Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Review: Exit

If I were given only two words with which to describe Exit, they would be "wasted potential."  The platform puzzler from developer Moss builds its mechanic around a setup and basic control scheme that we've seen before many times over.  In fact, the platform level may well be among the most well-recognized, beloved, and historically ubiquitous tropes of gaming.  However, the "puzzle" aspect, the core conceit, is designed less around the construction of unique obstacles for our player character to thwart, and more around taking what would under normal circumstances be a series of straightforward platforming levels and making them as frustrating and cumbersome as possible.

Most effective games take an established form or medium and attempt to build on it; to do new things with it which could only be accomplished within the context of interactivity.  Tetris, for example, sans the essential entrapments of motion and control, would be just a simple geometric puzzle, suitable for mucus-laden children to play with in the doctor's office waiting room.  Bejweled would be a matching game, similarly slow-paced and tedious.  The movement, the animation, the ticking clock to race against, and of course, the player's ability to manipulate objects (in ways with which normal, physical objects wouldn't and couldn’t cooperate) make all the difference.

The theme here is that an effective game, especially an effective puzzle game, works by adding things to a simplistic core, not by taking away.  And it seems like Exit does very little but take.
Before I get into that, though, I'd like to take a moment to explore what the game is trying to be, and perhaps could have been:  Exit puts the player in the snazzy comic-art shoes of Mr. ESC, a noir-style silhouette of a dashing hero, complete with extra-pointy fedora and a penchant for striking angular poses.  Along with his sidekick, a cat, he rescues people from burning buildings and precariously tall objects and such on a regular basis. (Because, you know, who ever heard of the fire department?)  His objective in each level of the game is to save the civilians and make his way to the titular endgoal in as little time as possible.

The presentation tries for a slick, anime-inspired cartoon vibe, kind of like a Carmen Bebop or Cowboy Sandiego or something.  All hats and trenchcoats and snarky catchphrases and Bad...butt (It's for kids!) raised eyebrows. It's a style that works well in a very active setting; perfectly suited, really, to the daring, cliched heroic rescue scenario into which Exit would have us delve.

So, here's the problem.  Moss failed to match style with content.  Exit is slow, slow, slow.  Yeah sure, you can run, while holding down a button, but good luck trying to interact with the environment while doing so (the game requires you to interface with an awfully lot of switches and ropes to ascend and descend stories, like a BDSM Chutes and Ladders).  You can jump, but the jump’s negligible duration and the truncated height and angle of each bound keep it from being an efficacious method of traversal.  In order to move objects, pick up items, or rescue a person so they can follow you around and never shut up (seriously, each of the dozen or so characters you must rescue multiple times has about one phrase each for six or seven different situations; it gets really grating way too quickly), you need to be perfectly still, standing right next to the target object.  And I do mean exactly next to it.  One step too close or too far, and you miss the object, which can sometimes spell the difference between success and failure in a given scenario.

Complexifying the tedium is the relentlessly arcane control mapping.  Whereas many games, platformers in particular, strive to make the player-to-character connection as elegant and simple as possible, Exit’s control scheme serves as an obstruction to the ideal 1:1 relationship between Human in Human World and Character in Game World.  In many similarly-designed platformers and adventure games, one button is used to interact with the environment, talk to people and pick up items.  Sometimes that same button is even used to perform traveling motions like the (herein cumbersome) jumps.
Not in Exit, however.  It's like the Apple store in a game – there's a button for everything.  A single button for almost every conceivable action.  There's a button for running, another for jumping, another for picking up objects, another for using those objects, and yet another for interacting with the survivors you rescue.  As if that weren't enough, there's a secondary mode you can switch into using the analog stick (nope, you're not able to use that sucker to move your character - I guess that would have lent too much speed and mobility to a game about, you know, escaping from emergency situations with lives on the line), with its own control scheme.  These are used for directing your followers around the screen.  Some of them are able to lift or move things you can't, some of them can crouch lower, some can jump higher, etc.  You need to use this mode, and your extremely slow, incompetent, and chatty fellow escapees to move forward, which only serves to underscore the frustration at playing a platform puzzler which has created a false difficulty by crippling your means of interacting with it.

In short, Exit writes a check it may originally have been quite capable of cashing, right before overdrawing its account on a 24-pack of Steel Reserve.  There are glimmers of something unique, something flashy, creative, and just overall "cool," but the execution makes the gimmicks, no matter how promising, more irritating than potentially mimetic.  I can't recommend playing Exit unless you really like being frustrated, and you enjoy doing things you've known how to do your whole life (in this case, playing a platformer) except in a more difficult, roundabout, and inconvenient fashion.

I'm having trouble imagining that there are those of you out there who like to put mittens on before tying your shoes, because that's the level of masochism it would take to really get into Exit.  Then again, Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle had like a million sequels, so it’s possible that for some of you, Exit is just the ticket.  But it certainly isn't mine.

Find Exit on ebay | Amazon

Released: 2006-02-14
Publisher: Ubisoft, Taito
Developer: Moss


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