The Splatters for Xbox Live Arcade is touted as a puzzle title with a unique hook. It's most easily compared to the popular PopCap title, Peggle, but even that comparison is a bit of a stretch. It certainly borrows some design aesthetic from Peggle, featuring brightly colored stages, simple design mechanics, and a propensity to constantly push you into new content. However, the gameplay is wildly different and wholly distinctive.
The Splatters gives you control of a number of gooey blobs, dubbed Splatters, which you can propel around a small stage to activate and destroy a number of small bombs that are usually clustered around different areas. To ignite them, you need to liquefy your Splatters over the bombs in order to trigger explosions. However, it's never quite that simple. Most bombs are in hard-to-reach places, clustered together in large groups, and often spread across the stage in a number of clusters. To ignite all the bombs, you need to make use of the ample trick mechanic, which gives you a variety of ways to splatter your blobs all over the place.
The trick system is pretty much the crux of the game. As you're introduced to the tools through a lengthy tutorial segment that slowly doles out new abilities, you'll find that you can do a lot more than make your Splatters jump around the room by pressing the A button. The list of tricks is pretty extensive, and knowing when and where to employ the tricks is key to getting the highest score or achieving the maximum three-star ranking for each stage.
The most basic ability is to launch your Splatter around the room by holding down the A button. This charges up a limited jump ability, but you have limited control over Splatters in midair. You can bounce around a stage without exploding, provided you don't hit any hard edges or spikes, so you have some room to line up your finishing moves.
When it comes time to explode and rain down liquid goo on the bombs you're trying to destroy, you'll need to utilize the rest of the tricks. These range from simply tapping the A button a second time in midair, which allows you to propel yourself toward any direction, or you can slide along a curved surface and pick up velocity by manipulating time with the left and right triggers on the controller.
Other tricks are less practical and more for scoring purposes, like doing a Split, which uses a bowling term to describe blowing up distant bombs with a single shot. The game does a pretty good job of giving you both audio and visual cues for these shots, so even if you didn't intend to do a particular trick, you're never left guessing what had transpired.
More advanced mechanics involve using your Splatter to manipulate the locations of bombs, often running into them and knocking distant bombs into a group, and then triggering an explosion to rain down goo. You can even manipulate the momentum of the bombs you've moved with the left and right triggers, allowing you a limited fast-forward and rewind ability that means the remnants of your exploded Splatter can trickle down to bombs that would typically be out of reach.
The more advanced mechanics are difficult to explain on paper but are worth seeking out video of because they sell you on how The Splatters works. I was on the fence with the game until I checked out videos through the Splatter TV function, which is tucked away into the game's main menu. This allows you to upload and watch player replays, organized by best score and favorites, with a ranking system to tag the best replays. There are some incredibly impressive runs on Splatter TV, and some of them opened my eyes to the possibilities.
To a certain degree, you can view that as a bad thing because even though the game has a lengthy tutorial section that comprises one-third of the stages, it never gives you a proper example of what the tricks are capable of doing. Plenty of people could figure out the proper way to play the game, but for the more casual audience, which is the game's target demographic, boredom and frustration will set in if they don't grasp the more advanced gameplay concepts.
Beyond the tutorial stages, which are dubbed "Become a Talent" in the menu, there are a number of stages in two different categories, Combo Nation and Master Shots. Combo Nation involves scenarios that allow you to chain together successive bomb explosions, and it tends to be tougher than anything found in Become a Talent. Become a Talent and Combo Nation track scores and star rankings, with a maximum of three stars in each stage. Scores are automatically uploaded to online leaderboards, and on the stage select screen, there's a handy friend score comparison feature.
Master Shots is different in that it isn't score-based and doesn't have any leaderboard function. It's also definitely the toughest of the three, typically only giving you one Splatter to manipulate and requiring you to nail a number of tricks to pass the stage. The tricks are displayed in the background and use their unique symbols to tell you what to do, and the stages work more as actual puzzles than anything else you'll encounter.
Visually, The Splatters isn't what I'd call striking, but its simplistic, colorful look certainly benefits the gameplay. It's easy to track what's going on with each stage and figure out a way to manipulate each Splatter into every bomb. Of course, it's a little tougher to achieve high scores and knock friends from leaderboards, but the stages are smartly designed in a way that an optimal path can typically be found with some thought. My only complaint with the visuals is that the bombs can sometimes get a little lost in the action, especially when they are divided up and become one standalone orb; they'll sometimes blend in with the stage, and that can be aggravating.
The music in The Splatters isn't anything to write home about, though, and more often than not, I found its repetitive soundtrack to grate on my nerves. It didn't take much playing before I muted the TV and resorted to other sources for audio. I doubt that there's a particular track in the game that anyone will find pleasing.
All in all, The Splatters is an interesting puzzle game that is more fun to play as you gradually grow to understand it. It doesn't always do a great job of explaining itself to the player, and it can be frustrating to learn, but when everything clicks, you'll definitely have some fun with it. It's certainly not a flawless experience, but it is worth checking out.
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