Version tested: Wii
One of the cheapest review tactics of all time is the old 'cut and shut' technique: in the struggle to eloquently sum up the merits of a particular product, the hard-pressed critic resorts to describing it as 'game A meets game B'. But sometimes, it's the only way. And if ever a game needed a concise, off the cuff, down-the-pub-with-your-mates description it's de Blob. Maybe you can help THQ out and come up with one.
de Blob might look like a McDonald's Happy Meal of a game, and with THQ behind it, you might assume this is some sort of Nickelodeon Mercury Meltdown - but that's not doing it any favours at all. Despite its Day-Glo visual style, it definitely shouldn't be dismissed as a kids' game, and nor is it strictly a ball-rolling puzzle game. It's something else entirely: something original, utterly charming and occasionally very exciting. At its most basic level, it's an intriguing 3D platform-puzzle hybrid, where restoring colour to a monochromatic city is your goal (hello Wizball!). Think of it as a gigantic interactive colouring-in playground. For grown-ups.
The premise is delightfully daft, and some superbly animated sequences help set the tone with a style and tone evocative of LucasArts' legendary Day of the Tentacle. For reasons best known to themselves, the nefarious I.N.K.T. Corporation has made colour illegal and literally drained the life out of every building, plant, sign and statue in Chroma City. Needless to say, this is where de Blob comes in, on a solo mission to fight back against The Man and reverse this dastardly deed to the sound of happy jazz. You're damn right.
As the title suggests, you control what looks like a grinning gelatinous space hopper around these monochromatic environments, rolling it around with the nunchuk analogue stick, and flicking it up in the air with an upward swish of the Wii remote. Dotted around the drab, grey and white confines of Chroma City are various waddling paint pots, and bashing into them changes the colour of de Blob accordingly. With some colour in your cheeks, you can then transform the decor of the nearest building or other scenery item by simply rolling or slamming into them.
Each district has a number of locked gates, and in order to progress beyond them you have to clock up a specific number of "colourwatts" before they'll open up and allow you to progress further. To amass the alloted number of points, you can simply roll and bound your jolly way around, colouring everything, in a slightly obsessive-compulsive kind of way.
Ensuring each 'block' of any given neighbourhood is filled with colour frees its enslaved inhabitants, but doing so often involves a fair bit of careful platform negotiation as you leap from one building to another to reach the high-up spots which help complete the set. As you might expect, restoring colour to the 'Graydian' populace sends them giddy with delight, with an exuberant chorus of 'woo-hoo!' as you rescue them from monochromatic doom. It's worth playing just to hear their high-pitched songs of joy. Not since LocoRoco has rescuing squishy alien life forms been so joyous.
But as rewarding as all this may be, a more effective (and often essential) means of making progress is to engage in the numerous mini-challenges dotted around the city. Set against the clock, the idea is often to paint a specific block the desired colour, or amass a certain volume of, say, red paint, jump up to an insertion point, shake the Wii remote and fill it up, as if you were rattling a spray can.
As you hit certain colour milestones (such as 25, 50 and 75 per cent of the level), paint trees, solve four different types of challenges, and other micro tasks, the game keeps a track of your progress via an exhaustive stats screen which reveals just how much there is to do in order to properly complete each of the ten levels. You'll soon realise that getting to the exit pool is only a part of the overall picture - mining each level for all its secrets and challenges is a big undertaking, and certainly gives the game an unexpected amount of replayability.
While the first few levels of de Blob give the impression of a somewhat soothing, lightweight distraction, the latter half of the game proves to be a different proposition entirely. Not only do you have increasingly determined security measures to circumvent (such as electrified floors, deadly liquid, flaming panels, police patrols, tanks and so on), but the increasingly complicated level design and more elaborate challenges makes the game a serious test of your mettle. You'll go from casually breezing your way through levels to struggling to reach the exit pool with enough time. And with a limited stock of lives to worry about, it's not a foregone conclusion that you'll complete the level at all.
Inevitably, minor niggles earlier in the game are amplified when you're under the cosh, and it's natural that you'll find yourself questioning one or two design fundamentals when things don't go to plan. Chief of these if why the flaky jump mechanic is mapped to an upward 'flick' on the Wiimote. At first, swishing around the game world gives it a pleasantly tactile feeling, but the inexact nature of gesture control means missed (or undercooked) jumps, and frustrating trudges around elaborate levels to get back up to a specific vantage point.
A simple remapping function in the game menu could have solved this little problem at a stroke, but there you go. It's a shame, because it's actually a very small problem in isolation, but in a game which relies so heavily on precision jumping, it gnaws away at your resolve.
Another slight niggle is the mischievous camera, which has a tendency to spin around unhelpfully, or misinterpret the best angle. Pressing the C button is supposed to spin the camera back so it's directly behind you, but it's not as reliable as it could be. Again, when the heat's on, you really need the game to be capable of giving you the best possible view, and the simple truth is that it does not.
While we've got de Blob on the dissection table, it could be clearer about your actual objectives. Too often your progress becomes blocked because of the game's inability to point you in the right direction. You might imagine that unlocking the next gate was simply a case of accumulating points, but it can rely on performing certain key challenges. On a few occasions, entire parts of the level are completely off-limits unless you complete certain challenges first - but, bafflingly, this is never explained to the player. Through bitter trial and error you'll discover that certain challenge missions are mandatory, but you won't know which ones.
After all that, you might anticipate a lower score, but we're inclined to stick up for the many things that de Blob gets right. It's such a breath of fresh air to play a game like this on the Wii - although it's fair to point out that it would work just as well on every platform. The game is technically absolutely fantastic, with what could be the most appealing art style yet seen on the Wii. The way de Blob physically interacts with the world around him is hugely satisfying, squishing up against things, splattering the environment with paint and leaving trails in his wake. As a subtle technical showcase, it's hard to think of any game as well-realised for the console. It's really that striking - and screenshots certainly don't do the spectacle any justice at all.
Just as impressive is the core gameplay, with a crafted simplicity which makes it incredibly easy to pick up and play, while layering on deceptive depth at just the right pace. By using simple principles of colour-mixing, and applying it to a relatively basic platform gaming mechanic, the Utrecht students who first came up with the concept have chanced upon an entirely unique style of game. That developer Blue Tongue has successfully built on the concept with such charm and style is worth celebrating. The level design is consistently engaging; in small doses, there's something incredibly relaxing about rolling around colouring stuff in. It feels like another one of those tidying-up games, so if you're blessed/cursed by OCD, you'll be right at home with de Blob.
It's also worth mentioning that Blue Tongue has stitched a few fun offline multiplayer modes onto de Blob. Suitable for up to four players, there's Paint Match, where the idea is to paint as much of the level as you can within a time limit, Blob on the Run, where only one Blob can paint while the others chase after and slam into him to become the painter, and Blob Race, which is a check-point chase to a finishing point. None are particularly deep or involving, but for a few sessions it's a pleasant diversion.
Probably the best and worst thing about de Blob is that it's got 'Destined For Cult Status' written all over it. It's certainly not the first game to mix platform and puzzle elements, but the fact it manages to do so in such a clever, endearing, stylish and instantly playable way makes this a game we'd heartily recommend to anyone who thirsts for a 'proper' Wii game, whatever that is. Admittedly, some of the control and camera niggles ultimately detract from the overall enjoyment, but not so much that they should put you off trying this excellent and thoroughly original game.
8 / 10