Arctic Escape revolves around guiding a group of adorable little critters past obstacles and away from fatal hazards, herding them in an orderly fashion through an exit so that the next stage can load and you can do it all over again.
Sound familiar? It should: it's the gameplay formula that made the Lemmings series so immediately addictive, popular, and memorable. But Arctic Escape is no simple clone. It brings enough to the table to serve as a unique experience in its own right, and that's a very good thing. Unfortunately, it also comes with its own unique problems and drawbacks, which we will discuss in a moment.
In each of the levels you will be responsible for providing safe passage for a group of penguins who shuffle forward mindlessly until they hit a wall, at which point they will turn around and walk in the opposite direction. Of course, this wouldn't be much of a game if you didn't have the ability to alter that pattern somehow, and indeed you are given a palette of icons to choose from that represent different commands.
At first, you will just be guiding them passively around corners, away from crevices, and over narrow bridges toward the exit. It's an exercise that becomes repetitive only the second time you're asked to do it, and it continues without significant deviation for some time.
Fortunately the puzzles do get much more complicated (and exciting) before long, so it's worth muddling through. (Or should that be "waddling?") Just try not to write the game off before you make it to the second world. It'll be tempting, but if you stick with it, you're likely to be glad you did.
Unlike Lemmings, you won't be assigning tasks to these creatures so much as you will be suggesting paths for them. The commands you can issue (which you "place" on the field with your stylus, and which are triggered when a penguin walks over them) consist only of simple directions (up, down, left, right), jump, and wait. This leads to puzzles that involve keeping your penguins in constant circulation rather than assigning them busywork. It also forces you to get creative with your solutions, as you can't simply demolish a barrier, or build a bridge over a gap.
It takes a little getting used to, but the constant movement of the penguins is a rewarding challenge. You will often find yourself guiding them into a circular pattern to keep them safe, then letting one penguin out of that pattern toward a switch that needs to be thrown, and then back into another pattern to keep it from throwing that same switch again and undoing your work. And once the levels get more complicated, you can easily find yourself juggling two, three, four or more streams of penguins, all pursuing different paths and assisting the progress of other streams.
The simplicity of the commands is a big help, as it's never difficult to remember what each one does. It also required the developers to design legitimately clever puzzles, as opposed to the pixel-perfect gauntlets that sometimes plagued the Lemmings series.
All in all, you will have to guide your penguins through eight worlds of about ten levels each, and you are able to revisit previous stages in order to save more penguins. Levels are unlocked based upon the total number of penguins you've successfully guided to safety, so it's certainly worth revisiting old stages.
But all is not perfect in the world of Arctic Escape. For starters, the layout of the commands is a game-long irritation. By placing the icons in a row along the bottom of the touch screen, the developers caused a problem for players: it's difficult to rest the stylus over the icons – so that you can tap them at a moment's notice – without your hand obscuring the action on the screen. For a game that requires twitch-like responsiveness more and more as the game progresses, it gets quite frustrating when you're always trying to see around the obstacle of your own hand.
This problem could have been solved by lining the icons up along the right-hand edge of the screen, or by assigning shortcuts to some of the buttons on the DSi. As it stands, every button on the system is used to slide the screen around in order to see different parts of the map. We definitely didn't need that mapped to anything but the D-Pad, and since we can slide the screen around with the stylus anyway, we probably didn't even need that. Shortcuts mapped to the buttons should have been a no-brainer.
And speaking of sliding the screen around, that leads to our second issue with the game: the frame rate. When the penguins just mill around and you sit still, pondering your course of action, there is no problem: everything animates smoothly and the game looks quite good, but once you start scrolling to other areas, the game chokes on its frame rate and the animation becomes extremely jerky. Once you release the camera again the problem is resolved, but it's definitely an irritation, especially when you're trying to pan along a path of penguins to make sure they're progressing safely, and the game becomes borderline-unresponsive.
This, in turn, leads us to our third complaint: the lack of any ability to stop the penguins so that you can survey the area. As soon as the level begins, the penguins start moving, and they don't stop until they die or escape. While the developers obviously wanted to instill a sense of urgency in the gamer, this goes a bit far. For starters, the entire level is never visible to the player at once, meaning they will always need to scroll ahead to see what's coming. When they do this, they leave penguins behind, moving around off camera.
This can result in penguins walking into traps or hazards without you even realising it. The developer's penchant for placing traps in the starting area compounds the problem, as it means you're often going to return from a few seconds of recon in order to find a penguin or two already out of commission. In fact, one level saw us return to the starting area only to find that all but two penguins had been killed. How? We still don't know. We're sure it was a legitimate hazard (rather than, say, a glitch), but because we had to look ahead to figure out a gameplan, we didn't see it happen, and still have no idea where they went.
The ability to pause the action while still being allowed to scroll the screen would have eliminated this problem. Yes, there is an option to make the penguins "wait," but it's very temporary, and must be assigned to each penguin individually, making it quite an unsuitable substitute.
But those are problems that can be mitigated somewhat by a gamer being prepared for them. There might be aspects of Arctic Escape that we wish were different, and those aspects might indeed have affected our enjoyment to some extent, but, in the end, it's still a good time, and a great deal of the puzzles require some very clever use of your limited resources.
It's a fun experience, which is what matters most, and by packaging that experience with some cute, bouncy music and adorable visuals (seriously, you've never wanted to hug a wolf so much), Teyon has given us a unique and interesting DSiWare experience, albeit one with a few unfortunate design choices.
Arctic Escape is flawed enough that many gamers are likely to turn away, but those who decide to stick with it will be rewarded with some clever puzzles and gameplay. It certainly draws inspiration from the Lemmings series, but it's easily different enough to stand on its own merit. How much you enjoy it is bound to be determined by how tolerant you are of stuttering framerates and awkward design choices, but with these kinks ironed out, Arctic Escape would have been a universal recommendation.