Review: Art Style: Penta Tentacles (WiiWare)

Tentacular spectacular

The Art Style series certainly stands out as one of the safer bets in Nintendo's stable of downloadable software. These are puzzle games with a minimalist aesthetic and focus on simple gameplay; it's like the Tate Modern of gaming only with content and a price point that's accessible by everyone. Though given an unfortunate title in Europe, Penta Tentacles is the latest entry in the series and our current favourite.

In this game you're given direct control over some kind of virtual organism floating about as if drifting through murky water, with the object being to absorb some of your fellow planktonic life-forms, lengthening your tentacles to the goal length indicated at the beginning of the game. The mechanics are quite simple: each tentacle is a different colour and you need to ensure that only creatures of the same colour touch it in order to absorb them. If an organism of a different colour touches a tentacle then it will break at the point touched (unless it's already at goal length) and you'll lose a life.

Aiding you are some simple controls: you move your creature about with the (DPAD) and press (1) and (2) to rotate clockwise and anticlockwise respectively. In addition to this default sideways Remote configuration, the Classic Controller is also supported and we actually preferred that option, using the left stick for movement (also providing graduated speed control) and the right stick or a and b buttons for rotation. We found use of the second analogue stick for rotation afforded a greater degree of precision and made reactions more instinctive than pressing buttons, but both schemes work well.

Though the goals are simple, it would be a mistake to think of this game as easy. The default game mode can increase in difficulty simply by increasing the number of tentacles on your creature from the starting two to three and finally four, with each of these sub-modes having five stages of progressive difficulty that must be completed in order to unlock the next. You may be wondering why the game is called "Penta" tentacles when we've only made mention of the appearance of two-, three- and four-tentacle modes, but all we can say is that not all of the unlockables are immediately apparent. Though some might be annoyed at having to unlock additional game modes or the option to play with a greater number of tentacles, we feel the gradual progression is a good way to ensure players don't start in over their heads and go away frustrate.

Each of the five stages contains different planktonic lifeforms that vary in their behaviour. Some drift slowly, others move erratically and some will aggressively pursue you. The early stages of the two-tentacle normal mode game give you a goal of ten segments, whilst the final two require fifteen. This can be quite a tall order when the screen is swarming with creatures out to snip your tentacles, so it's understandable that the three- and four-tentacle stages only require lengths of ten – anything more than that would be frustratingly difficult. You only need to lose all segments in a tentacle once when playing with three or more tentacles to see that rebuilding them can be extremely difficult as the game is rather unforgiving when it comes to organisms hitting the small gaps between coloured segments on your organism's main body disc. When your tentacles are near or at their maximum length you'll need to be careful of your movements in a crowded environment as even the act of moving away from something cause you to lose a life. Clearly whether long or short, the more tentacles you have the more challenging the game becomes!

Thankfully there are two items that will help you in your quest for long tentacles: bonus hearts that restore lives and a star that grants the ability to perform a cyclone move, which gives you a short burst of invulnerability allowing you to freely collect nearby organisms for big bonuses, though you'll need room to rotate in order to charge it up. In the harder stages you're likely to use this power a lot, so there's a special achievement given for completing a stage without resorting to it.

Once you've completed all fives stages of the two-tentacle game, the ability to play with three-tentacles is unlocked as well as the two-tentacle endless mode. Endless mode differs from the normal game primarily in two ways: you play for points rather than the best completion time (as is the case in normal mode) and your goal is to absorb a set number of organisms, whilst your tentacles can achieve any length you can maintain.

Once you've tried the Endless mode a third game mode, "Snake Mode" will be unlocked. This game is also endless, but sees you controlling a creature with two "sides" but only one tentacle. You'll want to grow your tentacle as usual with the non-tentacled side being used to destroy organisms of unlike colours. This game is much more like the classic game of Snake than the other modes, though the mechanics are the same and the "collapse" items from the Endless Mode also make an appearance to help you attain maximum tentacular growth. As with Endless mode your best score will be recorded, though disappointingly there's no entering of initials or even linkage to individual player profiles, so bragging rights are down to the honour system and remembering who got which score in multi-player households.

Visually this game very much resembles an Electroplankton title, with the organisms all resembling extremely tiny single-celled animals (though lacking cutesy faces). The mutely-lit backgrounds feature shadows of underwater plants or bacteria, adding to impression of murky water filtering sunlight in a tropical river or lake. Organisms come in from the sides of the multi-screen playfield, indicated by fuzzy, glowing blobs until they come into play or you get close to them; a nice alternative to a radar display and keeps the screen clear from distractions. The animations are all quite lifelike and the physics of the tentacle motion are excellent – you really do feel like you're moving around some alien creature in a science lab fish tank. Hitting the wrong-coloured organism is suitably jarring – your creature will shudder as if attacked whilst tentacle parts break off and fade away accompanied by a sharp popping sound which had us blurting out "Ouch!" every time it happened.

Special mention must be made of the soundtrack, which defies easy categorisation and includes elements of traditional Japanese and other "world roots" music as well as electronic beats. Taking a page from the Bit.Trip games, rotating your organism produces a congo drum beat which blends in nicely with the other background rhythms. You'll find yourself either erratically rotating back-and-forth to improvise along with the soundtrack or constantly rotating for both the visual and aural aesthetics. We'd say you owe it to yourself to play this game with headphones at least once, though given the absorbing visuals and gameplay you may find it hard to resurface from that level of auditory immersion.

Conclusion

Art Style: Penta Tentacles is a real treat for the senses: it's visually beautiful and controls well with an outstanding soundtrack that engages and immerses the player into the simple, but compelling gameplay. Given the low price point, it's almost a gift and we think it's one of the best games in the series yet.