Format: Xbox 360 Release: Out Now Developer: Halfbrick Studios Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Few games can claim to have been borne of the genre cross-breeding which has issued Raskulls, an XBLA title which builds a fast-paced platformer and Mario Kart-style racer around – and often straight through the middle of – a Mr. Driller inspired block-based puzzler. Still, no-one could accuse Halfbrick's game of suffering from an identity crisis. As indie games increasingly seem to be characterising themselves with either an air of melancholic whimsy or subversive irreverence, it's the latter camp to which Raskulls wholeheartedly subscribes. The brash, self-referential humour from which its storyboard style cutscenes mine most of their laughs may not be to everyone’s taste, but for the most part the silly script and the adorably macabre cast makes it work – the confident, cartoon world making for a solid foundation on which its more experimental gameplay mechanics can rest.
Raskulls asks players to negotiate – frequently at high-speed – a series of 2D platform game levels stuffed to the ceiling with the kind of brightly coloured blocks from which many a puzzle game has been made. Whenever blocks of the same colour touch, they merge, and the player is able to zap through these structures with a wand, one colour at a time.
In truth, during the majority of game’s races and chases, you won’t be thinking about plotting a tactical route through these technicolour towers at all. The enemy AI is fast enough to ensure you’ll be blasting through blocks with a single-minded abandon – the benefits of a considered, economical block-zapping approach simply aren’t worth the delay in taking pause to plan one. This is unfortunate, because when Halfbrick does manage to genuinely blend its racer, platformer and puzzler inspirations – such as when, at the end of certain races, the player must tactically remove blocks in order create a stairway to the finish line – Raskulls feels genuinely original. For the most part, however, these superior puzzle elements remain content to stick to levels of their own.
Raskulls’ puzzle challenges remove the AI foes, and force players to think about the shape and size of the blocks they’re excising, sometimes limiting the number of zaps they can perform before failing the level. They’re more varied than the races, too – asking players to carefully lower special blocks to pedestals whilst making sure they don’t fall too far at once, or making them defuse bombs by carefully working towards the explosives and giving them a zap. One disappointingly underutilised type of challenge makes players ‘sculpt’ blocks into specific shapes and sizes by using a power up which can shave the edges off blocks without making the entire thing disappear.
The rest of Raskulls’ power-ups are designed to allow some Mario Kart-style leveling of the field during the game’s multiplayer mode, which is built entirely around the race gametype. Against human opponents, these chaotic scrambles for the finish line start making sense, as grudges and rivalries are forged and intensified by a last minute win scored by scorching past your opponent with the aid of a flaming dash power up, or even better, using another item to steal their power up and then using your ill-gotten gains to win. But as with Mario Kart, this comedic and randomly distributed arsenal of score-settlers means that the outcome of a tightly fought race is often down to luck as much as skill.
Raskulls is many things – racer, puzzler, platformer – but it struggles to be all these things at once, or to do them equally well. Beneath the charming, brightly coloured exterior, there’s a fascinating twist on the block-based puzzler at Halfbrick’s game’s heart – but you might just miss it when blasting through at high speed.