Wacky platform icons - it's an unwritten law that every console should have one. The PS2 has an embarrassment of riches these days (take your pick), while Nintendo still dines out on Mario and his extended family, not mention Mr. Kong and co. But what of Microsoft's efforts to date? Um, the innovative, good looking, but ultimately flawed Blinx, and that's your lot.
But as we all know, Microsoft is the Terminator of the games industry; it absolutely will not stop, and so here's another attempt to carve a niche in this unbelievably saturated genre. Coded by relative newcomers Beep Industries, we have Voodoo Vince; a tale of a Madame Charmaine's "third best Voodoo doll", a 10-inch cloth doll with a dodgy eye, bemused expression and pins poking out of his head.
Vince is hardly the most likely gaming hero ever, but that’s one of his main charms. The game and its oddball cast is instantly endearing in the way that old LucasArts characters used to be, we're delighted to report [obsess over, more like -Tom]. From the instant you boot it up, the general atmosphere, warm humour, music and visual style are all pleasingly reminiscent of both Monkey Island and Grim Fandango, albeit conforming to the task-based/object collection platforming template.
Lovable cloth headed twerp
So what spurious reason are you controlling a cloth-headed twerp with Voodoo powers? In typical gaming fashion, Madame Charmaine and her Voodoo Dust have both been captured by a band of hapless losers headed up by Kosmo The Inscrutable, and it's Vince's eventual aim to sort this mess out.
Predictably, all the familiar platform elements are here to tease and torment you: object collection? Check. A posse of baddies to take out that spit out said objects? Check. Boss monsters? Check. Various tasks to perform while taking out said baddies and collecting objects? Check. Jump puzzles and bottomless pits that lead to instant death? Check. Much frustration, eventually leading to a satisfying gameplay experience? Check.
All the laws of platform gaming have been rigidly observed, so don't approach Voodoo Vince expecting innovation. But rather than put you off by harping on about how derivative it is, there's plenty going on here that ought to keep platform fiends (for that is what you and I are) entertained for hours on end.
Charmed, I'm sure
The most striking aspect of Voodoo Vince is its lavish visual appeal, which instantly marks it out as a game that other consoles could not do justice to. Admittedly, none of this necessarily makes the game any better, but the quirky, twisted level design, excellent characterisation, exquisitely textured environments and the artistic merit employed in the delivery do add a measurable incentive to plough through what might otherwise be passed by. Case in point is Vince himself, who is rendered with so much detail, it's hard not to love such a gormless hero, who is so roughly hewn you'd imagine it was something your brattish sister would evilly construct at primary school.
But to back up all this gloss is a wry humour so lacking in most po-faced, or simply badly scripted videogames. For example, towards the end of the first world there are a collection of locations which can only be accessed by changing the time that the Town Hall clock displays. One such location is a Hong Kong cinema, showing "two films for the price of three", while another has Vince playing Jazz trumpet, somewhat surreally. From what we've witnessed so far the game is peppered with silly, tittersome moments that have inspired us to carry on and look forward to what other treasures the game holds.
On the downside, the rather well worn game mechanics that beat away at the core do sometimes feel tired. The main purpose, as always, is to collect a whole array of odds and sods while avoiding or defeating the inevitable procession of baddies (with amusing names like the Gingerdeadmen) that populate the levels. In the traditional manner, Vince can punch them (X button), spin them into next week (B), perform a Head Slam by tapping jump (A) followed by X, or invoke a 'smart bomb' special move by calling up one of 30 Voodoo Powers (hold down the L and R trigger) which you find dotted around the game.
Although these Voodoo Powers all essentially do the same thing (so it seems), there are plenty of context sensitive visual gags, such as the Chainsaw power, which chops all the enemies in half in true cartoon style, which Electromagnetic power attracts anything metallic. The powers come thick and fast, with the likes of Alien Attack, Bear Trap and Killer Bees in our arsenal after just 90 minutes of play.
Breaking the rules
Amusingly, often the only way to progress is to actually put Vince in the most compromising situations imaginable, such as jumping into a blender, setting himself on fire or wading headlong into falling rubble. Sometimes, just when you're expecting the game to play by the rules you do something that completely contravenes gaming logic.
What is undeniably irritating however is the way that, for some slightly irritating and lazy reason, Beep has decided to populate its levels with endless bottomless pits, meaning instant death is never far away. But, to be fair, the game does automatically grab ledges when he slips, and careful use of Vince's double jump move, combined with the hover command (hold right trigger after a jump/double jump), allows our cloth-eared hero to negotiate these arbitrary traps.
Keeping an eye on your limited health meter is, as ever, a vital part of the game, such is the regularity with which you'll be assaulted by the enemy. To start with, you have just two health icons, which get chipped away in quarters with every hit - but with every successful kill, enemies will spew out either gems which can top up either your health or your Voodoo Power depending on the colour of the gem. Also, to eventually increase your overall health, there is a succession of blue vials to collect. Every time you pick up 100 of them you're rewarded with an extra health icon. On top of that, Vince is rewarded for cleaning up each level of Voodoo Pages, which are scattered around in obscure nooks.
I smell a rat
Later on in the game we're promised a number of vehicles to get to grips with including a fanboat, a submarine, an airplane, and a rat of all things. Inevitably, mini-games get a look in, again, as the law of platform games dictates these days.
So far, we're enjoying Voodoo Vince. Sometimes it doesn't feel like the most innovative title ever created, other times it smacks you with a great idea, but there's evidently a level of craft, polish and talent at work here that raises it above the level of 'generic platform sludge' that we admittedly expected it to be. If the tasks within the game are as entertaining as the ones we've witnessed so far, we're in for one of the better platforming romps of the year. Having said that, just as we finished writing this, Jak II landed on our desk...