A simple puzzle platformer with good production values that can't save it from mediocrity
There are many titles constantly appearing on the Xbox Live Marketplace and of course the quality is all over the map because this is Microsoft's tool for connecting with the casual gaming community. From a casual gamer's standpoint, it's way better to get four cheap fun games instead of one expensive one. So developers will go to studios like Pop Cap to make crisp, well produced, and addictive games. This month I have a review of just such a game, Raskulls, produced by Half Brick Studios. Raskulls is a cutesy platformer puzzle game, staring a cast of, admittedly, endearing Skull faced characters. You've got everything from pirates to ninjas and angels to devils. The art production is wonderful, all of the characters and environments are pretty; it has a style that takes a bit from the Bone comics. With all these cutesy characters and pretty locales, it's clear that this a family fun game, with loads of multiplayer stocked in back. But it also has a quirky humor that gets right at the nerd in me. However it is a simplistic game, that's not as addictive as it thinks it is.
The way it works is you have to run races. At first glance it looks like a clone of Super Mario World done for Xbox. The game uses blocks, linear levels, the same sort of platforming, and even a similar color scheme. But first appearances are deceiving; this does not have the depth of a Mario game. Raskulls is a numbskull game, it uses simple elements in some clever ways but its simplicity is mind numbing. Your raskull can zap blocks to destroy them and hinder other raskulls in your race to the finish. Blocks come in many colors and, like Tetris, they stack and fall on each other as you zap through. When you zap one block, you destroy all of the other blocks of the same color that it's touching, then the structures collapse thus slowing down the numbskulls on your tail. There are items for getting ahead and you have a frenzy button that makes you go nuts fast. The competitive aspect also borrows a lot from New Super Mario bros.; by the end of a couple races you'll be at each other's throats.
For a multiplayer game the single player was, surprisingly, the most fun. The campaign is called Mega Quest. The idea of the story is the Rastaskulls want a shiny stone, but this evil mouse takes it. Thus you go through levels fighting to get the shiny stone back with a cast of really cute skull faced stereotypes. I personally enjoyed playing with the dragon skull, he's dope. The king gets a kick out of throwing bricks at him. The humor is kind of amusing at times. I think the first joke in the game is a "your mom" line so, it's along those lines.
The story only takes you through three worlds, which is disappointingly short, especially considering that they use every level available in multiplayer in the main game. They throw in lots of challenge levels with events like keeping your frenzy running until the finish or sculpting a thing of blocks into a shape. There are some really satisfying challenges, but most of them are frustrating. It's frustrating to play because it felt like there was so little skill involved. It was all luck. Sure, I could remember the boost that I missed to nab that extra time, but the characters are often unresponsive and I'll end up killing myself in lava or getting slowed up by an opponent blocking the path. It's not that this game is hard, it's very easy to pick and play. It has wicked simple controls. It's just that the physics are really weak.
Controlling your numbskull is a taxing experience; they drift more than they fall and the controls are unresponsive in correcting your direction. Some challenges are clever and involve more thinking than this, but often a four person race is completely unpredictable. The problem is that, with how the zapping is designed, the game favors the underdog. The leader is always clearing a path and the losers can catch up quickly even if the 1st placer has a solid lead. Some levels are better than others for this. But still it's a game that's impossible to get good at because so little skill involved. It's frustrating in a way that doesn't make you want to go back for more; it just makes you feel like you've been cheated by a bunch of numbskulls.
The online multiplayer isn't great either. It's the only way that you can do four player and there's hardly ever anyone online for a game. It's also glitchy, which just adds to the frustration, especially for such a simple game. The game really is simple; it could have easily been done on the Super Nintendo, but without all the production value, and probably without the lag. I'd say that your kids will like it, but after an hour or two it's going to hurt your skull.