After a year-long DSiWare detour, the Art Style series has returned to WiiWare with one of the series' most action-oriented entries so far. It may look like a simple racer, but as the Art Style series has proven time and time again that looks can be deceiving.
light trax is an updated version of the Japan-only bit Generations game dotstream. On the surface it seems like a minimalist racing game: as a white beam of light, you zip and boost around courses in order to reach the end of the track before your six other opponents do. Points are awarded depending on where you place in your tour's three courses, similar to Mario Kart, and placing first overall allows you to open up additional tours (of which there are five in total).
That's about where the racing conventions end. Despite the racing veneer, light trax is a puzzle game at heart. It's not so much about driving really fast (although there is plenty of that) as it is about technique and positioning, figuring out the best way to take advantage of both the course and your opponents. In that sense it's more of an action puzzler than it is a racer.
For one, there's no dedicated accelerator button. When left alone in a straight line your beam moves at a predetermined pace; turning, braking and course hazards will slow you down. Instead, you're dependent on your opponents and the course to gain speed: driving in the lane immediately next to another light beam ("drafting") will build your boost meter, and passing an opponent will give you a short little extra burst. Driving willy-nilly away from the pack won't get you very far as you'll have limited opportunities to go faster than your predetermined top speed. Several tracks do have boost arrows and speed power-ups though, and you're also able to cash in your limited beam health as boost when your meter is too low. This adds a nice risk-and-reward element; slamming into an obstacle with no health left ends the race, so you best be sure that depleting it for extra speed won't screw you over down the line.
And there are plenty of opportunities for screwage because two beams can't travel down the exact same path. If you try to turn into another beam's path you'll pass right through until you hit an untrodden lane, and if a wall is on the other end then you'll bounce right back to where you were. As a result you really have to pay attention and think about when and where you want to shift yourself, as not only does a potentially long turn slow you down somewhat, you might pop back out in a place that's right on track for a health-depleting wall or other hazard. It's a clever system that works very well once you wrap your head around it, and it can be an absolutely deadly skill in the right hands. On the flip side, if you start to lag behind in races it can be really tough to get your bearings back because of lane hogging. With six other beams racing around, large chunks of the track will be unavailable to drive on and, depending on the complexity of the course, it becomes a little too easy to veer off into race-destroying obstacles.
Conquering a tour doesn't automatically unlock the next one; to access it you'll need to hop into the new Freeway for a bit. This mode works in both of the ways its name implies: as a free play/practice option with an extendable time limit, and also as a highway to get from point A to B in the game's world. Once you win a tour you need to jump into the Freeway and drive to the newly opened off-ramp in order to unlock the next set of tracks for play. It's a welcome change of pace between tours as it's generally more relaxed and oddly hypnotic. You can cruise for score in this mode as well, or see just how far you can get without the time running down. The exclusion of online leaderboards is unfortunate as Freeway would be a great place to be humbled by the skill of friends and strangers, so you'll have to make do with good ol' photos of your television to prove your prowess.
Probably the most obvious change overall from dotstream is the viewing angle. On the GBA the action was always seen from a top-down/side-on angle, but Skip mixes things up by allowing the camera (and course) to shift perspective mid-race. The races largely function in the same way, but the shift makes the courses feel much more open than before and also allows them to incorporate new types of terrain, like bumps and boxes that can be traveled over.
The minimalist aesthetic carries over very well to larger screens, staying faithful to the original while still looking fresh with its vibrant neon colors and lovely techno beats. But just because it's minimalist doesn't mean details are brushed over, far from it in fact. From the satisfying little whoosh as you overtake a beam to the special animation that plays as you shut down the console from within the game, there are tons of nice little touches here. It's so minimalist there isn't even really much of an in-game tutorial to wrap your head around the different mechanics: the demo mode shows a video of someone playing along with a controller overlay to show what buttons have been pressed, but you have to figure out yourself what the beam is doing and why. Unless you've read this review, of course. Which you have.
Don't be fooled by the racing appearance, as light trax is just as much a puzzle game able to hold its strategic own against any other entry in the Art Style series. It's full of unconventional and clever ideas executed through an attractive neon minimalist style that can satisfy fans of both genres, especially those who have grown weary of the typical fare each tends to offer.