Escape the Virus: Swarm Survival Review
Posted by Morgan Sleeper
Mini-thrills with micro-organisms
Escape the Virus: Swarm Survival, an offshoot of the WiiWare title Viral Survival from a few years back, is a collection of two score-based arcade games that take place under the microscope. While there's not a lot to this simple petri dish offering, what's there is an awful lot of fun and the core mechanics are solid. Like many things viewed under a microscope, there's a good chance it'll grow on you.
There are two game modes in Swarm Survival: Normal and Baby. In the Snake-inspired Normal mode, lifted from the WiiWare game, you move your DNA molecule around the petri dish, avoiding viruses and collecting other DNA molecules that latch on and form your tail; more DNA bits in your cellular conga line means a higher multiplier, and a higher score. If you hit a virus head on, you'll lose a life, but if you swipe one with your tail it'll drop some trailing DNA pieces and keep on going. Any DNA you lose can be recaptured if you're quick enough, introducing a nice high-risk, high-reward twist to the standard Snake formula. Other additions include the ability to jump, sending your double helix flying over viruses, and helpful power-ups which appear on the board from time to time. These either fire homing missiles (as many as there are DNA molecules in your chain) to attack the viruses, or make you invincible and able to eat them for a limited time, Pac-Man-style. They're both welcome changes and careening around the dish gobbling up viruses is particularly satisfying.
The game's second mode, Baby, was built for this DSiWare release, and has you racing around the dish, sweeping up baby DNA's into your belly and returning them safely back to a base. There's a nice risk vs. reward system in place here as well: the more babies you're carrying the slower you move, making you more susceptible to viruses, but you get more points for delivering a larger number of babies to the base at once, so you'll try to hold out for as long as you can before returning to safety. You can even use the little molecules as projectiles if you're in a tight spot, though you can't retrieve them afterwards like in Normal mode. The invincibility power-up makes an appearance here, while the homing missiles are absent. Baby mode is a blast and may be the better of the two, not least because it seems to work a bit better on the small screen — more on that in a second.
The game can be controlled either with the touch screen or button controls, and both work well, though using the buttons does feel a bit snappier. Unfortunately the snappiness of the controls leads to a bit of a problem when combined with the game's camera angles. There are three zoom levels which can be toggled by holding different combinations of the shoulder buttons (either button by itself zooms out from the default view, while pushing them both together will zoom in further), but the game seems to miss a sweet spot between the default and zoomed-out views. In the former, once the board starts to get seriously populated with viruses and your tail gets longer, running into unseen enemies becomes a common occurrence; your plucky DNA chain is just too fast and the field of vision too small to process everything. Zooming out helps immensely, but also makes the sprites teeny enough that distinguishing between friend and foe can sometimes be a problem when the dish fills up. It's certainly not game-breaking, but it does lead to some cheap deaths from time to time. That said, it's only really an issue for Normal mode, thanks to the lack of a tail and slower movement in Baby.
There's not a particularly high level of polish in the presentation of the game — menus are clunky and utilitarian, and don't seem to fit in with the theme particularly well. Swarm Survival is a single-player-only experience, and while it keeps track of your five highest scores for each mode, this being a 200 Point title there are no online leaderboards. To make up for this, the game ranks each of your high scores internally with categories like “Getting better” and “Progress★”, so at least you know how you're doing in the developers' minds. Rather oddly, there's no way to attach a name to your high score, which means players sharing a game system will just have to remember who has top bragging rights. There are a also few odd translation moments, with the game's lowest rank for high scores designated as “New comer”.
The graphics are chunky but bright and lively, and your little DNA has a lot more personality than you might expect. Its single pupil swings around wildly, helpfully pointing you towards stray DNA molecules and turning heart-shaped when a power-up materialises on the board, and anime-inspired beads of sweat appear when you narrowly avoid a virus.
There's only one main music track for both modes, and while it's funky and catchy, it'll get old fast if it's not your thing. Barring the rather obnoxious menu sounds (why clown horns?), the sound effects fit the tone of the game, and having the smaller DNA molecules give a cheerleader-shout of either “D!”, “N!”, or “A!” (depending on their colour) is a particularly endearing touch.
Like the petri dish in which it takes place, Escape the Virus: Swarm Survival is shallow, but there's fun to be found. It's quick, hectic and has that “one more try” quality that makes for a good on-the-go game. It's let down by slightly lacklustre presentation and having no way to compare your high scores with friends, and the difficulty is artificially inflated by the small screen resolution, but for 200 Points these are quibbles. If the concept appeals to you and you enjoy beating your own records, you'll have a good time surviving this swarm.