Review by AutoRock

"Style VS Substance"

Arbitrary catch-all labels they may be, but style and substance are useful terms. I'd like to submit a theory regarding these famously independent elements of game design: style and substance are not only separate, but opposing. I submit that slavish devotion to sumptuous visuals and high atmosphere can result in a game with a sensory bite that sullies your experience while it enriches it.

For example: Eric Chahi's Out of this World. First released by Delphine Software in 1991 and then ported to every system ever, this side-on adventure first wowed Amiga owners with smoothly realistic vector-based animation, stunning hand-painted landscapes, and cinematic storytelling that seemed years ahead of its time. The game itself, however, is a painful experience. OOTW immerses with a rich atmosphere and uncluttered mechanics, but in a way that usually ends up being more frustrating than entertaining.

To put it another way, Out of this World is one massive double-edged sword.

A sub-example then, and some exposition. Mere moments after brooding synth strains and moody 'photography' introduce us to Ferrari-driving coppertop scientist Lester Chaykin (representin' the gingers, yo) in the stellar intro sequence, we find him adrift in the cosmos; stranded in an exotic alien world, at the mercy of the ruinous planet's violent cloak-draped rulers - nearly human in form, completely inhuman in deed. Incarcerated in a grim prison building with only toiling slave miners and rifle-waving guards for company, Chaykin drifts awake from rifle-butt-induced slumber to find that he shares his tiny, cruel cage with -

Wait. Let's back up.

I say mere moments, but that's in game time. In real-life, you've been playing for a good hour or so.

You see, you don't start off in the prison; you get a bitter taste of the alien outback before you are captured. Your offworld adventure begins suddenly when, inexplicably teleported from your high-tech laboratory (during the intro), you find yourself submerged in a murky lake, shuddering tentacles grasping at your feet from the depths below; if you don't hold Up immediately, you die. It's a harsh beginning, and quickly teaches you how deadly unforgiving the game is. Exploration in OOTW frequently leads to sudden death and experimentation is fatal more often than not. This grants the alien world a brutal, threatening atmosphere that's enhanced by the darkly graceful visuals; with it, though, comes endless frustration, because progress in OOTW demands experimentation.

Frequently, your attempts to escape the vile planet are hindered by the rugged, unwelcoming terrain and the occasional set-piece encounter with the xenophobic natives; the game presents these hurdles as puzzles, each requiring precise, well-planned action to avoid death. Specifically, they demand the kind of strategy that can only be formed after countless agonizing trial runs. Trial-and-error is a proven, acceptable motif in this genre, but, in various ways, OOTW demonstrates it at its most infuriating.

As mentioned, this becomes apparent in the game's first area: a punishing exercise in ill-communicated context-special moves and too-precise controls, progress eventually requiring, literally, an annoying leap of faith. After overcoming the apparently harmless tiny leeches and the clearly malevolent black beast, the hate-filled dominators step in, crack you upside the head, and sling your prone form into the aforementioned cage.

You share this chain-hung cell with a native that's friendlier than his brothers; he's your only ally once, with a bit of cunning swingery, you bust out of the cell. With his inexplicable cry of MAKOOMBA, the game proper begins, and both edges of the sword grow ever sharper. Grabbing a gun from a downed guard, you storm past the rows of lonely cells in your desperate bid for freedom. Forcing you to hold off your pursuers while your buddy disables the security systems, the game hurls you into the deep end once more with a frantic, pulse-quickening introduction to its combat elements.

And yet again, failure is almost unavoidable and always leads to frustration and boredom. Aside from the vague, chaotic graphics (it's impossible to tell which shots will kill you and which will just soar past you) and the slightly clumsy (yet sublimely animated) Chaykin, the real problem is in the game's commitment to simplicity for immersion's sake. Evident in the lack of a HUD and the use of a single key for both running and gunning, it seems like lunacy mid-battle when you're trying to work with the gun's various firing modes; tap for a single shot, charge for a shield, charge longer for an ammo-sapping super-shot. These are all essential for bettering the terrifyingly-adept guards, but are nowhere near as intuitive as they really need to be.

And so, you are shot, because you didn't charge your super-beam quickly enough or because you went an inch past your precious, yet static shield. A flash, and your body is instantly incinerated before collapsing into lovingly-rendered ash. You restart, and you're back in your cell.

Maybe you could stay there. You'd never get a chance to escape the planet, but you'd also never have to brave the exquisite agony that is the rest of the game. Never have to suffer another unjust death. Never have to crack your forehead off the desk at the useless checkpoint placement. Never have to bellow in rage at the hateful level design that sees you spending tiresome hours tackling one puzzle in one direction, only to find that you can't go that way yet and all your work has been pointless. Never have to realise how astonishingly short the game is, and how minuscule an area you cover in total - feeling just larger than a single stage of any other adventure title.

On the other hand, you'll never see the prettier scenes the breathtakingly-drawn world has to offer; muted blocks of colour painting foreboding ruins and looming skies. You'll never experience the wonderful atmosphere or the better-executed set-pieces. You'll never get to see what happens to you and your alien friend in the genuinely affecting ending.

Go forth once more, and you'll have to deal with both edges of the sword - the absorbing, brilliantly-told tale of Chaykin & Chum, and the mind-shredding teeth-grinding keyboard-pounding pain of the game itself.

It's that, or leave Chaykin to rot and go play the brilliant Flashback instead. It's up to you.


Reviewer's Score: 4/10 | Originally Posted: 12/16/04


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