Reviewed: March 14, 2003
Reviewed by: Mark Smith
Released: February 11, 2003
The Xbox has been around for well over a year now and there still seems to be a draught when it comes to platform games, especially Xbox-exclusive ones. Things are starting to pick up thanks mainly to an assortment of cross-platform releases like Dr. Muto and Acclaim’s newest hero, VEXX.
No matter how good a gamer you “think” you are, Acclaim is about to burst your bubble with one of the most difficult platform titles in the history of videogames. While I can rattle off a short list of games that are genuinely harder than this, none of them are on the Xbox. Granted, much of the difficulty found in this game is brought on by an unforgiving “no check point” level design and some of the most twisted automated camera control ever seen in a 3D action title, even so, there is something that is strangely compelling about Vexx and even more addicting. After you have plummeted to your death for the 13th time and smashed your controller into tiny bits you will be racing to the store to buy a new gamepad and trying it all over again that very same night.
Vexx is one of those games that will literally keep you glued to the screen until your hands and fingers are so sore you simply can’t hold onto the controller anymore. No other game has ever generated this much SPS (sweaty palm syndrome), to the point where I now keep a towel on my lap while playing this game. Any worse and I would need a bucket to wring that towel out in.
So who or what is Vexx? Imagine if Tiny Toons did a version of the X-Men; Vexx would be Wolverine. Vexx is actually one of those angry teens you might see on daytime talk shows. Having witnessed the death of his grandfather who died while saving Vexx from his own demise during an encounter in the slave camps, our hero become sufficiently angered to the point where he escapes and sneaks into Yabu’s (the head bad guy) windship and becomes the unwilling new owner of the Astani War Talons, magical gauntlets that permanently attached themselves to Vexx giving him unprecedented combat abilities. Armed and ready for action, Vexx must now venture forth into the world, defeat the evil Yabu and set his people free.
As trite as it all may sound, the story is actually quite developed and more than enough plot to carry the action during and between the levels. Aside from the opening, middle, and closing movies the story really fades into the background with the exception of a few pieces of parchment you can find in the levels.
You need a few things to create a killer platform game; inventive levels, challenging and diverse gameplay, a loveable (or at least likeable) hero, good control, nice graphics and sound, and in the case of 3D platform games, a functional camera system. Let’s dissect Vexx into these various areas and see what we have.
Vexx comes with nine huge worlds; no really, these are HUGE, bigger than anything you have ever seen before. We’re talking HALO-huge here. These levels make the most of three dimensions, so you will often be going down, in, out and up, up, up, I’m getting sick, up, up, I need some oxygen, up, up. Hey! I can see my house!
You have your themed worlds like the desert, forest, fire, ice, and even a level that is entirely underwater. These often branch out into challenging mini-areas like towering…err...towers, ancient temples, and even unique areas like exploring the faces of a giant Mt. Rushmore-like mountainside or inside the belly of a whale.
In each of these worlds you are quested to find 8-10 Shadowraith hearts. Each heart constitutes it’s own challenge and after you collect a heart you are returned to the Rift Hub to deposit the beating organ in the central power core. The energy from these hearts power the hub and the more you collect the more doors you can open to reach other worlds and get more hearts. Each door in the hub is noted with the number of hearts required to open it and once you get 60 hearts you can face Yabu.
Each hearts represents a very unique and often difficult challenge. The inventory screen allows you to pick any heart and get a poetic clue about its location. Once you enter the level a series of arrows will point you in the general direction of the heart you are searching for. There are 81 hearts scattered about the entire game so you can easily skip over some of the more challenging hearts and still finish the game.
In additional to the variable challenges you also have a few staples for each world like finding 100 glowing shards to recreate an entire heart or locating 6 soul jars to assemble another heart. There are also mini-games and challenge levels scattered about the worlds. Mini-games may consist of a boss-fight where you must “ring-out” your opponent or you may get to participate in some arcade-style elimination games like a TRON-like light-cycle game (minus the cycles) or an intense 3D version of Hungry Hungry Hippo.
Each world has a sundial hidden somewhere. These tick by on their own creating a real-time night and day experience. Once you find these sundials you can spin them to set the time however you like. This can often prove useful as the monsters all take on a nasty new variation once the sun goes down. There are also sundial portals located in many of the levels. These open only during brief intervals each day as noted by tick marks on the sundial. If you are clever you can set the sundial then race to the portal and enter to reach a challenge level. These typically take place in a void with lots of platforms and jumping puzzles and prove to be some of the most difficult areas in the game to finish. A glowing heart is your reward for success.
Vexx might not be the most loveable guy you’ve ever played but he does have style and an attitude that fits this game perfectly. His angry scowl and general pissed-off attitude often reflected my own frustrations, as I battled my way through this game.
Vexx has a decent library of moves and combat skills that you learn both in the tutorial and during the first world. You can run and jump and do powerful long jumps and high jumps and flip-kicks. There is no traditional double-jump but you can do a flare-kick to get some extra airtime and distance. You can also jump and smack the ground creating a shockwave that will stun enemies and do an uppercut attack to launch enemies high into the air.
There is an interesting combo system that allows you to juggle and/or pummel monsters repeatedly and fill up your frenzy meter. Most monsters die after only 3-4 hits but that doesn’t stop you from racking up 17-20x combo strikes. Once the frenzy meter is full you can charge your talons and unleash powerful destructive attacks and even missile attacks. It’s a nice combat system but not nearly as “revolutionary” as the designers would have you believe. By the time you are reentering a world to get your 7th or 8th heart you will be avoiding monsters rather than fighting them.
One very nice aspect of Vexx is that nearly every monster you kill releases energy that replenishes a slot in your life meter. This means that aside from falling to your death and boss battles, it is nearly impossible to die in this game. Even so, the designers have seen fit to give you limited lives, which I found extremely annoying and totally unnecessary. You really aren’t penalized for losing all your lives. You simply have to wade through the menus to reload your last save game, which just happens to coincide with the last heart you picked up. Observant gamers will quickly learn where to find icons for bonus lives and exploit the system to rack up lives in the double digits.
Vexx has a few power-up abilities that allow him to morph into a lava creature or sprout wings. These are quite clever and integrated nicely into the level and puzzle design, but there simply weren’t enough of these challenges. I wouldn’t have minded a level that had me flying around a lot more.
Last and certainly not least is the camera system that Vexx employs to create new levels of frustration. Make sure to use your oldest controller when playing this game as it will likely be scattered about your game room in pieces after your first visit to the tower level or during any of the literally hundreds of other areas in the game where you are quite literally SCREWED by the camera.
I can’t even begin to count the times where the camera swings into some totally unplayable location or your view is locked down to some hideous angle that has you running blindly toward or away from the screen. To make matters worse, your control and movement is relative to the current camera angle, so when you are making some impossible leap or navigating a narrow twisting stone bridge high in a tower and the camera suddenly swings around, up is no longer up and right is no longer right and death and cursing are not far behind. And no matter how much you fiddle with the right stick to tweak your camera the game will always move it right back where it wants it.
Suffice to say, Vexx has one of the worst camera systems in gaming history and is really the only flaw I could find with the entire game. Even a totally “manual” camera system would have been preferred over this monstrosity. I don’t mind challenging gameplay when the challenge is part of the combat, adventure, or level design, but fighting a heavily flawed camera system is not my idea of fun.
Vexx is one gorgeous video game and after playing all three formats I can safely say the Xbox offers the best visual presentation. The camera is generally pulled back so you never really get to appreciate all the subtle animations and details present in the Vexx character or any of the other creatures found in this game. Occasionally the camera will zoom in or a cutscene will take over that uses game engine graphics and you can see everything you have been missing.
The levels are jaw dropping from the moment you start the tutorial until the final battle with Yabu. Each world is basically a giant chunk of rock caught up in an asteroid field, so there is a defined “edge of the world” and yes, you can fall off. Looking around you can see thousands of other asteroids swirling around the sky as well as the sun, moon and stars that are constantly changing in color and intensity as the sundial ticks away the virtual hours in a game day. Spinning the sundial and watching the sun and moon rise and fall along the horizon is a surreal experience that must be seen to be appreciated.
Each world has a unique theme that is brought to life in stunning graphical detail whether you are exploring forests, deserts, tropical jungles, frozen tundra, or swimming into the depth of a giant water-filled dome complete with an underwater city and hidden air pockets leading to their own sub-levels.
Within each world are equally stunning sub-levels. Some of my favorites are found in the Manor where you have a grand piano at one end, a grandfather clock in another corner, and a big screen TV complete with a playable videogame in the other. You can enter the clock and climb up the spinning gears and other mechanical innards or jump into the piano for one of the most amazing and inventive levels you will ever see in a video game. The sundial challenge levels are set against a whirling purple cloud system charged with static energy that flashes in web-like bursts of lighting.
The Xbox offers flawless framerates and a draw distance that stretches to infinity. There is some minor pop-up in a few areas but this is cleverly disguised by slowly fading in these larger objects rather than having them suddenly pop into your view. You can climb to the highest peak and survey the entire level and see it in all its glory. Distant objects are realistically blurred but there is no fogging or other trickery used in this game.
The Xbox offers a few nice subtle bonuses that exploit the power of the system like better textures, bump mapping and even putting flames on the Grimkins. There are some excellent water and transparency effects that you can see while standing inside one of the city towers in the underwater world and looking up to see giant fish swimming around outside. It’s breathtaking and a bit unnerving. When you exit a body of water droplets will splash on your screen. Another nice touch is actually being able to see the entire level on the other side of a hub door or sundial portal.
The interface is quite nice with a miminal HUD that indicates you three primary pick-ups. Your health and life info is contained in a medallion in the lower corner and your air indicator while swimming is cleverly noted with a bubble that circles the medallion. Each revolution takes away a health slot until you find a bubble or air pocket to reset the bubble-clock. Boss battles feature a custom win/loss meter and challenge levels and power-up morphs will pop-up a timer that clicks away the seconds. The menus are very nice and the inventory shows you the hearts for each level along with clues for each one. There is also a summary page that shows all levels and hearts collected for each.
Vexx has some of the most wonderful and surprising music you might imagine for a platform game. There isn’t a whole lot of variety; basically a theme per world and some other music for the challenge levels, but all of it is soothing and blends comfortably into the background.
Vexx doesn’t speak but rather grunts and makes other primal noises as he runs, jumps, climbs, and slashes his way through countless enemies. A few other characters talk during the movies and the various journal entries can be clicked on to have them read aloud. Other than that you have all sorts of interesting sound effects from the relatively small cast of monsters and supporting characters.
There is plenty of ambient noise to bring the worlds to life. You will hear birds, water, and the deafening thud as other asteroids slam into your world. There is the metallic clank as Vexx climbs textured walls or monkey swings across overhangs. Wood bridges creak and sway as Vexx cross over them and the underwater level has that appropriate hollow-muffled sound to it.
All of this is wrapped up in a stunning Dolby Digital surround mix that creates a spatial sound experience that truly compliments the visuals. You can quite literally detect approaching monsters from the direction of their sounds and those beating Shadowraith hearts not only vibrate your controller, they also get ominously louder the closer you get.
The designers claim 30 hours of gameplay and I would say that is a modest estimate. I’ve also seen some other reviews where they say the game can be completed in 15 hours or less. To those reviewers all I can say is, “please pass the crack pipe – you’ve had enough”. Get real! This game is mind-numbingly hard and even assuming you are a gaming god with ninja-like reflexes, 30 hours is still the safer estimate.
Some hearts are admittedly “giveaways”, especially in the earlier levels when the designers are still being nice, but the two tower levels start to show the game’s true colors, and there was one sundial challenge level where I went through 17 lives three times (yes, 51 attempts) before collecting the heart, and I don’t exactly suck at these games. It’s really that hard.
You are free to collect the hearts in any order you choose and you can explore the worlds at any time provided you have enough hearts to open the door. Using the hub you can bounce back and forth between worlds at your leisure, but there are no puzzles or challenges that really force you to backtrack aside from one or two hearts that are accessed via secret doors in other levels.
You have the option to face the final boss and complete the game anytime after getting 60 hearts. I was hoping for some incentive or reward for collecting the other 21, perhaps a weapon that made the final boss battle easier, anything really. But alas, I was only left with that personal sense of accomplishment.
Vexx is not for the casual gamer. This is the “final exam” of platform games and easily makes my list of the top five most difficult console games released to date and probably takes the #1 slot for the Xbox. Admittedly, much of the difficulty is directly related to the flawed camera system, but even when the camera is working the game is still plenty hard.
Knowing what to do and actually being able to do it create a fun environment that promotes exploration and experimentation. Normally games of this scope quickly become repetitive and boring but Vexx manages to make each “pick-up” an adventure unto itself. Rather than playing one huge game you ultimately take part in 81 mini-quests that are surprisingly unique and challenging in their own way.
Vexx is a definite must-have platform title for anyone looking for the ultimate challenge in gameplay set against some truly inspired environments and cleverly crafted puzzles.