunchuck. In addition, environmental hazards like spikes and color-bleaching water pools will appear – coaxing the player into performing split second platforming jumps to avoid these threats. Like the best platforming games, de Blob does a nice job of gradually introducing new skills and actions while ratcheting up the challenge, providing a fresh and compelling experience all the way through.

While the game’s narrative is foolish in that non-sequitor Katamari vein, the various cutscenes and unlockable bonus movies boast a hearty sense of humor and should coax a smile from even the hardest of the hardcore. It’s not nearly as out there as Katamari meaning this title should see generous cross-over appeal. de Blob also features a great art aesthetic and the effect of seeing your character breathe new life to these dying worlds just promotes a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.

Apart from the solo campaign, de Blob ships with a few multiplayer components. First, there is the family friendly Paint Party mode that simply takes the campaign levels and rids them of the timer and the adversaries, allowing the player to go nuts repainting the Big City. This is a good mode for younger gamers. There is also a suite of local multiplayer party games that find players competing to repaint a greater percentage of the environment among other tasks. This multiplayer mode supports up to 4 players but cannot be played online.

The three major multiplayer games include: Blob on the Run which tasks one player with trying to paint as much of an environment as possible while the competing players strive to attack the main blob and steal the paint ability, leading to some frenetic crashes and dashes. Paint Match let’s everyone paint as they rush to coat as much of each stage as possible for points. A player can add to their totals by painting over their opponents’ color. Blob Race finds all players racing to paint a specific location the fastest.

Now let’s see if this title will color your life or leave you faded.

Graphics

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With more units sold than any other current generation console system, the Wii deserves more efforts like this. de Blob was built from the ground up for the Wii (not ported from a Gamecube or PS2 title) and it shows. As I mentioned earlier in my review, this game sports a level of polish that is all-too-rare from the third party developers toiling away for the number one market leader. In fact, de Blob fills the niche abandoned by Nintendo this holiday season – that of the well-designed 3D platformer that the Big N is famous for treating its fans with each holiday season. The visuals on display are vibrant and it never gets old seeing these spartan, yet gorgeous, black and white backdrops begin to fill with vibrant color. As the Blob wheels around through the city, splashes of paint fly and trail behind him, transforming the world – a beautiful effect that never gets old. In fact, this title reminds me of those wonderful sequences in Okami where the hero would restore life to dry and depressed regions – with a great geyser of color washing over every surface and transforming it. The developers have also done a great job creating a unique mascot. It’s not easy infusing a gelatinous mass with personality but they’ve done it. The cities and environments all look great – sporting a retro Art Deco aesthetic that nicely matches the quaint 1950’s era sci-fi theme of the invading baddies. I’ve often felt that there’s a limit to how good games should look – that the closer we approach realism, the less of a game they feel. de Blob embodies that mantra. It always looks like a game and a beautiful one at that.

Gameplay

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I’ve made allusions to de Blob’s kinship with Nintendo’s heralded game design philosophies and nowhere is that more evident that in this title’s game play. Much like the latter day Super Mario titles and the Pikmin series, time seems to melt away as you play. The game really adheres to the old maxim – “Just one more level” – as there is something primal and addictive in seeing these bland backdrops breathe new life under your control. While the challenges you encounter throughout the title fall under the same repeated themes (usually involving racing to an area, painting something under a set time limit or eliminating the enemies) the game does a nice job of steadily increasing the difficulty and making each similar challenge seem fresh. de Blob also does a nice job of layering new abilities, enemy types, obstacles and puzzles which provides a nice sense of escalation as you work through the title. The optional challenges (painting a set number of objects (i.e. trees), performing time runs, etc) and the rewards they unlock help to increase the game’s replayability, making this a title you’ll return to often.

Controls

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Guiding your Blob around the city is effortless with the combination of the Nunchuck and Wiimote. The analog stick on the Nunchuck controls your Blob’s movement and the Wiimote is used to execute special attacks. The developers did a good job of keeping extraneous waggle commands to a minimum. A tap of the Wiimote will execute an attack or jump and does not require overly exaggerated movements. Too many platformers can be murder on the wrist so its comforting to experience de Blob’s elegant control scheme.

Music

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de Blob features a subtle game design element that you may not pick out at first but when you do, it brings a smile to your face. Boasting an original funky, jazzy soundtrack with new tracks opened as you progress through the game, you’ll notice that the more color is applied to each world, the more layers are added to the music. It’s a similar effect as seen in some rhythm based action games, such as Rez, where your actions are working to lay the beats – eventually building a rich tonal tapestry. The music is key to the game’s addictive nature as you’ll find your toe tapping along to the beats prompting you to play deeper into the night.

Sound

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The sound effects in this game are decent but are lost amidst the lush soundtrack that underscores the action. That said, there are some nice squishy effects employed that add more character to your Blog. Once again, aping Nintendo’s lead, the characters in this game speak in that strange gibberish that Nintendo often employs for its characters leading to a lot of reading whenever an NPC has a new order to issue. That design choice fits the characters for the most part, as none of these critters could be called human in any way, but by this generation, most gamers expect full voice.

Intelligence

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While enemy encounters abound, the intelligence governing these pallet-parching aliens is not indicative of superior life forms. Enemies will typically stand in one area – lining up as perfect fodder when your Blob goes on the attack. As players can chain airborne attacks, you’ll find it very easy to bounce from one enemy to the next without fear of retaliation. That said, this game skews more towards the puzzle-platformer variety and the weak AI is merely a small hindrance.

Difficulty

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The first few levels allow players to work at their own leisurely pace. While a timer steadily ticks down in the corner, there are ample opportunities to add more time to the clock, leaving players with the time to explore their surroundings. Later levels cut back on the abundance of extra time and introduce lengthier challenges and in those segments, players are called upon to utilize all of their Blob’s skills as well as use their own grey matter to solve the clever puzzles that begin to crop up. In fact, these later puzzles make one pine for a sequel focused entirely on that brand of game play.

Multiplayer

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The multiplayer suite of games is surprisingly enticing. While there are not many modes (each a variation on the theme of painting more than the other guy) the ability to attack your opponents and paint over their hard work lends to some fun, frenetic game play. This is a good game to bust out in parties and the adversarial nature of the game ought to provoke a healthy amount of trash talking – the true barometer of great multiplayer. de Blob does get dinged for the lack of an online component which this late in the Wii’s life cycle is inexcusable.

Overall

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de Blob is the year’s sleeper hit. Offering a level of polish that is all too deficient in other Wii 3rd Party efforts, this title thoroughly engages the player while making them wish all developers would show this much care in their craft. Those Wii Fanboys who were stung by Nintendo’s anemic E3 Conference owe themselves a big favor to grab this one as it effortlessly fits the bill as that well-produced big holiday title were so accustomed to receiving from the Nintendo. Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Clause, after all.