Review: ColorZ (WiiWare)

It’s a colourful world we live in.

ColorZ is a game whose trailer captured the attentions of many with its vibrant colours against light backgrounds and novel colour fusion mechanic. The sight of gently drifting UFOs floating through groups of stationary enemies accompanied by an ambient/trance techno soundtrack and no shooting in sight created the impression it was the kind of game you could chill out with late at night for an hour or so of blissful psychedelia. It will come as something of a rude shock to many that this is one of the more challenging games you're likely to come across on WiiWare, requiring sharp focus and rarely providing a moment to rest.

There's no story as such, though given that game features are introduced by a moustached alien with colour-changing eyes who looks like the result of a grey-human hybrid utilising DNA from Che Guevara, it's possible that you're part of a military operation to rid your planet of nasty colourful monsters resembling gear cogs with skulls. Then again the rumpled-looking olive drab uniform and laid-back posture combined with the goatees and funky hairstyles of the aliens in the UFOs could mean you're the pest control at an alien beatnik hotel tasked with wiping out a nasty infestation.

After choosing 1-player mode (1-, 2- and 3-player games all have their own save profiles and separate ranking tables), creating a profile (up to five in each mode) and selecting the 1st level in World 1, Che's alien love-child tells you the basics of the game: namely that you can absorb like-coloured enemies by colliding with them whilst colliding with enemies of other colours will cost you a life. There are discs which will change your colour to assist with unlike coloured enemies in places, though if you want extra points you can "scratch" enemies of a different colour by brushing against them; the longer you scratch them the more points you get.

Your goal is to float through a level filled with enemies of matching and non-matching colours and dock at a winged platform resembling a silver womb with a mohawk after which your score will be totalled and a medal awarded based upon the number of lives spent along the way. You get gold for completing the level with no loss of life, silver for losing 1-4 lives and bronze for being happy just to finish. Points are awarded for medal rankings which will unlock later levels and worlds in the game with gold netting 3, silver 2 and bronze 1. There are four worlds in total with 5 levels each in 1-player mode. Having the ability to unlock later levels by getting higher medal totals on already completed levels will come in handy once the kid gloves are off.

This happens rather quickly on level 2 of World 1. After introducing the like colour = good, different colour = bad and colour-changing disc concepts in level one, a second UFO joins your mission and bonus hearts are made available which grant extra lives. Level three introduces the key concept of colour "fusion": combining your ships to make new colours based upon the colour blending principles of light rather than pigment. Combining the new green ship with your starting red one creates one yellow ship. Changing one of the ships to blue introduces combinations of red and blue to create purple and green and blue to make cyan. This seems pretty straightforward, but in practise is anything but and that is down to the controls, which are amongst the most difficult you're likely to encounter in a game.

The difficulty stems not from the usually encountered problems like badly implemented motion controls, but because they ask the player to perform actions that are at the limit of what most human beings are generally capable of in terms of coordination. The second ship introduced in level 2 is directed by the control stick on the Nunchuk, whilst your primary ship is moved with the pointer. The level moves along gently with good separation between groups of green and red enemies so that little movement is required and isn't terribly challenging. Level 3 stands in sharp contrast introducing bends and turns in the paths of red and green enemies bordered by non-matching blue which quickly raises the difficulty as trying to divide your attention between the two ships, which need to move in sometimes opposite directions, will stretch your limits of concentration. A tip is displayed indicating that the primary ship can be locked in place by pressing the C button; whilst this is helpful you cannot direct attention away for long because both ships are constantly moving in one direction or another due to the scrolling screen. The fact that the primary ship is bound to the pointer with direction indicated by a large cursor means target fixation is likely resulting in mixing up which interface controls which ship. At this point gold medals become an impossible dream. Of course you can fuse to get back to a single pointer-controlled ship, but since there's no yellow to be found in level 3 that's not something that will help for long.

And then there's level 4 which introduces a 3rd (blue) ship which is controlled by the d-pad. So now you have three ships with three different interfaces and the need to move any one of them to clear a path for the others. Add in places where you'll need to switch between fusing various pair combinations to progress and maze areas where all three ships need to take separate paths and this is probably going to be the make-or-break level for many players. You can get through areas even if a life is lost because there's a recovery time of decent length allowing you to bull your way through given enough bonus lives are available, but whether or not simply getting through a level is fun is debatable. If you persevere and get past level 4 you'll be happy to note that controlling 3 ships at once is not the standard for the rest of the game. If it was that really would be the end of the game for all but the ETs amongst us!

Che from Ork helpfully suggests concentrating harder in the event you lose all your lives and have to restart the level and if this happens enough further recommends possibly playing an earlier level again. This actually isn't a bad idea, because after struggling to control three ships on screen, two will suddenly feel quite manageable! As long as we're discussing Che's helpful messages it's worth pointing out that they always repeat and cannot be turned off. Even if you get gold in a level every time it is replayed you'll get the same screen as if you were a novice. You can speed up the text by pressing the A button repeatedly, but you'll always need to skip it; given some messages pop-up in the 1st five levels mid-game it gets quite annoying very quickly -- especially since your primary UFO must be pointed at with the cursor to get moving again after every interruption.

Subsequent levels in later worlds will have one ship with a colour other than red running a gauntlet of different coloured enemies that move about in pursuit or create a maze that must be navigated as it's created. Speed-up and slow-down items are introduced as well as "evolved" enemies (now resembling poker chips with cyclops eyes) which you can pass through, but aren't destroyed by the touch of your ship. A few of these are great fun, but interspersed are brutally difficult challenges of coordination that will stymie many.

It's a shame the difficulty is such that many solo gamers are unlikely to check it out because ColorZ has an attention to detail that shows a good deal of care went into the game: the main menu interface has a cursor which looks like E.T.'s finger -- complete with glowing tip, and pause and option menus feature a central disc which rotates and changes colour to match the option selected. Animations in the game are nicely done with aliens in the UFOs bobbing their heads in time to the music and enemies smoothly changing formations to create obstacles for players. The 3D-rendered enemies swivel their skulls/eyes to track the player ships in a sinister fashion as they drift through their midst, and have colours so vibrant that they jump off the screen, resembling garish candies in rainbow hues inviting enough to touch.

Audio is likewise quality with the therapeutic sounds of bubble wrap popping when hitting like-coloured enemies and a strong electrical jolt when hitting different ones. Less appreciated is Che's apparent declaration of LOSER! when you lose all your lives, but this is compensated for by a lovely trance/ambient techno soundtrack which will find you bobbing your head along with the beatnik aliens.

More accessible are the multi-player modes where each player controls a different ship using the pointer only. The levels in these modes are the two and three ship levels from the single-player game. As a consequence there are fewer levels on offer with the two-player game having 14 and the 3-player game 9 levels to progress through. Higher levels are unlocked via medal rankings as in the 1-player game and Grey Che repeats the same instruction messages over and over again, but it's good fun and requires players to communicate with each other and cooperate to succeed. In what seems a bizarre oversight the Nunchuk is required for two- and three-player games despite having no function other than the fuse button being mapped to Z as well as B on the Remote. Many households may have multiple Remotes, but not necessarily multiple Nunchuks so the audience is further reduced for the best modes of play in the game. If the controls could be remapped an optional Nunchuk might makes sense, but the only configuration choices in the game are the volume levels for music and sound effects, so players will just end up with useless Nunchuks in their laps which is a bit silly.

When the game is at its best there's fun to be had racing through patterns of different coloured enemies and enjoying the scenery whilst trying to pick out a path and deciding which colours to choose. At its worst it's like a horrible game of rubbing your belly and patting your head to get a high score with ships having to split-up, rejoin and fuse to navigate mazes whilst dodging moving enemies. In those levels more concentration is required than for a timed Sudoku game simply to coordinate your movements effectively! If you like difficult games, it's probably because of the tactics and reflexes demanded -- not challenging controls.

Conclusion

ColorZ is a reasonable WiiWare debut from developer Exkee: the attention to detail, colourful graphics and quality soundtrack are complemented by a solid gameplay mechanic which seems targeted at creating a fun multi-player experience. The central single-player mode offered works well enough, but provides a degree of challenge that is likely to put many off simply because most of the time one player is doing the job of two or three. Altering the mechanics of the single-player game could have made it more appealing to a broader range of gamers, but as it stands it can only be recommended for multi-player sessions or gamers who are up for a high level of challenge and have a lot of patience.

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