Revealed to the public with some fanfare at E3, Blinx is one of Microsoft's biggest hopes in the run up to the crucial Christmas period, but has already been simultaneously fawned over and damned by the specialist press, which always makes relatively late reviews such as this one an even tougher proposition.
But forcing the opinion divides to the back of our minds, as ever, let's get the easy bit out of the way: the first thing you should know about Blinx is its heritage. Developed by ex-Sonic Team members under the name of Artoon, it's obviously going to be of interest to anyone who thought that Sonic The Hedgehog and Nights were pleasant ways to spend your spare time.
But that was then and this is now. Things have changed, moved on, and not only do we demand supremely playable and innovative gameplay, but we expect it to come dressed in shiny new clothes that make our eyes bulge in a slightly freakish fashion.
He's not from Cheshire
So what have we got? Ostensibly a quirky 3D platformer starring Blinx, the grinning cat who's basic mission is to rescue a Princess (would you credit it?) and destroy all the 'Time Monsters' that occupy each area. The reason behind this is fairly unimportant (click here for our first impressions if you really want to know), but suffice to say that the brave young Blinx is armed with a Time Sweeper, which sucks up debris that you can fire at these unwelcome visitors. Despatch these critters in under ten minutes and it's onto the next stage.
The whole game's premise is centred on time, and being a worker in the Time Factory, Blinx possesses the nifty ability to mess around with the stuff, via the various Time Crystals that populate the levels. Blinx can hold up to four of these colour coded crystals at once - pick up at least three of the same colour and Blinx can control the flow of time to his advantage. Holding down B brings up a VCR style control panel, which Blinx can use to pause, play, record, rewind and fast forward the action. Pause, rather obviously allows you to freeze the on screen action for a short period, which is handy for dispatching a cluster of enemies, rewind allows Blinx to restore broken areas of scenery, record results in Blinx being able to effectively record himself thus being able to co-operate, fast forward speeds up time, while play speaks for itself.
All of this is possible thanks to cunning use of the Xbox's hard drive and is one of those innovations that makes you wonder why no one has come up with the concept on the PC at any point in the last ten years or so.
Ok, so it's a nifty idea, but how does it work in practise? Certainly, being able to fiddle with time can be immensely enjoyable in the early stages, if and when you manage to collect the correct crystals, but it's more often than not a tough task to find the colours you want, when you want them. Ultimately, you soon realise it's a novelty, and not a particularly useful one at that thanks to the way the game proffers its goodies.
A frustrating lottery
In the early stages of the game, when the difficulty level is basic to say the least, the crystals seem to be plentiful. As you progress and the difficulty level suddenly cranks up you seem to have to fight for every last one of them. Getting three of the right colour can be a frustrating lottery - which ultimately means you have to be incredibly careful what you pick up, and when you pick it up, as once they're gone, they don't respawn. And because of this, you're forced to either restart and play through more carefully, or defeat the monsters via mere use of your Time Sweeper alone.
Fortunately, Artoon has included a limited number of other pick ups to help you out, one of them being gold, which you can use to upgrade Blinx's abilities. New Time Sweepers can be acquired and have progressively more powerful suction and 'continues', up to a maximum of three. Collecting red crystals enables this feature, and can be the difference between success and failure, and there's a very fine line between the two, which will probably have you tearing your hair out within a short time.
Your chances of success are certainly not aided by the rather unforgiving camera system used either. In the early stages you're not under so much pressure, so this isn't such an issue, but as you start to encounter revolving platforms, vicious enemies, and dreaded death traps, the last you need is to get completely disorientated by the camera at the vital moment. And we're not exaggerating here - if you're close to a wall, Blinx regularly disappears, so you're left waddling around in first person mode, completely unable to judge distance or aim properly or in fact play the game properly.
This certainly comes as a big disappointment, because the game has the potential to work so well. The visuals, for example, are staggeringly beautiful. The sheer amount of detail on Blinx alone is completely unparalleled for a videogame character, while the backgrounds are, in some cases, literally dripping with detail. This is one game that has an Xbox look stamped all over it and anyone playing it for the first time would be impressed at how far ahead it is of rival consoles in this respect.
This, combined with the initial sense of innovation and strangely addictive gameplay makes Blinx initially an enjoyable experience, but it's laced with an unnecessary level of frustration that should have been ironed out well before release. The tag line says "who needs nine lives when you can control time", but frankly, we could have done with the nine lives as well. There's death around every corner, and whether that's down to a poor targeting system, unhelpful controls or the frankly comical camera system, there's always something around the corner to spoil your fun. Add to that the time it takes to suck up debris, and the five ammo limit, and you've got another unnecessary chore for the gamer to deal with. Imagine having to pick up every single bullet before you fired it in an FPS, and each bullet taking three seconds to pick up? Exactly.
Stubbornly old school
The linear level system hardly helps Blinx's cause either, with a very rigid level structure involving the completion of each world's three level in order before facing one of the game's gigantic boss monsters. The likes of Jak & Daxter and its ilk allow the gamer massive scope for exploration and multiple objectives. In comparison, Blinx feels stubbornly old school for an innovative next gen title, and will kill your initial enthusiasm for it stone dead once you hit a brick wall.
And the less said about the audio the better. In typical Japanese style, the music just has to be heard to be believed. Tinny, pathetic plinky nonsense that should have been outlawed from gaming ten years ago. But hey, it's in 5.1, so at least you get some decent sound effects now and again.
So now it's decision time - will you want to invest in the best looking, but most fatally flawed platform game we've seen in ages? We reckon despite all our moans it's a well worth checking out on a demo pod (or disk, assuming there's one coming). Fans of platformers still have to check it out, if only to see the gorgeous eye candy on display. Real old school committed sufferers who enjoy repeated deaths and against the odds gameplay might get something from it, but for us, Blinx smells like a massive missed opportunity that will do the Xbox no favours at all, and at this time of year Microsoft really doesn't want to be missing opportunities.