Games 2/22/11: de Blob 2, Stacking, Battleheart

de Blob 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Blue Tongue/THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence, mild language)

Any conversation about criminally overlooked Wii games should have “de Blob” in the first paragraph, if not the lead, so THQ deserves commendation for giving the series a second chance on more (and better) hardware.

Fundamentally, “de Blob 2” doesn’t break significant ground so much as make a more ambitious and more diverse return to form. You still play as Blob, a hyper-absorbent and deeply charming ball of goo whose primary abilities include rolling, jumping, smashing and absorbing different colors of paint, which he can use to turn the colorless buildings and citizens of Prisma City into their happy former selves.

To that end, the story remains the same: Free everyone and everything from the INKT Corporation’s monochromatic rule, in what almost certainly will be the cutest allegory you’ll ever see for regime takeover and democratic revolution. Like the first game, it’s charm run amok, with adorable character design, genuinely funny dialogue and a soundtrack that brilliantly bends to your actions in the game.

Primarily, the revolution comes via Blob painting every last square inch of “dB2’s” 11 levels, which also include missions centered around liberating citizens, sabotaging INKT technology and other objectives related to level design and story events.

The levels — which include a cola plant, a prison zoo and the Inktron Collider, to name three examples — are large enough to qualify as open worlds, and as long as time remains on the clock, Blob is free to tackle secondary objectives as well as main story missions in whatever fashion suits him. The clock is meant to keep players constantly moving, and it succeeds in just the right way: The time limits are generous on both difficulty settings, there are umpteen ways to add time, and once the main objectives are complete, the clock disappears and “dB2” lets you complete the rest of the level at your leisure.

All of this was true of “dB1,” too. But the series’ extremely unique underpinnings make the initial familiarity more forgivable than it might otherwise be, and the changes “dB2” does introduce are almost always welcome ones.

Most notable are the new sabotage missions that take Blob underground and play like a sidescrolling game instead of the traditional 3D action you see above ground. The new perspective lets “dB2” design a whole new flavor of challenges that still capitalize on the core concepts, and when these mini-levels bump up their difficulty later on, they occasionally outshine the bigger levels.

“dB2” also offers a limited offline co-op feature that allows a second player (as Blob’s friend Pinky) to shoot paint at environments, enemies and Blob himself using a targeting reticule. It isn’t nearly as involved as controlling Blob himself, but it adds a fun social element to the game, and if you’re playing the PS3 version, it’s an ideal use of the Playstation Move wand, which “dB2” supports throughout all its modes.

Elsewhere, the changes are customary but appreciated. The mission objectives are more diverse than last time, and “dB2” gradually introduces new powerups and gadgets that increase both Blob’s arsenal and the kind of missions he can encounter. It’s unquestionably more of the same basic gameplay, but the little surprises “dB2” reveals (three words: wrecking ball Blob) over its surprisingly lengthy adventure are enough to keep a great concept blessed with great execution going strong.

Provided you aren’t restricted to playing “dB2” on the Wii, the better hardware also helps. “dB2” looks terrific in high definition, and it benefits from a more traditional controller’s ability to control the camera without the kind of fuss that unfortunately comes standard on the Wii.

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Stacking
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Double Fine Productions/THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (crude humor, mild cartoon violence, mild suggestive themes, use of tobacco)
Price: $15

This is what happens when a developer with big-budget talent and an independent spirit flourishes on a platform that allows it to flex both characteristics at once: You get a game in which you play as a Russian nesting doll.

(In case the term isn’t ringing a bell, Russian nesting dolls are those little wooden dolls that fit inside each other. You open one, and a smaller one is inside. Open that one, and an even smaller one is inside.)

“Stacking” brings those dolls to life, starring you as a tiny stacking doll named Charlie and tasking you with rescuing your family from an evil baron who has kidnapped and sentenced them to involuntary servitude.

By himself, Charlie is overmatched. But he has the ability to “stack” into any doll who is one degree larger than him and assume control of that character. That character, in turn, can stack into an even larger doll, and the process continues until you achieve control over the game’s largest (and, usually, most influential) dolls.

“Stacking” arranges its story by putting each imperiled family member in a different environment — a cruise ship, a zeppelin, a triple-decker train — and connecting everything with a similarly spacious hub level set inside a train station. Charlie is free to roam the environments as he likes, and you can inhabit any character, major or minor, who is roaming about.

Every character has a special maneuver he or she can perform — some of them crucial to the story (a widow seducing a guard into leaving his post), some useful (a woman with a spyglass can quickly discern which characters qualify as significant), some silly (dancing, playing paddleball, or performing various acts of mischief, which the game rewards through a suite of optional challenges).

The trick to saving Charlie’s family is to use the right dolls in the right ways to solve various cause-and-effect riddles, which generally involve getting around, influencing or assuming control of powerful dolls who won’t let Charlie get by them in his default form.

At its most linear, this isn’t terribly difficult, nor is “Stacking” particularly lengthly (a few hours, maybe) if you rush through the storyline and ignore the optional content.

But “Stacking” makes a terrific decision to give every challenge multiple solutions, and the players who will truly enjoy this game are the ones who come back to figure out every solution to every problem. Every challenge has an easy solution that’s made somewhat obvious by the presence of certain dolls in the vicinity, but the more obscure solutions require some inventiveness and often involve using dolls the game hasn’t labeled as significant. Other optional objectives, including the aforementioned mischief-making and a great challenge that involves reuniting other families by finding and stacking them together, give “Stacking” a lot more activity than initially meets the eye.

It also gives players an excuse to spend more time in the absolutely delightful world Double Fine has designed. “Stacking’s” dolls really look like living nesting dolls, from the expressions on their faces to the polished wooden sheen they give off to the wobbly, stop-motion-esque animation of their every movement. The rest of the world, which feels like a collection of early 20th century miniatures come alive, provides a beautiful complement. Even the cutscenes play along by mimicking a
silent film reel — piano soundtrack, written dialogue frames, film artifacts and all. The storytelling runs a bit heavy in “Stacking’s” early going, but its presentation is so novel that the excess is easily forgiven.

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Battleheart
For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Mika Mobile
iTunes Store rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $3

As games that blend genres and take advantage of platform strengths go, it rarely gets better than this. On paper, “Battleheart” reads like a role-playing game: You assemble a party of characters with different strengths, upgrade those strengths by accruing experience and gold in battle, and use that gold to buy, sell and upgrade weapons, armor and other items with special attributes. But where most RPGs lean heavily on story, “Battleheart” all but skips it. Instead, the battles — which the game distributes across selectable levels almost like an arcade game — are the end as well as the means. That’s fine, too, because where most RPGs use a battle system that’s turn-based and menu-driven, “Battleheart” opts instead for a frantic, hands-on system that plays like a real-time strategy game on caffeine. Players control up to four characters at once, and commanding them is as simple as drawing a path for them, pointing them at specific enemies to attack, and occasionally tapping an icon to activate a spell. The simple controls — which nicely complement the game’s clean, ultra-cartoony look — prove a perfect fit once “Battleheart’s” introductory levels quickly give way to some seriously chaotic skirmishes. Things get crowded to a fault sometimes, especially on the smaller iPhone screen, but it’s an acceptable side effect of “Battleheart’s” refusal to compromise its thirst for chaos.