Review by slutboyfame

Reviewed: 02/19/08

Exit: Stage. Left?

Hijouguchi: Exit DS - NDS - review by slutboy fame

Fascinating, exasperating and compelling, Exit makes its groovy, stylistic way onto the more popular current handheld, at last. The game concerns the exploits of the detective(? ) /fireman(?) protagonist, who goes by the intriguingly implicit and obscure title of "Mr Esc", and follows his efforts to rescue a specified number of carefully placed imbeciles. These imbeciles decide that the best response to finding themselves in a smoldering building is to lie down for forty winks, ignoring any attempts at communication - unless the communicator is poking them in the eyeball as they speak. This presents the player with the basic game construct - each level has a number of dangerous obstacles, and a number of people to rescue. The idea of the game is to extinguish, demolish or eliminate as many of these dangers as possible, and lead the unsuspecting lemmings to safety.

The graphics are fairly basic, in terms of stark, plain 2D backgrounds, but the game is seemingly populated by motion-captured vector squiggles. The animation, however it is achieved, looks lovely. Everything works fluidly and moves around authentically and naturally, with fat Mexican blokes waddling with an audible thud; and kids delicately and hesitantly scampering. The main character has a Zorro style panache, as he launches himself around trailing a giant scarf. Even with a broken leg, he looks well stylish. The music, on the other hand, is pneumatically abysmal. God-awful elevator muzak combines with piped-in, synthy horn stabs and is supposed to match the trendy visual minimalism. It doesn't ruin the aesthetic totally, since you can (fortunately) remove it from the audio mix on the settings page. The sound fx are pretty generic, nothing especially outstanding or annoying except for the cutesy child voices.

The game most closely resembles the classic Prince Of Persia mechanic, in that the gameworld is an exactly designed set of squares that your character navigates using animation. Unfortunately, the control isn't quite as good as the decades old 2D game that has cobwebs hanging off it. This is chiefly because of the slightly clunky way that the controls are implemented. It is impossible to use the poorly-implemented stylus controls; so that means that you are forced to take a step backwards to PSPland, already. The button controls, however, are still a little clunky.

You realise how unnatural they are whenever your character is required to jump from a "one" metre block across (most usually) a "one" metre gap. If you press jump and a direction at the same time, as a decade of Mario playing would lead you to believe was possible, you will trigger the "oops" animation. If you repeat the action, you will fall to your death. The "correct" thing to do to get a supposed standing jump is to press direction followed by jump. Of course, the simple action of pressing a direction next to a gap often means that you will fall to your death, also. What you actually end up having to do is to nudge to the left, to allow yourself room to take a one-pixel "run up" and then press jump. Often this will be successful in your first few attempts! Of course, it would've been easier if you could simply hit jump+direction, but this is probably far too convoluted and difficult for developers to ever implement, using actual sanity. What it means, in practice, is that you can spend five minutes putting out fires in a level, shuffling fat blokes around etcs, only to find yourself dying unnecessarily right at the end; as you try to hop over an almost imperceptibly small gap. To say that this is frustratingly poor game design is an understatement.

Anyway, this aside, the gameplay is fairly intuitive to pick up as you go along. The core game usually transits from simple platforming through to more tricky logic puzzles level by level, as you go through a "situation" (stage). The escapees are generally easy to command, and their individual limitations and special uses become pretty obvious in the easy, preceding platform levels. You have to micro-manage them, from time-to-time, pointing them at ladders, ropes and the top of an occasional box - but this doesn't seem too out of place considering the Towering Inferno / Poseidon Adventure leitmotif. The only time the mechanic really falls down is when you have to command them to climb a staircase - they have to be on the correct side of it and pointing towards the staircase, or else it won't work at all.

There are plenty of levels to puzzle your way through - a hundred normal stages and an extra fifty special stages beyond that, once you complete the game fully. Generally, the sporadic frustrations with micro-management don't have an impact on the game, since the time limits are generally very generous. You eventually get used to using the controls, and even the trepidation that you have in using a "standing" jump can add to the tension; throwing a spanner in the works when you're getting complacent about what seems like a pure puzzle-solving level.

Despite the obvious concerns with some of the rubbish control mechanics, this is still an enjoyable game. Especially if you see it as a puzzle game with platform mechanics tacked on. There are plenty of rewarding "doh!" moments, where you realise that the supposedly impossible puzzle is, in fact, glaringly obvious. There are a few too many that rely on juggling boxes around, which can be the height of tedium, but there's enough content to keep you interested, throughout. The core game is compelling, because you are usually required to rescue vulnerable people - and helping kids and carrying wounded people and even leading the best characters (the dogs) out of a burning building is often reward enough. It's a pity that the game doesn't make better use of the burning building dynamic - having smoke and fire gradually build up to obfuscate things or scare the escapees static would've been an interesting turn of events; or even having random ash / ceiling falls / water floods instead of an explicit timer would add a great deal. As it is, the only nod you get is when (very intermittently) you'll get a block that will suddenly vanish as you get to various preset points in the level. Which is a bit of a let down, considering the panic that even old-school games like SOS delivered with their every screen judder. A change in the music dynamics, too, would be welcome - proper minimalist themes building to a crescendo instead of the current cheesy parping.

You shouldn't be too put-off by the Japanese text, if that's an issue, since the menus are all in English and you won't miss a great deal ingame. Although making your way through a good percentage of the game without realising that you could swap two objects using the "A" button (you swap objects held by other characters using "Y") was easy to do. The puzzle where you finally have to make use of it had me stumped for ages, however, but most of the rest of the buttons and commands are fairly intuitive. Anyway, this is an original way to present a puzzle game, it's just a pity that the developers didn't iron out a few of the more annoying quirks and built up more of a disaster-movie-style atmosphere, which would've made for an excellent experience, rather than one which is merely very good.


Rating:   4.0 - Great

Product Release: Hijouguchi: Exit DS (JP, 01/24/08)

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