Welcome to the first Developer Challenge we’ve received at Gear Fish HQ! Since this is a new thing here, I’ll just run it down again real quick here. Full details can be found in the Review Policy link above.
The premise is simple: if you think your game is good enough to earn a spot on our top ten list, we’ll review it with priority status. Period. We will not say no.
That having been said: it’s taken me quite some time to get this out and I’m sorry for that. I won’t waste review space explaining in-depth, but any exterior factors aside, I will say that the hardest aspect of reviewing Antipole was finding something new and/or different to say about it. The game’s been out on the XBLIG market for quite awhile and now that it’s branched out to the PC and DS, the necessity of adding my voice to an already existing chorus became difficult to justify.
If it weren’t specifically requested, I might have let most of this go unsaid. In part because if I have a fault with Antipole, it isn’t really in gameplay. Sure, there are a couple issues, but it’s solid for the most part. It’s certainly up there in aesthetic appeal. The art for both enemies and your character seem charming. The soundtrack in particular is absolutely gorgeous: at turns haunting, menacing, driving, and always feels appropriate to the sci-fi setting. It’s a shame there isn’t any narrative tension to lend meaning to the emotional chords struck by the music.
Despite these things, or perhaps slightly because of them, the title just…lacks personality overall.
I’ll admit, the “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” crack is an easy joke to make with regards to the main character of Antipole, it might even be intentional: I hadn’t asked. He wears a red cape/trenchcoat, I presume he steals highly technical information from important researchers. It was really a toss-up between which human caricature I was reminded more of: her or Michael Jackson, and Antipole’s hero does manipulate gravity so, y’know, the latter is a possibility.
If you think the moonwalk is impressive on the ground…
Seriously though, that aside, my presumptions are all you have to go on. You’re given no story, no reason (even a minor one) for making it from one level to the next.
Alright, there’s this.
“Wield your powers of gravity manipulation to fight off a robot invasion.”
However, the game itself doesn’t even bother with that single line. C’mon. Give me something.
Now, I want to stress: you should still play Antipole. So before everyone tunes out, I’ll tell you why.
The trailer illustrates the gameplay well-enough, but this is a 2D platformer that stands out as a real rarity in the genre not just because it’s striving for something innovative, but because of how it pulls it off. The levels are cleverly designed, certainly, but they’re well-paced in order to ease you into the game’s mechanics and enemies. The game’s big hook is gravity manipulation: you’re given the ability to reverse gravitational fields in a limited area around yourself for brief spurts and while you’ll still need the standard platforming skill-set of precise jumping and shooting, your finger will never leave the gravity button. As you progress, puzzles and platforms get more demanding, the amount of time you have to switch gravity extends and you’ll need every second of it.
While I have very few complaints with regard to the level design, it seems at odds with the gameplay at times. Antipole is fast. Your goal is almost always to get through each level as quickly as possible, and I couldn’t help thinking back to the Sonic the Hedgehog games in that sense. The game really shines when you’re at top speed, all reflexes primed as you’re instantaneously switching between dashing on the ceiling, outrunning pits of acid, blasting robots as you go before slipping through narrow, spike-lined holes.
Unfortunately, a lot of the puzzles ultimately centered around “escorting” something from one part of a level to another and while the method or timing of them were usually different or interesting enough to keep my attention, some of the props were exceedingly bouncy or frustrating to manipulate. Moving an enemy to hit a switch or blocking a laser with a box is fine, but why the hell can’t I just pick up keys? I’m mostly just picking at minor things, but damn it, that just seems silly.
There’s also a handful of segments that require you to wait for anti-gravity spiders or slow-moving platforms to progress, forcing you to abandon speed for patience and timing. You can’t do that part faster, you just have to get it perfect. Ultimately, those are only going to matter if you’re a completionist and absolutely have to gold star everything, but I found them to be frustrating.
The bosses are a nice break from the platforming and are great because they force you to use your gravity powers differently than you would in the normal levels but some of them (the tower boss in particular) are either too demanding or so starkly different that the only way to learn those lessons is by dying. A lot. There aren’t many of them (3 total, I believe), and I would have either included more battles of this variety or excised them entirely.
Finally, there’s a handful of coins scattered about each stage that unlock “Challenge” levels which are, in and of themselves, normally a feat to acquire. I bypassed most of them because in many cases, nailing the precise timing required to grab those shiny metal bastards would just get me killed while I was struggling just to finish the game. I suppose this could be considered added value. It mostly just feels cruel forcing the player to attempt a harrowing display of acrobatics when the reward is just more difficult stages. I suppose this might appeal to the platforming masochists out there. You know who you are: the ones who speed-run old NES titles, who can beat every Mega Man, Contra and Castlevania with their eyes closed at the same time.
Then again, if you’re in that crowd, you aren’t going to mind that Antipole has a Hero with No Name. I wouldn’t even harp on it so much if he looked like a generic everyman, but watching video, playing the game, all I can think is that this should have been a Character. I feel like it’s a missed opportunity to elevate the game beyond a pretty-good platformer to something special. Even a goofy or ham-handed tale can be endearing and elicit a smile.
As it stands, it might sound like I wasn’t really crazy about Antipole and I think in large part it’s because it just doesn’t stir passionate praise. Almost everything I have to say is “good, but…” It’s still a damn fun game to play and considering it’s only a dollar now, you’re not going to regret picking it up.
When it comes to cracking my list, though…taking a seat among what I would consider the essential XBLIG games to play…it’s a little too stark, a little too loose, and a little too schizophrenic to take hold…because being different, and more importantly being good isn’t always good enough.