What kind of gaming can we expect to see out of Sony's entrant in the handheld arena? In the launch line-up, we've already seen that the usual PlayStation suspects will be there: racers, sports games, action titles and platformers, we've already got in a steady supply. But what about the kinds of games that have been handheld staples -- the puzzle and strategy games, the indies and the original concepts? These are the kind of games that deserve a gamer's attention but can't get it on consoles and PCs except in the rarest of circumstances because of the noise made by the triple-A, Hollywood-produced titles. On portables in the past, these games have thrived and earned their audiences. But the PSP raises the bar on portable gaming -- will this also push out the scrappers and eccentrics?
From what we can see, the PSP crowd is game for alternative games -- the critical and commercial success of the post-modern puzzlerLumines is proof of that. But the bar has certainly been raised, and it's likely that even great ideas will only take a game so far even with the competition being less heated on the handheld. That's something that indie games like Entertainment's Mercury will have to continue to swim upstream against.
Developed by long-time independent designer Archer MacLean, Mercury caught an early buzz in the PSP slate that remained humming but never reached a roar. Its unique gameplay concept -- a labyrinth game like Marble Madness or Super Monkey Ball played with goo instead of balls -- is brilliant and easy to get into. It's also probably the game's only selling point. You've got to love the idea, and you have to be geared up to play it over and over in increasingly impossible challenges until you have beat the stage, then are ready come back to earn the top score spot. Otherwise, you'll be done with Mercury around the time you get stuck on the fourth "Boss" challenge or an annoying sixth level "Percentage" challenge. There's no "Free" mode to wander your blob around in, no conceptual stuff like "Mercury Soccer" to take you away from your frustrations.
But what there is in this game is a great puzzle concept, put together in a mysteriously oblique world full of interesting obstacles and impressive stage layouts. It's a game that sticks to its strengths, an old-school concept of hard-fought challenges and few distractions to keep you away from taking them on.
It certainly all is quite a challenge. In the initial stages, it's enough to just learn how to move your blob in small movements without spilling over the edge, or getting to understand that obstacles on the course can be part of the solution as much as they are the problem. Very quickly, however, the game is at your throat. Many stages, you'll find yourself just barely squeaking by in time and with enough mercury left over, and it'll take a lot of bravery and determination (even if you do learn some of the tricks that make use of the traps) to come back and fight for a ranking score.
Some stages are a joy to lose to. After the easy introductory stages (some of which are instructive, but so simple and so quick that they weren't worth the loadtime), rounds open up in a variety of creative ways. The best are obviously those that make use of the liquid metal properties of your blob. There will be times that you have to control as many as four blobs at a time (or more, if you're not skilled enough to keep everything together) to accomplish various tasks, and since gravity is the only thing you have influence over as you tip the stages this way and that to glide your blobs, it's all very tricky to time and keep in your head. And since mercury globs of different colors can come together to create different colors for a rainbow of blobs, you've got to be smart about how you mix, split, and combine blobs in order to trigger all of the color-coded gates without gooping everything together in a big, gray mass.
Less interesting are the stage layouts that test your endurance and speed. The design team at Awesome Studios wisely front-loaded most of these more annoying challenges so that most stages will test you but will not wait until you're patience is gone before they put you through the ringer. Even so, after outsmarting some really tricky stages, it's unnerving to get stuck on challenges designed to just pummel those with a wiggle in their thumbs. Parts of stages can be played to get around tricky stages, but after a while, the game may be locked out to all but the pros -- since the game is built for revisiting and score competition, we would have liked to have seen more forgiveness on some of the more basic qualifying challenges.
We could have written this off as a hard game for hardcore gamers if there had been a bit more to it for others to get into. Unfortunately, it comes up a little short in this department, which is a shame since its flow-play game concept is a ton of fun to toy around with. Some free maps or other goo-based tasks would have been a nice way to pass the time when you're not feeling the need to bite down on another challenge, and collectible objects on stages to return for once you get stuck would have prolonged the fun of earlier stages. And with such a great idea behind the gameplay, it's a bummer to see the multiplayer mode not given a great idea for players to share in the fun. Here, it's just a ghost mode race, where you can't interact with your opponent and you don't have options for anything other than what you've already gone through. When you're playing Mercury, your imagination goes wild at all the possibilities that could come of this goopy gameplay, but the developers just didn't have any time for anything but focused stage design. That's hard to knock ... then again, it's enough to leave you craving a sequel before you're done with the original.
The PSP's analog controller shuttle copes with the challenges of navigating your mercury fairly well. Control is there to cope around walkways so narrow that the congealed blob is heaping over the side. Some gamers, however, will still wish for a more sensitive controller with softer weight and more room to travel. That, or a tilt sensor (which is a feature that, unless something unexpected happens, will have to wait for the sequel.) As is, it's a game that could have been given a little more finesse in the controls (it's hard, for example, to flick back and forth to master the mercury blob's momentum like you would a marble labyrinth, and there's also not a lot of flow speed difference between big and little blobs), but there's not much you can blame on the gamepad when most mistakes are in your control.
Camera control is a little trickier to keep together. Instead of spawning windows for keeping track of different blobs in various parts of stages, the camera zooms out to show as much of the stage as you are playing on with your various globules. The part that works about this system is that it still enables you to manually grab the camera and focus on one blob or another on the stage. You can also rotate the camera freely (or in 90 degree increments), zoom in and out, and raise the view up to a birds-eye view. Much of this is handled automatically, but multi-tiered stages, even if you haven't split your mercury up, still require a lot of manual adjustment (which saps vital time off the clock.) Some rounds will still give you no great solution once different blobs get too far away from each other, but the indicator arrows when you've split your blob help to know what you are not looking at, and at least there is that attempt to give whatever general camera view might help for a situation.
Really, the only real fault to put squarely on the designers is that the save system is a pain in the neck. We have seen this from a few games on PSP, and are hoping that SCE sets better standards for the handheld in the future. There's no autosave, so our first two hours of play were a giant waste when we forgot to save as we quit out to the menu. There's also no quick-save in the middle of the game -- you have to either win a stage or quit out to the main menu in order to save, and that's trouble if you're looking to quickly jump out when your batteries are low.
Mercury is a game that couldn't have been down without modern technology, and it makes good use out of its next-gen game concept. The way the mercury oozes down the path, squishes through tight spaces, and snaps into bubbles when you lose control or move too fast (then coagulates back together into one big blob) is always a wonder to watch. On the technical side, it's a little more simple than it looks -- the blobs don't have realtime reflections on their surface, and it's particularly apparent that the effects have been kept short when you have multiple gobs in the same area with the same undulating texture. Slowdown is also apparent here and there, and although it rarely weighs down the gameplay, it sometimes strangely chokes up the audio effects to break the game's illusion (as does the kludge flag effect at the end of the stage.) But it's still a good-looking game due to its original design elements. The various machinery that are there to cause you problems or challenge your brain are characteristically interesting to watch (particularly the moving circle gears and the roaming suction hoses), and the floating space motif is pretty cool against the more complex backdrops (even though the simple effect doesn't help loadtimes as much as it should.) There's also a continuous collection of music tracks throughout the game -- different ones for every stage -- and while not many are destined to be put in an MP3 collection to go along with Wipeout Pure and Lumines rips, the variety of constant change is welcome.
©2005, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved