Demo Driver 8: Tobe’s Vertical Adventure

And yet again, I'm happy I don't do reviews.

Nostalgia coupled with nostalgia married to solid mechanics leaves evaluations in a complicated place.

I may be alone in this regard, and by “may be” I mean “certainly appear to be,” but I am entirely done with the current waves of misguided affection for the arcade games and early 16-bit games that I had in my youth.

This is not to say that the indie love affair with old-school games is an inherent hindrance any more than the triple-A fascination with fabric simulation is an inherent hindrance; it’s more that both tend to produce a lot of stuff that starts with a bedrock of nostalgia and never quite gets around to assembling compelling gameplay to support it.  Instead, there are games – which you can probably guess include today’s offering – which are perfectly serviceable homages without adding much on besides.

Fortunately for Tobe’s Vertical Adventure, the game is more aiming at a feel than a particular game or style, which covers a multitude of sins.  It’s not a bad game, either, but it certainly feels like the homage cam first and the actual gameplay showed up late to the party without appropriate clothing.  So it manages all right, but it never quite manages to pass that threshold of being good enough that there’s no reason to care about visuals.

Due to my impatience, I didn’t actually watch the opening cutscene for the plot, and this may be for the best.  It’s an excuse plot of the highest order anyway.  You take on the role of the eponymous Tobe or his girlfriend (of course) Nana, both of whom are treasure hunters of some undetermined sort.  I’m unclear on who these people are who can list their occupation as “treasure hunter” whilst being taken seriously by the IRS, but perhaps there are just veins of generic treasure sitting underneath my backyard that I haven’t bothered to explore.  Who knows?

The point is the mechanics, as always.  You start at the top of the map, and your goal is the big treasure chest at the bottom.  If it sits in place with a little animation, it’s an item to collect for various benefits; if it moves, it’s an enemy and you need to stun it by jumping on it.  Get to the bottom, open the treasure chest, then race back to the top in a minute and a half before an advancing wall of spikes kills you.  What is nicely handled is that several parts of the stage crumble after you begin climbing back up, which adds tension to the gameplay.  Do you take side trips to pick up more treasure and rescue more critters, or do you race to the top in order to try and stave off death?

Well, really, the tension is “how do you do the former without dying,” but the principle is there, at least.

It's not really a hunt if your target isn't moving.

Don’t mind me, folks, it’s just pilfering time.

While the game’s refusal to work with my controller was a point of irritation, the nature of the controls isn’t particularly heartening either.  Tobe’s a fairly agile sort, but he has certain moves that don’t like to work reliably, such as wall-running and wall-jumping.  Exact placement of rope items seems a bit wonky, at that.  With a platformer, controls are pretty high on the list of things that need to be nigh-on perfect, and sadly Tobe’s Vertical Adventure falls down in this area.  Much like several other objects of nostalgia, controls feel just a bit sluggish and off.

It also features a personal pet peeve of mine in that there’s no way to actually deal with your enemies beyond briefly incapacitating them.  You can, at least, pass through their stunned bodies unharmed, but no method exists for simply getting rid of them.  As often happens, this makes the proceedings feel even more static; you just navigate the obstacle course, you can’t really play well and choose to avoid or kill as necessary.

Sluggishness of controls and the like aside, though, the game feels solidly chunky in play, with the first few levels striking a decent balance between having obvious paths and solutions and giving you the option of working out alternatives.  I also like the dual nature of each level, which brings to mind shades of the Metroid escape sequences.  After the first level you find yourself carefully scanning the landscape for blocks that will crumble on your ascent, picking out places where you can pick up extra critters and the like.

Also appreciated is that rather than the game using a straight currency system, you get rewarded at intervals – rescue ten critters and your health goes up, grab a certain number of gems and your inventory improves, and so on.  Having some display of how close you are would be nice, but it felt comfortingly organic, and it took the usual process of “what upgrade should I get” out of my hands.  There’s a cleanliness in that which is appreciated in such a simple game.

The real punchline is that the game is only on the Xbone for a bit.

Man, Rise of the Tomb Raider looks so great.

Still… the simplicity also works against it.  Ultimately, this is a game based around a neverending score attack mode, where your only real reason to keep playing is because you might beat a high score before you run out of lives.  It’s paced to force you out of lives every so often, just like those 16-bit platformers I mentioned at the start.  Rinse and repeat, do your thing.

Is that bad?  Of course not.  But those games are out there, you can buy them right now for multiple platforms, it’s not something I feel the urgent need to add into my life.  The reason I stopped playing Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was not coincidence, it was because I had seen what the game had to offer and decided that I was ready to be done.

Perhaps this is going to hit just the right notes for you.  If you’re looking for a chunky platformer in the style of some older games without being a direct riff on those games, this is not a bad option.  It’s not a bad game, period!  Its major failings are simply that it delivers very little else, and if you aren’t down with that flashback to the SNES, you’re not going to be on board.  It’s charmingly inoffensive enough, and if you like the idea you’ll probably more than make up for the purchase price.

Aside from control issues, it’s a solid title.  Just don’t be surprised if you feel like it’s awful close to a game you distantly remember from 1993.

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About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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