Developer: Nnooo / Publisher: Nnooo / Played on: 3DS / Price: $9.99 / ESRB: Everyone
There are a number of ways to explain why escapeVektor is an amazing game. It incorporates the tightest game design by including just enough mechanics to make the game easy to learn yet interesting for hours. Second, there’s a ton of content here for the price; this is a game that can occupy you for tens of hours, and even more if you rise to a challenge.
But really, escapeVektor excels in creating that moment. The one where chance, skill, and knowledge collide in an exciting instant that will either leave you feeling like a golden god of videogames or the world’s biggest chump… who can’t wait to try again.
The game mechanics are simple enough to trick you into thinking there’s not much going on. Someone is trapped in your 3DS, and to get him out, you must guide a simple chevron character through maps of varying complexity. When you travel over a path it changes color, and all you have to do is fill in the whole map to reveal the exit. That description may have you thinking of Pac-Man or Q*bert but a few additional mechanics combine to make the experience much more unique.
Chasing high scores is mostly driven by your clear time, which at the minimum means you have to optimize your path through the game’s levels in a traveling salesman sort of way. Combine this with enemies that are always just in your way or binary switches that open and close gates in sequence, and soon you have incredibly complex levels that brim with possibilities and potential.
What if you turn left at this junction instead of going straight? Do you lay off the boost for half a second to avoid an enemy or deploy one of your bombs just to power through? These are the margins by which you can claw your way up the Internet leaderboards or simply feed your completionist itch by grabbing platinum medals on every level.
To make the scoreboards more spicy only serious scores can be obtained by playing a wildcard, which doubles your overall score. However, you only get one of these every 24 hours or by setting a personal best on a level. This restricts the number of tries to nail your high score, and if you’re running low on wildcards, you have to make each one count. This is a fantastic way to add value to planning and execution, as you can’t simply hammer away at a level over and over until you get the one run.
Racking up the platinum medals is simple enough at the game’s outset, but surprisingly rich level design make this much more complicated as the game progresses. More than once I thought “if this enemy were going clockwise instead of counterclockwise…” or “if this rectangle appeared on the left instead of the right…” Through fantastic level design they make interesting game mechanics even more profound. To top it off, at its most complex—with roving enemies that systemically trigger bitwise switches—the game’s levels look genuinely like a diagram for integrated circuits operated by a rotating clock.
The game’s technological spirituality doesn’t end there. After a few hours with escapeVektor I even developed an attachment to the unnamed digital persona you help bust out of the system. His portrait starts as a mess of pixels, eventually gaining definition as you progress. He even fights a dose of amnesia, gradually recovering memories of fights, friends, and life in general. The minimal and melancholy story notes remind me of Introversion’s sublime Darwinia, which is very high praise if you’re unfamiliar.
escapeVektor’s visuals and sound keep pace with its retro styling. The graphics do a great job of visually conveying all the information you need to play the game: when enemies are about to spawn, which paths that haven’t yet been traveled, etc… although important information is sometimes obscured by the visual gap between the 3DS’ screens. The music deserves special praise, however. While it relies on punchy chiptune synonymous with these retro throwbacks, I love how music complexity is layered on when you get close to an enemy or come close to completing a stage. The music is bright and upbeat, reminding me of Namco’s excellent Pac-Man Championship Edition though not quite so manic.
The game is not without issues though. The default view is zoomed in uncomfortably close to your player character. While this makes good use of the 3DS’s display, it does make it difficult to get a sense of your surroundings. You can zoom out by holding the R button, but as this is the more functional view I wish there were a setting to make this the default. Additionally, the bomb button (bound to A) can be awkward to hit if you’ve shifted your thumb down to permanently hold boost (bound to B). The ability to move it to, say, the L trigger would’ve been fantastic.
Niggles aside, escapeVektor is a game in which everything included works perfectly and anything left on the cutting room floor isn’t missed. It’s a fantastic value in addition to being fantastically fun to play, and it belongs on every 3DS.