Version tested: PSP
Originality. An uncertain concept when applied to games. Remember when it actually used to be one of the criteria for scores in games mags, alongside that ephemeral spectre, Playability? Most of us claim to crave it, professing boredom with regurgitated sequels and me-too titles that merely ride on the shoulders of last year's big hits. Yet when games come along that actually boast innovative thinking they usually die a brief and merciless death, shunted aside in the sales charts for... regurgitated sequels and me-too titles.
It's enough to make you wonder why developers even bother switching their creative brains on and, it often seems, many of them don't. One day someone will release a first-person driving and shooting sports game in which you must thunder through famous battles of World War II in a customised import sports car so you can take part in the FA Cup Final, and at that point every videogame and console in the world will implode into frozen angel tears, and you'll sink to your knees and unleash bitter cries of sorrow into a dark and unfeeling cosmos.
But, hey, before that dark day comes a-calling, at least we're still getting games like Crush - a puzzler-platformer that takes a Tarantino approach to original thinking, borrowing recognisable elements from several other cult hits but twisting them into something that feels entirely new. Our hero is Danny, an insomniac strapped into C.R.U.S.H, a mad professor's brain machine. This device enables Danny to wander around the landscape of his subconscious, putting everything in order so that he might sink into the fluffy bosom of blissful sleep.
OK. Yes, yes - Psychonauts. It's hard to avoid the initial wave of déjà vu, especially as the quirky art style and sardonic sense of humour from Double Fine's wonderful-yet-undervalued platform classic have also been evoked. While this apparent magpie tendency sends up warning flags, your worries are soon placated. While Crush may doff its cap respectfully in the direction of Raz, this backstory is all but irrelevant to the game at hand. The other notable influence is Super Paper Mario, and its ability to let you flip a 2D platforming world into three dimensions in order to find secret areas and items hidden behind the flat scenery.
Crush takes the basics of this dimension-popping mechanism and expands it into the core of the gameplay, realising its untapped potential in the process. Despite appearances, Crush is very much a puzzle game first and platformer second, and not only can you switch between 2D and 3D viewpoints, doing so actually changes the layout of the level.
Using the d-pad, you're able to flip your viewpoint 90 degrees around you, and also upwards for a top-down view. The twist is that a press of the L1 shoulder button crushes your viewpoint, flattening the level from whichever angle you're looking. Crush from the side, and distant platforms are compressed onto the same spatial plane, allowing you to simply walk across. Crush from above and unassailable peaks are squished to floor level. Move to where you want to go, hit L1 again and the game slams back into 3D, with Danny relocated to wherever his current platform belongs in the fleshed-out world. Confused? Go and watch this gameplay trailer then come back. It should all make sense then.
It's an incredibly clever method of navigating 3D spaces - a kind of hyper-zen-physics lesson, taught by Stephen Hawking to Mario and Luigi - and at first it's almost enough to break your brain. Few games challenge you to change your entire way of thinking, and puzzle game lightweights or those who struggle with spatial awareness could be left floundering before the tutorial stages are even over. Each level is a self-contained quandary, with an exit that only opens up when you've collected enough of the glowing marbles littering the block-based scenery. Getting these marbles is your first order of business, followed by the not-inconsiderable task of reaching the exit.
And this is Crush's biggest flaw. While its concept is reasonably simple to grasp in theory, at least once you've seen it action, it doesn't give you much time to put the basics into practice before it starts throwing even more complications into the mix. Blocks that move, blocks that become intangible when 2D, alarm clocks that place sudden time limits on your moves, blocks that contain flailing tentacles, or giant cockroaches that must be squashed from above - all are covered in the first tutorials, and soon crop up in the game proper. Just as you're starting to suspect that you might possibly be almost getting the hang of the essential 2D-to-3D way of thinking, more elements are introduced. It can all feel a bit much, and will almost certainly result in fun-spoiling frustration for less patient gamers.
This frontloading means that, even for those who make headway into the 40 stages on offer, the pacing is askew. You begin to realise that you've seen the bulk of what the game will throw at you and, as you plough onwards through variations on a theme, the sheen starts to wear off sooner than you'd like. Secrets have been squirreled away in each level to elongate the challenge - trophy cups unlock time trials, while jigsaw pieces provide you with bonus artwork - but as these become harder and harder to find, let alone collect, the effort to reward ratio takes a dip.
Despite this admittedly minor annoyance, Crush is a rare beast and deserving of praise for the many things it gets so very, very right. There's a genuine sense of achievement and enjoyment when a seemingly impossible level suddenly clicks (or crushes) into place, and the confident way the game uses its central conceit as more than just a gimmick is undeniably reassuring and appealing. It suggests real thought and care has gone into optimising the experience for the player, rather than just providing nice trailers and a tech demo for future projects. Playing to the strengths of the PSP's graphical processor, while delivering bite-sized chunks of mental gymnastics ideal for portable play, Crush proves you don't need a stylus and dual screen to discover a fresh angle on handheld puzzling.
8 / 10