Shiny Entertainment's Earthworm Jim was a platformer that threw out all ideas of what should and shouldn't make sense. It didn't bother with a coherent plot or world setting but had surreal humor that was designed to allow all sorts of strange and fun gameplay mechanics. 'Splosion Man is basically a modern-day Earthworm Jim. It's strange and bizarre, with barely a hint of plot, no real characters, no sensible goals, and seemingly random and insane things occurring at every moment. It's also one of the best platformers to come out in years.
'Splosion Man is a sentient, living explosion. He is also completely insane; we're not talking weird, but completely nuts. For reasons unknown, he finds himself deep in the bowels of a science lab, filled with bizarre experiments and mad scientists. Your goal is to simply explode your way through every scientist, robot and delicious cake in your path until you find the way out. The entire game is basically an excuse for bizarre, random and often hilarious humor. Scientists explode into "meat" when killed — not bloody Quake gibs, but actual meat, including whole hams and steaks. Boss fights include such insanity as a giant-brained scientist who throws fellow tutu-wearing scientists at you before challenging 'Splosion Man to a wrestling match in front of a shark cage. Nothing in the game makes a lick of sense, and yet it's hilarious from beginning to end.
'Splosion Man has one power: He can explode. At any time, he can choose to detonate himself in a tremendous explosion. Depending on where he is, this explosion can have different effects. Explode on a solid surface, such as the floor or a wall, and 'Splosion Man will be sent flying in a rocket-propelled jump. Explode in mid-air, and you'll get a brief boost and can change your direction. Explode next to an enemy, and you can destroy him. However, you can only explode up to three times in a row. With each explosion, 'Splosion Man's body grows dimmer, and the explosion grows less powerful. As long as you spend a moment on a solid surface, he'll quickly regenerate, allowing you to continue your scientist-exploding adventures. 'Splosion Man's explosions also serve as his health meter. The more explosions he's used up, the less health he has, and attacks that simply stun 'Splosion Man at full health will kill him if he's out of explosive energy.
'Splosion Man doesn't gain any new abilities as the game progresses. Exploding is, and remains, your own ability. Instead, the game continues to throw new obstacles and challenges at you that alter the way your explosion powers work. Icy mist can prevent you from exploding unless you find a way past it. Fire can instantly replenish your exploding powers, even in mid-air. Most importantly, exploding in front of a barrel will cause a unique effect, depending on the barrel. Barrels with different attributes will appear as the game progresses, including ones that send you rocketing in a pre-determined direction, ones that simply boost your jump, and even reinforced barrels you can launch to smash far-away targets. The explosions from certain barrels can even replenish your explosion energy, allowing you to get to previously inaccessible places. Barrels tend to require careful timing, though, so you'll usually have to complete a puzzle to move a barrel into position in order to explode on it; missed timing means having to reactivate the barrel and try again.
By and large, 'Splosion Man is not a game about combat. Most of the "enemies" in the game are defenseless scientists. They'll try to block your path with obstacles, but if you can get next to them, they'll turn into meat with one explosion. You'll find the occasional robot enemies who can only be defeated by exploding on them from behind, by reflecting their attacks back at them, or by blocking their fire with a chunky donut-loving scientist, but even then, they're as much puzzles as enemies. The only real combat comes in the game's three boss stages, where players have to battle powerful enemies to proceed. Boss fights tend to be a matter of using the bosses' own attacks against them, whether it's by reflecting them or tricking them into damaging themselves. Once you've got their gimmick down, they're fairly easy to defeat.
'Splosion Man has excellent level design. Each level feels unique and different, and the way new gameplay mechanics are introduced is gradual and entertaining. Most mechanics are self-explanatory, and you'll figure out what to do with them quickly. Anything that is unusual or a little complex with get a brief, but hilarious, cut scene beforehand demonstrating what sort of things you need to do in order to solve this particular obstacle. The goal of every level is to find your way to the exit at the end of the level, which is only the most basic and simple way to finish a stage. Each stage in the game is designed not just to be finished, but also to be finished as quickly and efficiently as possible. There are sometimes multiple paths through puzzles or rare single-use "speed boosts" that can cut a lot of time off your high score, assuming you don't screw up and have to restart from a checkpoint.
Be warned that 'Splosion Man is an odd game as far as difficulty goes. Dying is a minor inconvenience at best, and with infinite lives, you'll never be in danger of running out of chances. The level progress is slow and well-paced, and you'll be introduced to more complex mechanics in such a way that you never feel blindsided by them. However, the game can be unforgiving in places, and while most of it is fairly even in difficulty, there are some sudden spikes that could leave less patient gamers a bit frustrated. Even skilled gamers should expect to find themselves dying often in some segments, at least their first time through. Players who die a lot will also be offered the chance to skip the rest of the level. By taking the Way of the Coward, you'll hop forward a level, although 'Splosion Man and the player will have to suffer a little humiliation in exchange.
In addition to the roughly five- hour main story line mode, 'Splosion Man offers a number of extra gameplay modes. Those gamers with a friend will be able to play 'Splosion Man multiplayer. The second player will take control of a blue 'Splosion Man, and the duo will go through levels together. This allows access to new moves and puzzles that wouldn't be possible with just one 'Splosion Man, and it should lend a heck of a lot of replay value to the game. There are also Time Trial modes, which allow players to go back to previous stages and try to best their high scores or go through a favorite level again. For those gamers who found 'Splosion Man too easy, the game also offers a "Hardcore" difficulty. In Hardcore, any enemy can kill you in one hit, and the game removes all checkpoints, which should make it a real blast for gamers who love to challenge themselves.
'Splosion Man is really a charming game to watch. The main character is brightly animated, with a variety of cute or hilarious animations that really give him a very charming air. It's hard not to laugh when you start running down a hallway, only for 'Splosion Man to hold his arms outward and make airplane noises. Almost everything in the game is instantly identifiable at a glance, making it easy to adapt to the quickly changing levels. The 2.5-D level design is put to great effect, with the camera twisting and turning to give you a better view of certain situations, or zooming in and out when the game calls for it.
However, the game does have some problems. When the camera zooms out extremely far, it can become hard to keep track of 'Splosion Man, especially when he's almost out of explosions and is extremely dimly lit. This really shows in the final boss battle, where the most challenging part of the stage isn't defeating the boss, but figuring out where 'Splosion Man or the enemies are located. There also isn't a tremendous variety in the level artwork, and while the game's design doesn't overstay its welcome, it certainly could have used a little more variation.
The game hits all the right tones when it comes to music and audio, though. The soundtrack fits the levels perfectly, and the various sound effects mesh extremely well with the background music. The music meshes well with the humor as well. Any time you have 'Splosion Man pick up a donut-loving scientist, the game will begin humming a cheerful catchy tune about how much everyone loves donuts. The 'Splosion Man character is hilarious, with his barely coherent random mumblings and quips.
'Splosion Man is one of the most enjoyable and unique platform games I've played in years. The gameplay is simple to pick up but full of complexities to master. The level design is consistently fun and rarely aggravating, and the game is forgiving enough that almost any gamer can eventually make his way through. There's also plenty here for hardcore gamers, with the time trials and Hardcore mode offering enough challenges to test even the most skilled gamers. Most importantly, the game drips with charm and humor, and it's a joy to watch and to play. For the price of a mere 800 Microsoft points, it's a real bargain as well. Anyone with an Xbox 360 really owes it to themselves to give this strange little platformer a try.Score: 9.0/10
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