Review: escapeVektor: Chapter 1 (WiiWare)

Virtual world, real quality

After the delightful Pop (and its various offshoots), it seemed a bit like Nnooo was taking a break from game development. The studio released several applications through DSiWare, and while they were quite good, gamers might be forgiven for assuming that the company's future releases would gravitate more toward "useful" than "fun." Now Nnooo has released escapeVektor: Chapter 1 to remind us all that not only is the team still interested in games, but that it can also to deliver one of the finest experiences on the entire WiiWare service.

escapeVektor: Chapter 1 is brilliant. There are no other words to describe it, though, so that this review isn't the shortest in Nintendo Life's history, we're going to have to try to find some.

The game takes place over the course of 30 levels, which are divided among five worlds. When you start playing, you'll find yourself controlling a simple arrow, tracing your way around basic rectangular shapes. Stick with it, though, because before long you'll start to realise that you're not controlling an arrow at all; you are guiding an electronic personality known as Vektor, and the lines, rectangles and obstacles are really abstract representations of a sinister virtual world, where the danger to Vektor is very real, and you are responsible for both his life and his sanity.

The notion of this virtual world owes at least something to the excellent PC game Darwinia. The geometric representations of "real" personalities in a computer-generated world reminds us strongly of that game, as do the subtly cruel atmosphere and the fact that a character within the game hacks the CPU to expand your options and abilities as you play. The comparison, though, is a flattering one, and it speaks to the immense quality of escapeVektor: Chapter 1 that it can be mentioned in the same sentence as Darwinia and yet emerge with an identity and personality all its own.

As mentioned above, the levels consist of you guiding Vektor — yes, guiding; the game makes it clear that he is an autonomous personality, and you don't "control" him at all — through stages that consist of rectangular shapes. By tracing every line in these shapes you can reveal the exit; reach that exit, and the level ends. It's simple! Only there's the small matter of enemies that track you down. And obstacles that destroy you instantly. And switches that change the paths that are safe to take. And invisible shapes that only appear when you fill in enough of the board. And alternate exits, hidden levels, medals and badges based upon performance, more difficult versions of the same levels for those that performed well enough and upgrades and weapons and speed boosts and...

Yeah, there's a lot on offer here. At its simplest, the game is creative, brain-challenging fun. The simple act of tracing the shapes while avoiding enemies is a fun enough experience on its own, but the additional features listed above will all go a long way toward enticing — and rewarding — those gamers who wish to dig deeper, or push themselves even harder. And don't even get us started on the philosophising you can do as the story unfolds...

The badges function as achievements, meant to keep gamers engaged by challenging them to attempt riskier things than might otherwise be necessary to complete a level. The medals are determined by score, and are used to unlock more difficult versions of the game's already-generous 30 levels. Anybody looking to simply complete the game and move on will find at least a few evenings' worth of content here. Those who wish to exhaust everything the game has to offer, though, can expect to spend exponentially more time with it, plumbing the secret levels, unlocking upgrades and shaving down their best times for each level second by precious second, in hopes of unlocking one of the brutal Platinum levels.

Additionally, gameplay upgrades are rolled out at regular intervals, each of which adds to the enjoyability of the game overall. As your speed and offensive capabilities increase it's easy to assume that the game will become that much easier, but then you enter the next level and see that the sadistic CPU is already at least one step ahead of you, so don't rest too easily.

The presentation of this game is phenomenal. For such a simple idea, a great deal of energy was expended upon the visuals, and it shows. The camera zips satisfyingly along with Vektor, angling itself creatively in such interesting ways that you always expect it will interfere with your ability to complete the levels, though it never does. (The ability to zoom out is one of the early unlockable upgrades, for those who dislike this approach to the gameplay, but we loved it.) The virtual world pulses and pops in vivid, gorgeous colour, and it's always easy to see what's around the next corner, even if you might not yet know how to deal with it.

The music is, without qualification, some of the best on WiiWare period. escapeVektor: Chapter 1 easily joins the ranks of World of Goo and the BIT.TRIP series in this regard; the gripping, evolving tunes keep you engaged and focused, and they'll call out to you long after you turn off the game for the night.

There is simply so much that escapeVektor: Chapter 1 gets exactly right that we are not left with much room for complaint. We're not totally in agreement with the game's decision to kick us back to the world map each time we die, forcing us to select the same level again, but that's not much more than a nitpick. A two-player option might indeed have been fun, but it's difficult to imagine that not undermining the game's deliberate sense of desperate isolation.

It's difficult to see anything wrong with escapeVektor: Chapter 1. Nnooo set out to impress gamers, and it should be safe to say that they exceeded even their own high expectations. This game is sharp, challenging, clever, gorgeous, atmospheric, thought-provoking, and, above all else, fun. Oh, and did you see the price? Take a look at the price. Download this game.

Conclusion

escapeVektor: Chapter 1 is, to put it simply, fantastic. Brilliant visual design, unforgettable music and addictive, challenging gameplay all come together to create what is easily one of the finest experiences WiiWare has ever seen. Badges, medals and secret exits all beg loudly for you to replay this game, but even without them you'd have a hard time putting it down. It may not look like much in screenshots, but escapeVektor: Chapter 1 is a deceptively impressive game, and it leaves us with only one complaint: the fact that we can't immediately download Chapter 2.

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