Reviewed: March 14, 2003
Reviewed by: Mat Houghton
All right Iím going to get this out of the way right now, because if I donít Iím going to pop. This game is vexing. HaÖHa. Get it? Bad jokes aside VEXX is one of the hardest games Iíve played outside of Contra (new or old Ė without the good old up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, select, start that first one was rougher than a bowl of chili on that boat ride across the gulf).
These guys are just mean, like shooting someoneís alligator luggage mean, not like taking your lunch money and pantsíing you in the middle of the playground mean. We all kind of expect to be bent over by the camera at least once in a while in a platform game, but the lengths they go to in Vexx is beyond all decency (this coming from a guy whoís done that thing with the lubricant, rubber hose and the yak).
Ahem! Anyway, the basics are this. Vexx is one of the last surviving warriors of an enslaved race. The slavers? Shadowraiths, which are a particularly nasty version of inter-dimensional conquerors bent on the destruction of everything. They got your world because about 400 years agoÖ insert the typical cautionary science fiction story here; a rift was opened and in came the bad guys. Now the world is in all sorts of interesting pieces and everything is twisted and evil (though not more machine than man). Your whole goal is to collect wraith hearts that contain the energy of the rift system to open the various worlds (levels) and eventually drive the wraiths back into the void.
As aggravating, and just downright evil as this game is I have to admit one thing; the controls are pretty good, and they require you to be on the ball. This isnít some girly platform game that gives you a double jump to save yourself from falling off ledges accidentally. You have to be at the top of your game pretty much the whole time youíre playing in order to get the job done.
In case I havenít emphasized it enough yet, let me clarify exactly how hard this game is. There are no checkpoints in any of the levels, if you die you start over at the beginning, and all the hard work you went through to collect the hundred shards, or six jars (both tasks of which will earn you a heart) has been undone. If you fall from the top of the tower and miss that heart, you start all the way at the bottom. In other words you need to watch your step because one misplaced foot or improperly grabbed ledge and you most likely plummet to your doom and have to do it all over again.
Is that not enough for you? Well wait there is more to come. Because in addition to that rather miserly approach to the interface, be prepared for some incredibly inventive levels and challenges. Youíll have to invert a room and run across the roof, jumping to different pads in order to unlock a heart. Did I happen to mention that your left and right are inverted too? And thatís a fairly easy one. Additionally each heart in a level has itís own challenges to get it. If youíre ever stuck just look at your inventory menu and read the helpful little clue in the form of a Dungeon Master like riddle. The nice thing is that every time you enter a level you can choose a specific heart to go after and then arrows appear to point the way to where you need to go (except for when you collect the jars or the shards of course; oh you dirty bastards).
Ok. So you have your riddle to help you find and secure the heart and a control style, that while not being completely intuitive and helpful is workable and forces you to stay at the top of your game. Now exactly what are you facing Ė a world split asunder. Remember how I mentioned that before? I wasnít joking about that. The only way from one level to another is the rift hub. This is because each world is basically an island floating in a sea of asteroids, and much like Discworld, the rim is someplace you donít normally return from (unless of course youíre Rincewind). This leads to some absolutely stunning vistas and backgrounds, but also a lot of jumping over gaping pits.
About that jumping thing, see thereís one major problem with this game. The camera. You only have pseudo-control over this hovering monstrosity. It is often wrested from your grasp at the most inconvenient of times (usually those when it would be most helpful for you to move it). So you want me to work harder by pushing diagonally up and right as opposed to straight up. Iíll bite and run with it. Youíre going to lock the camera into a position where my character is blocking the view ahead and I fall into a pit that is cleverly (Evil!) hidden, or get hit by an oncoming enemy. Then Iím going to start to get cheesed. If you deliberately move the camera just to make it harder for me to get a free life, or to completely hide the next platform, or make it so I have to make a jump while rotating as opposed to still is just ridiculous.
If any of you are looking for a good laugh thereís a Q&A with the designer of Vexx in our Features section, and he goes into great detail about the camera and how ďgreatĒ it is. Not sure what game he was designing, but itís not the one I played. I canít tell you the number of times Iíve been frustrated by this camera that works ďagainstĒ you much more often than it does ďwithĒ you.
The other really big problem is the swim controls. Inexact is one word to describe them, but pathetic is perhaps more accurate. Other than camera and swimming issues this is a well crafted game that keeps amping up an already ludicrous challenge level to make you keep working for your goals, which are diverse enough to keep you interested instead of simply jumping through the same hoops fifty (or 81) times.
And if I still havenít convinced some of you about the difficulty, in order to get one of the hearts in the second level you have to go about halfway up a tower in the first level and then open a secret door and walk hand over hand across the bottom of a walkway to get to that door. Then you have to go up another tower that is a mirror of the first one only harder. If you happen to accidentally go out the entrance you donít go back to that secret doorway, but instead pop out in the second level and have to start the whole process over again.
Hold on to your lunches because this game just might make you loose them. Any of you who get a sense of vertigo from extreme heights (we're talking tractor beam control shaft in the Death Star heights) in games like these had better stay away. Vexx does such good work incorporating that sense of height that, combined with the difficulty, may make you think twice about trying to make that precarious jump.
The levels are downright jaw dropping. The color palettes are vivid and in depth with excellent shadows, surfaces, and textures. The only complaint that I have is that this game is way too dark. While that may be fitting for the style of this game if you have to turn up the brightness on your TV just to barely see that platform you need to jump to then there is a problem. If you think itís dark during the daytime then try playing when the sundial spins its way into the evening hours. Not only does everything get a lot darker, but the monsters get tougher and in some cases nastier looking. So, if you thought it was hard to see before then donít even consider playing it when the sun is out unless you are in a windowless basement.
Every one of this amazing levels has a huge asteroid field in the background, and brilliant skies. My personal favorites are the Below, the Manor, and the Citadel of Shadows (those are purely visual aspects, because the Below is where the game goes from hard to smash-your-controller-on-the-floor freaking impossible. The Below is your underwater level, which is unique because it is basically a big bubble in the middle of the floating asteroid as opposed to being just a vast sea. The Manor is a giant den, where you (a miniature Vexx) jump around a piano (inside that piano is one of the most original sub-levels that I have ever seen), or a giant sofa complete with game controller where you get to play a little Arkanoid on the big screen TV. The Citadel is beyond words and must be seen to be believed.
As far as effects are concerned, as mentioned above height and light are excellently employed, but aside from that there is very little that is impressive. When Vexx climbs walls or does one of his combos the screen shakes and his talon's glow and spark. There are portals that only open at certain times of day, and enemies that fade in and out of the picture. However, if you want the "really good stuffĒ youíll have to go to the Xbox version for all the extra visual treats only that system is capable of delivering.
Iíd love to give this a better score because the soundtrack is so good. However there are so few songs that I really canít justify it. You never get bored of them really, because that cello is just astonishing, but there is only really that track and the outer world one. I suppose they had to make some nod to space concerns, but they definitely didnít slack when it came to the quality of the music.
Otherwise lava bubbles, water burbles, stones grind, gears creak, and lightning sizzles. You wonít find anything lacking in the voice acting (although Vexx only growls), or the effects department. The Dolby Surround mix is very nice and does a good job of placing sounds within the 3D worlds of Vexx.
There are eighty-one hearts to collect in the game. So far itís been about a half an hour for the easy hearts, so thereís at least forty hours of game play involved here. That is however a rather conservative estimate because like I said, those are for the easy ones. Harder hearts can take up to two or more hours each, and I canít claim to have collected all of them, so there may be ones that take even longer. Iím not even including the boss battles or the tutorial.
You have a lot of time to invest here because you work for everything. If you have the gumption to stick with it you can still be playing this game a month from now, especially because I havenít seen a walkthrough for it and I still canít find some of those jars and portals.
Vexx functions more like a bunch of mini-quests rather than one meta-quest per level. With all of the different goals in each world you donít get tired of playing other than just needing to relax so you donít have a heart attack trying to complete that next tower. There is a good ratio of puzzles to action so that doesnít get old either.
My few complaints aside, itís become a battle of wills at this point. Am I going to admit defeat and just put the game up, or sit there and bleed my way to 81? That right there tells you that though I am frustrated and may end up having to buy a new controller, the game fulfills any and all expectations to sit up on par with Jak or Ratchet or even Maximo.
If you like a challenge and donít mind a little stress and are a damn good platform gamer then Vexx is an excellent buy. Otherwise, just go crying to mommy now. Vexx is a damn difficult game and only expert gamers need apply, but when you finally collect that final heart and defeat the final boss you will have earned some serious bragging rights.