Friday, January 30, 2009

SpringWorld Challenge Review

SpringWorld Challenge, developed and published by Nyblom Software.
The Good: Simple controls, multiple trophy levels, downloadable winning replays from official website
The Not So Good: Difficult from the start due to imprecise controls, exaggerated physics are frustrating, no level editor, basic graphics and annoying background music
What say you? Bouncy physics and high speeds don’t mix: 4/8

My continuing effort to review every physics-based puzzle game known to man (see Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C, and Exhibit D) brings us today to SpringWorld Challenge. In this title, you navigate a car (conveniently equipped with rockets) or a rocket (not conveniently equipped with cars) across a map to the finish without wrecking too much. It’s SpringWorld not because it’s constantly the month of April, but because your vehicles are outfitted with mighty effective springs that make them all bouncy. How does this puzzle game stack up?

Independent games are notorious for not having the best graphics and sound, and SpringWorld Challenge is no exception to that generalization. The game is entirely in 2-D, and although I must say that some of the drawings used for the vehicles and backgrounds have a nice hand-drawn feel to them, the graphics, well, have a hand-drawn feel to them. There certainly aren’t advanced textures or lighting effects here like there are in other puzzle games. It also can be difficult to differentiate between background and foreground objects, something that can impact gameplay (at least the first time you play through a level) in a negative fashion. Wrecked cars are satisfyingly broken, but there’s nothing in the graphics of SpringWorld Challenge that couldn’t be replicated over a long weekend by anyone equipped with Paint. The sound design lapses as well, with basic effects and some truly annoying background music that I disabled quite quickly. It is lucky for SpringWorld Challenge that I don’t strongly emphasize graphics.

SpringWorld Challenge takes place over twenty-five levels where you must guide either a car or a rocket from the start to the finish. Twenty-five might not sound like very much content, but the levels (as you will see) are very difficult so it would take you at least a little while to complete the game. Despite the relative simplicity of the 2-D levels, SpringWorld Challenge does not come with a map editor to extent the life of the game. The game does have an online score system (although I’m not quite sure how scores are submitted) and you can download replays of the fastest times from the official website. The replays don’t actually show you how to control the vehicle in order to achieve the same results, but they sometime provide some helpful hints. Trophies can be earned in each level for fast completion time, low amounts of damage, or not using your rockets. These trophies are required to unlock additional levels; although you can technically skip past troublesome levels, you really need to get at least one or two trophies in each level in order to maintain positive progress in the game.

So what’s up with that 4/8, you say? It all lies in the control scheme and physics of SpringWorld Challenge. You use the four arrow keys for movement and WASD to fire rockets for additional acceleration. It took me a number of tries to realize that you need to use both normal movement and the rockets in order to be successful in the game. You can repair your vehicle using the control key, although if you have suffered enough damage to require this, you should just restart anyway. The main problem with SpringWorld Challenge lies with the overstated physics: it’s too hard to keep the car in contact with the ground because the springs are too responsive. You never feel like you are in full control of your vehicle; regardless of whether this is intentional or not, it is irritating and frustrating. There is too much of a fine line between success and failure due to the high accelerations and high spring rates and one error means you are done. The level designs do not help matters much: the levels are populated with ramps and other obstacles that throw your car or rocket away from the ground or walls, making it even more difficult to maintain forward momentum. While it is possibly a matter of personal taste, I do not like how the vehicles of SpringWorld Challenge: they are too twitchy and too hard to handle. The springs need some serious damping as SpringWorld Challenge is way too out of control to enjoy properly.

It was apparent by the 25th time I tried the second level in the game that SpringWorld Challenge might be a tad difficult. I like the idea of SpringWorld Challenge, but the combination of the overstated bouncy physics and high speed levels makes for a nauseating experience. The cars are simply too bouncy and they go too fast for being that bouncy, and the result is a lot of wrecks and subsequently a lot of failure. It is entirely too difficult to keep the car on a slightly uneven surface, and the rocket accelerates too quickly. The control scheme (keyboard keys) does not allow for the amount of precision the game really requires. If the developer would just tone down the spring rates just a bit, then SpringWorld Challenge would be a lot less frustrating. The level design has at least a little to do with this, as each level is populated with loads of uneven surfaces and ramps to cause havoc for the player. The features could be better as well: while you can download replays from the official website, there is no level editor (a seemingly simple thing to implement, given the 2-D nature of the levels) and the graphics and sound are both basic. It is entertaining to watch your car self-destruct, but this usually means you just horribly failed the level. The balance between the springs and the acceleration makes SpringWorld Challenge almost unplayable and certainly frustratingly difficult.