Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment
Developer: Killer Game
Release Date: September 20, 2005
If I were only given one word to review Frantix, it would be "comfortable." Frantix doesn't aspire to be anything more than it is – a simple block-pushing, maze-running puzzle game, the sort of thing that's been around since the original Nintendo. It doesn't let the fact that it's on the PSP - for all intents and purposes the Cadillac of handheld systems - stop it from being a total throwback to a time of simpler gameplay. It is what it is, which in this day and age, isn't very much.
I don't have one word though. I have very many words, actually, words with which I am supposed to describe the details of the game. It's hard to find the voice or the will to do this, however, as it quickly becomes clear that Frantix, when it comes down to it, doesn't really care about the little things either.
Let's start at the beginning. Frantix doesn't have any plot or exposition to speak of at all. This is fine in the context; it is a puzzle game, and that genre needs those things not at all. It's billed as a puzzle "adventure," however, and while it is not being dishonest, that word in video games does mean "plot and exposition and nothing else besides," so you shouldn't buy this game under that false pretense. The game is what it is.
What it is then, is this: a character, at the center of the screen, navigating a level to collect all the gems therein and make it to the exit before time runs out. All the character can do is move up, down, left and right. In so moving, he/she/it may push a crate, trigger a bomb or missile, depress a button, or touch a trap or enemy and die. Avoid the enemies, push crates into the right traps, trigger a bomb in the right place, and push the right buttons to clear a path to the gems, and then the exit. Move onto the next level, which may or may not be any harder than the last. Lather, rinse, and repeat over 180 times.
That's all well and good – casual games are big business now, and though this game has yet to reach budget price, it might well have an audience interested for when it gets there. Unfortunately, the little things drag this game down from even the simple goal it had. The graphics aren't technically bad, though the PSP has done better. The textures are detailed enough for the typical camera distance, as are the characters, and some of the levels have some interesting architecture, given the grid-based nature of the game. Technical competency is not enough though, and from a visual artistic standpoint, this game fails to endear. Frantix just looks generic.
Perhaps to make up for this deficiency, the game attempts the graphical feat of progressing a day/night cycle as time ticks down in the level. At the beginning, this is fine, at the level changes colors and becomes visually more interesting. Later, as you find yourself running the timer down to the final seconds in the more difficult levels, this visual effect fades the screen to darkness. If you were just beginning to figure out the level at this point, you will not appreciate that you can't see the water traps anymore. It is a tender mercy that this game has short levels and retries require no loading, though it doesn't make these deaths by blindness feel less unfair.
The audio fortunately never kills you, but that's about all it does. The sounds in the game do nothing more than fill space, and are only memorable when they are particularly annoying – say, every time the female character dies. Other than that, music and sound effects are all rather unassuming, and you probably won't miss them if they're not there.
It is a testament to the timelessness of Frantix's gameplay that despite its rather bland presentation, it still maintains an addictive, "one more level" quality. This sort of game has been made and remade for decades now, and eventually the graphics and sound melt away, just as they had in Frantix's less technically proficient predecessors. In the end, a part of us just wants to figure out how to get to a thing, get the thing, and then get away with the thing. Even though it maintains some semblance of addictiveness, though, this is still not the ultimate version of this type of game. Some of the gameplay elements feel too arbitrary, like how you can turn left and right on quicksand, but can't make an about-face. I understand why the game wants me to play that way, but I don't understand why quicksand works like that. I understand why there are walls that I can push things through and not go through myself, but I don't understand why those walls have to become completely solid if I touch them, so I can't push anything through them until I restart the level. Things like these are just additional hurdles that get between the player and the fun.
The controls are exceptionally simple. The triggers rotate the camera; triangle zooms in and out and changes viewing angle. The only way to interact with the character is to use the d-pad to move the character around – using the thumbstick is possible, but doesn't work very well. Even with the d-pad, the movement feels a little bit loose and imprecise, especially given the fact that the game takes place on a grid. This becomes especially aggravating when navigating through closely placed traps, or pushing objects through those walls that become solid when you touch them.
Finally, it's worth mentioning that Frantix has a tie-in with a 2002 Academy Award-winning CG short called the ChubbChubbs. It includes the entire four-minute film on the disc, a handful of ChubbChubbs-inspired levels, and includes Meeper, the main character from the movie, as a playable character. My personal feelings for the film (it's not very good) aside, the tie-in is more befuddling than endearing, and certainly doesn't add any value to the game. If you were really splitting hairs, you could say that it makes the game feel thematically inconsistent, but this is a simple puzzle game we're talking about. Theme isn't really the highest priority here.
In fact, if you're not splitting hairs at all, that is what you're left with – a simple puzzle game. It follows a well-beaten path, and it lacks polish in almost every area one could care to polish, but it's still fairly addictive, simple and long. It has a lot of flaws, but none of them are particularly significant, and the game remains playable in spite of them. It's probably not what you're looking for, especially on PSP, but if you often find yourself lost in the world of casual Flash-based internet games and are willing to pay to take that sort of thing with you, well, there it is.
It will probably make you say ChubbsChubbs more often, and with more vigor, than your friends and relatives will be comfortable with. Just like all the other little problems with this game, you're going to have to deal with this. Otherwise, other people will be having more fun than you.