Indie Game Review: VVVVVV

The title is dumb. It’s unpronouncable. It’s not unrecognizable, though; ten years from now you’ll be able to talk about “veevuhveeveevuhvee” or “that game with all the Vs in it” and people will be able to understand you. (Providing they’ve played the game of course.) I’ve seen the idea bandied about that a string of capital Vs is supposed to resemble spikes, or the constant changing of gravity. Both nice ideas, if a little on the “too clever for their own good” side, but it doesn’t make the title not-dumb.

No, I don’t have any suggestions for alternate titles. Why do you ask?

I like the visuals. They have a retro Atari 2600 feel to them, and if not for the ultra-smooth movement you would pretty much just need an old-fashioned joystick to complete the experience. I particularly like the bizarre “enemies” in the game, which range from gibberish symbols to endless rivers of lies. (And you’ll know they’re lies, too, when you see them.)

The sound is simplistic, but great. I’ve been humming bits of the VVVVVV soundtrack in the shower and during car trips all week, and likely will be into the forseeable future. There isn’t really much in the way of sound effects outside of a few miscellaneous  cracks and bangs, except for a gutwrenching “sad noise” which you’ll be hearing a lot over the course of your many frequent deaths. It’s specifically crafted to make you feel bad for your little VVV-guy, and you will at first, but you’ll get tired of it after a while.

So gameplay, then. VVVVVV is about 75% of a good game. I’ll start by talking about the demo. You can download it if you want, though I don’t see why you would since you can just play it up at Kongregate. And you should play it — the demo is fantastic. I’m getting ahead of myself, though.

The primary gameplay element in VVVVVV is there is no jumping. It’s a platformer, sure, but rather than getting a “hop” button you get a “reverse gravity” button. Any time you’re standing on the ground (or ceiling) you can hit that button, causing your little pixel man to flip upside-down (or right-side-up) and fall (rise) through empty space. You can’t flip in mid-air, however, so you’d better have a landing strategy in place or you’re like to have a bed of spikes in your future.

The demo consists of two levels. The first of these is the game’s introductory stage, which serves to ease you into the gravity-flipping mechanic with some decent-but-not-overwhelming challenges. This stage is fun mainly because the novelty hasn’t worn off yet, but it is fun. Canny players will note that the intro stage actually runs alongside some later areas of the game, which look much more difficult, but can’t be accessed in the demo.

The other available stage introduces a second mechanic: trampolines. These are flashing lines which cause VVV-man to flip even in mid-air; horizontal ones cause you to automatically “bounce” while vertical ones cause you to switch polarity and sort of “float”. It’s much tougher than the intro level, but definitely not too tough, and I found it to be very satisfying.

The intro level showed me the flipping mechanic and what it could do. The trampoline level showed me one interesting direction the flipping mechanic could take. I wanted to see what other directions the game went in, so I ponied up $15 for the full game.

Unfortunately, the answer to that question is… none. The vanilla flipping sections never get anything but more difficult, and the trampolines are the only environmental gimmick ever introduced. There are six or seven more levels to go through, depending on how you choose to define “level”, but none of them explore territory that hadn’t already been covered in the demo.

That isn’t precisely true. Some stages ave a screen-wrapping gimmick, where falling off the edge of one side causes you to appear on the other. Others are auto-scrolling levels where you’ll die (from spikes!) if you get too close to the top of bottom of the screen. But the wrapping stages don’t do anything interesting in tandem with the gravity flipping, and auto-scrolling levels are sins punishable by damnation to one of the upper circles of Hell.

Even so, though, eight-ish levels of pretty decent gravity-flipping is enough for a fun Flash game. I’m unconvinced it’s enough for a $15 downloadable game. I kinda sorta feel like the demo promised me something that ended up never materializing.

Aside from just not meeting my (possibly unwarranted) expectations, the game has a few sour patches. As an example, one of the bullet points in the “buy the full version!” sales pitch is that there is a vast overworld to explore. And boy howdy, is there ever! Another bullet point, though, is that there are no arbitrary barriers; no keys, switches, levers or power-ups to bar your progress. Hmm… there’s a disconnet here, no? If there’s nothing barring my passage into the levels, what incentive do I have to explore this sprawling overworld? Why would I want to waste time in the overworld, when most of the interesting gameplay happens in the levels?

But explore it you will, for it is nothing if not huge. It’s also featureless and empty. And remember, VVV-dude can’t jump, so if you’re walking along and find a three-pixel-high rock you’re powerless to do anything about it except to flip and land on wherever the ceiling happens to be above you. Most of the time spent “exploring” the overworld is falling past large stacks of empty, pointless screens.

Solution: instead of acting like your giant empty hub area is worthwhile, just give me a room with eight teleporters so I can jump instantly to the fun bits. The grey outer-space wasteland does nothing for me.

My other niggle is that the game occassionally dips into that nebulous territory of difficulty where it’s no longer trying to provide a challenge and instead is just being a dick. Some of the actions the game asks of you are borderline unreasonable. You get unlimited tries, of course, and your checkpoint is never more than a few seconds away… but failing a task thirty times in a row because you held the button a split-second too long doesn’t score the game any points. My favorite areas where the ones you had to solve. Okay, here I am in a room. How is flipping going to help me here? Where are the safe spots? What can I reach from this ledge, and how does that get me to the next room? There are some areas where that would have been enough, but everything also happens to be covered by spikes because hey why not.

I’m not trying to come out against challenge levels, here. The actions required to collect some of the game’s optional “shiny trinkets” are, for lack of a better term, bitch-hard. One in particular is downride mental, and you know what? I loved those areas. I hammered away at them, dying 20 times on this one, 60 times on that one, until I got them all. I persevered, and I felt like I had accomplished something. Those areas are optional, though; they don’t bar your passage to the end of the game. Just as often, though, would be a bitch-hard screen right in the middle of the beaten path. “Avoid all these spikes by a matter of pixels, or fail.” “Learn the cryptic timing on these fast-moving bad guys, or fail.” “Navigate this trampoline section perfectly, or fail.”

Left a bad taste in my mouth.

Finally, there doesn’t seem to be any gamepad support. I would have never finished this game without Joy2Key.

So that’s the long and the short of it. (Or, at 1300 words, just the long of it, I guess.) Definitely play the demo, because it’s great. If you feel like another hour or two of not-so-great is worth your $15, by all means. I love the idea of VVVVVV, but it needs a spit-shine and a few more ways to push the gravity-flipping to its limits.

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2 comments to Indie Game Review: VVVVVV

  • RT-55J

    I’ll stick with Metal Storm.

  • I see the complaints, but I thought the game was worth the money. Finally snagging the bauble that required up-up-up-up-up, down-down-down-down-down made me feel AWESOME, which is a good trick, since in reality, I’m not awesome at all. More variety? Would have been good. A better overworld? Likewise. A non-incoherent plot? Eh, I wouldn’t say no. But for the price, I was pretty well content.

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