Version tested: Xbox 360
There's a secret Achievement in N+ that gives you 15 Gamerpoints for dying one thousand times. This detail is very important, as it rather neatly sums up the N+ experience: this is a game where you will die. A lot. The question isn't whether you'll unlock this Achievement, but when. The fact that you get Gamerpoints for repeated failure subtly tips you off that this is okay, is expected in fact, and also defines what makes the game's razor sharp design so damnably cunning - above all things, perseverance is always rewarded.
The nutshell, then. You control N, a minimalist yet acrobatic ninja figure. Before you lie more than 400 single-screen challenges, divided up into episodes of five levels. In each one you must hit a switch to open the exit, then leave. Complicating this simple task are countless sadistic obstacles, both environmental (lethal drops, explosive mines, perilous leaps) and aggressive (electrified drones, gun turrets, homing missiles).
You're constantly playing against the clock, with the same timer running throughout all five levels in each episode. Picking up gold pieces extends your time but, typically, these are often placed in harm's way. Progress becomes a balancing act between finding the fastest and/or safest route to the exit and ensuring that you add enough time on the clock to finish the remaining levels along the way. Much like the "reach the exit" gameplay, it's a beautifully simple mechanism that throws up dozens of quickfire quandaries with every jump.
Physics is of a semi-realistic ragdoll variety, with N able to perform gravity-defying leaps and ping-pong off walls, yet he's still bound by the general laws laid down by Mr Newton. Momentum and inertia are key factors to efficient play, as our stick-man hero is able to jump higher and farther provided he's moving fast enough. The sword cuts both ways though - hit the ground at the wrong velocity, regardless of distance, and N is splattered.
It's all rather fantastic, truth be told. There's immediacy in controlling N that makes navigating the levels a pleasure in itself, making every ludicrous leap a right old giggle, and this helps to take the edge off the high death toll. It's frustrating, of course, but only in that deliciously masochistic way that so many classic platformers manage.
The level design is actually impeccable and utterly fair - you soon come to realise that every flat surface, every slope, every hazard, has been placed precisely to make your life harder, or easier, depending on whether you've figured it out. There are puzzles here that will find you leaving tiny crescent-shaped teeth marks in your controller, swearing that you hate this game and will never play it again ever. Then you suddenly see the problem from a different angle, realise that you can jump up to there, wall-jump across to there, and hit the switch from up here, dropping down into the exit avoiding a cluster of mines that previously seemed impassable. And then you try it, and it works, and you swear that you love this game and it's the most addictive thing ever and you feel the warm rush of hard won vindication and then...the cycle starts again.
If you really get stuck, you can always check the leaderboards. Successful runs are automatically recorded and uploaded along with the score placing, so you can watch how the experts do it. Nothing blows away feelings of anger than seeing some smart-arse nimbly rattle through something you swore was impossible. As it is, these leaderboard replays are just another quietly brilliant idea, tucked away waiting to be found.
But what of the + element? This, in case you didn't know (and I probably should have explained this earlier, but there's no way I'm scrolling all the way back up to the top to rewrite the intro), is a remake of a critically acclaimed 2005 PC game. A freeware game, no less. As in, you can download it for nothing. Go on. I won't shout.
Given that the original already boasts a level editor and oodles of fan content, what can this Xbox Live Arcade version add to the mix to justify 800 Points of pretend Microsoft money? Well, the level editor is still present and correct - although you can only play your creations offline. Fan content is present though, in the form of in-game levels designed by enthusiasts of the PC version. In fact, all the levels are new to this game - often a lot smaller than the sprawling multi-faceted gymnasiums of the original, but somehow more fiendish because of their reduced size. Some quirky physics glitches have made their way across the divide though, most notably the way N can stand in thin air just to the side of a bouncing block. Hardly a massive problem (in fact it can be quite handy) but certainly the sort of thing you'd hope would have been fixed by now.
Where this paid-for version wins out is in the multiplayer options, something exclusive to consoles. Co-op mode is fairly obvious - you work together with a friend (or stranger, you kinky devil) to clear levels specially designed to tax two players. Races are also an option, legging it to the exit before your opponents. Survival, meanwhile, pits you against three other players in a scramble to grab as much gold as possible to stave off the dreaded timer death. Since you can respawn as long as you have time on the clock, the Survival levels are hilariously silly in the amount of hazards they throw at you.
Purely on the basis that it's a wonderful concept executed with no small amount of wit and style, N+ comes highly recommended - at least to those with a taste for such punishing gameplay. It's obscenely generous in the number of levels you get to play with, while the multiplayer modes provide even more incentive to keep playing. Maybe you're hesitant because you don't like the idea of paying for a game that you can get for free? If that's the case then go ahead and play the freebie version, but it'd be a shame to see an innovative independent developer punished for finally having a way to make some cash from its hard work.
8 / 10