Release Date: 2/10/2003
Vexx is the kind of game that has everything going for it but misses the mark by a wide margin thanks to the developer’s decision to release the game when it still needed considerable tooling. Its platformer-driven action is similar to Capcom’s Maximo, Super Mario 64 – and to a certain extent the old NES game Little Nemo: The Dream Master, thanks mostly to its surreal and fantastical setting. Fans of the genre will certainly find a lot to like about Vexx, mostly its creative and cohesive level design and entertaining minigames. But since you’ll be constantly forced to deal with an unwieldy camera system that rarely gives you an ideal vantage point you’ll often feel like trudging through the game just isn’t worth it, despite its brilliantly designed worlds.
Vexx isn’t a what you would call “story driven” product, after the initial cut-scene at the beginning of the game that sets up the plot it’s pretty much straight-up action from there on out. You are Vexx, a midget-ey fellow who is out to avenge the death of his grandfather, who was killed by the evil magician Dark Yabu. What makes Vexx think that he can actually carry this task out is his dual gauntlets that he inherited from the ancients, with which he can hack, slash, climb, and perform a number of other cool moves that allow him to quickly dispose of baddies and move around in style.
In order to get to Yabu and settle Vexx’s personal blood feud he will need to set up shop in the dark ether realm of Astara. From a central hub, Vexx can explore any of the nine distinct worlds, assuming he has collected enough shadowwraith hearts to access them. Each of the worlds requires a certain amount of these shadowwraith hearts before they will open up, the first world is automatically open from the onset, the second world requires that you have two shadowwraith hearts, the third world will only open up once you have five hearts in your possession, etc. In each area of Astara (the worlds) nine or 10 hearts can be found, but they aren’t just laying around waiting for you to pick them up. Instead, you will need to explore the world and complete various challenges before you are awarded a shadowwraith heart, much like shines in Super Mario Sunshine.
At any time during the game you can hit pause and scope out how many hearts are in the world you are currently in along with accompanying riddles that indirectly point you in the right direction. Once a challenge for a shadowwraith heart begins you’ll be given further direction on how to go about obtaining it either by visual cues or on-screen text. The various challenges that you’ll come across in Vexx run the gambit from simple-yet-entertaining mini-games wherein you’ll face off with three look-alikes to more puzzle-oriented areas that require you to do anything from navigating a maze to coaxing fish to swim through a electrically-charged hoop. Other areas shrink Vexx down to the size of a thimble and throw him into immaculately painted canvases where you jump from one painting to another in a traditional sidescrolling environment.
The fact that you aren’t forced to progress through the game in a straightforward and linear fashion, and instead get to choose your challenges at your own discretion is something that makes Vexx surprisingly entertaining. That is until camera issues creep up and you realize that the awkward, cumbersome perspectives you find yourself in every so often are causing needless deaths. Seriously, why couldn’t the developers have ironed out the camera issues? What is it about camera systems that is so darned difficult to get right? If not for this one issue Vexx could have been in prime position as one of the contenders for platformer of the year. I don’t want to say that 3D platformers should be thrown to the wayside in favor of old-school 2D sidescrollers but when was the last time you ever had perspective issues on the Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis? “Two steps forward, one step back” seems to be the mantra for present day platforming games, I guess. But I digress.
Vexx himself is more than capable as a platforming hero with a surprising amount of offensive tactics at his disposal. The first stage of the game plays out as something of a tutorial and through a series of needlessly longwinded text messages acquaints you with most of the moves in the game. Aside from the obligatory maneuvers like running, jumping, and climbing, Vexx can perform dragon punch uppercuts, wolverine-like slashes, a butt stomp-esque aerial move, double-jumps, long-jumps, and super-jumps. To mix things up a bit you can also perform attack juggles on the opponents wherein you slash an enemy into the air and attack it again before it hits the ground. If you keep this up for long enough you can actually replenish your health and temporarily throw energy blasts or perform dash attacks. It’s a clever idea that suitably amps up your level of interaction but doesn’t serve much purpose outside of replenishing your health.
Every area of Astara is distinctly different and sports wildly diverse environments and ornamentation. Earning enough shadowwraith hearts to open up the next world is truly a rewarding experience because each new area feels almost like an entirely new game complete with didn’t-see-that-coming challenges and out-of-this-world scenery. It will take some serious time to become fully familiar with each world in Vexx and it isn’t uncommon to stumble upon large expansive areas that open up entirely new sets of challenges completely by accident. Perching yourself atop towering structures and switching into first-person view mode is a great way to get an idea of the immensity of any given world and comes highly recommended for those who find themselves stuck early on.
Visually, Vexx sports a pretty impressive presentation. Not because of texture quality or high-polygon character models but because of the wonderfully designed architectural work that went into creating the realm of Astara. Vexx himself, as well as the enemies, are actually a tad on the bland side with somewhat emotionless animation and blurry textures when viewed from up close. But there is just so much going on in the over-world areas that the sheer immensity and scope of it all is enough to easily forgive a few average-looking graphical components here and there. The sequences where Vexx is magically transported into oil paintings is one of the more impressive aspects of the game, technically there isn’t a lot to it but there is quite a bit of novelty value associated with being able to navigate static artwork in a side scrolling fashion.
The music in Vexx is something of a mixed bag. Some stages sport wonderfully orchestrated tunes that really stand out as something special while other stages (particularly the oversized musical instrument-themed stage) are rife with deliberate and jarring outbursts that actually hurt to listen to. I went from being thoroughly captivated by some tunes to instinctively reaching for the mute button on others. The sound effects are uniformly annoying and inconsistent with what you would expect; enemies emit the strangest sounds when you kill them. Occasionally you’ll hear ghostly voices as you are running around that give the game an eerie undertone that doesn’t seem quite fitting, but actually makes sense once you discover their origin.
Vexx could’ve been worlds better if not for its nauseatingly inconsistent camera system. But in spite of that it is still an entirely distinctive and original 3D platformer with loads of entertaining challenges and exceptional artistic direction. Platform junkies should certainly check this game out as it offers up a fairly long quest and is an overall rewarding experience. But for gamers who just want their fix of jumping from platform to platform a rental or two should suffice.