Seemingly out of nowhere, SOE has brought an intriguing new platformer to the PSN just as the fall rush starts to kick up. Its graffiti themed art-style evokes a family friendly version of 2006's Getting Up (Marc Ecko's unnecessary yet underrated foray into gaming), and it's platforming mechanics are well-designed and inventive, if a little too broad. If you're a fan of platformers, or looking for something just a little offbeat to cleanse the pallet this season, Sideway New York is worth a look.
In Sideway, you play as Nox, a young graffiti artist who gets sucked into a street mural by the villainous “Spray.” Spray is a stencil design with a chip on his shoulder, and he's kidnapped Nox's best friend Cass. Along with a mysterious guide named Fume, Nox has to sidescroll his way to saving Cass and escaping the awkwardly-named graffiti world of “Sideway.” Truthfully, the characters and story themselves provide the bare minimum of context needed to suspend disbelief in this artistic setting, and that's okay. Sideway isn't a narrative driven game, but the character designs and expressive animation sell the urban setting into something that's just as distinct as the Mushroom Kingdom or Green Hill Zone.
What makes Sideway unique is the way it's separated between two and three dimensions. The city-scape environment is rendered in 3D, while all of the 2D platforming takes place on the walls and rooftops of the buildings. Everything is animated like a living graffiti painting, and the level designs have you frequently transferring between wall and rooftop, reorienting your gravity and direction. Visually, it's a really effective hook, and Sideway shines when it forces the player to think about their location and then find a way to reorient themselves around different obstacles. Unfortunately, the levels are fairly linear, so the spatial puzzles that you solve along the way never really become more challenging. In the early levels, you'll spend some time acclimating to the changing planes and gravity, but once Sideway establishes these rules it falls in favor of being a platformer rather than a puzzler. I was a little disappointed by this, because there's no reason it couldn't be both at once.
The philosophy behind the level design ends up being stronger than the design itself, however, this is purely a matter of potential. While the absence of puzzle challenge is a bit of a let down, that doesn't change the fact that the levels themselves are paced well and the platforming leaves little to be desired. On top of the traditional “run and jump” rules that we're all used to, Sideway throws in some light combat mechanics and a bevy of special abilities designed to help you navigate enemies and the environment.
Nox starts out with a basic jump and a punch-combo, and this eventually builds to a glide ability, ground-pound, dash attack, and more. The game places all of the necessary upgrades in Nox's direct path, but what's interesting is that it sprinkles more abilities throughout the levels for players to discover on their own. At the end of the level, you're told how many upgrades you found, and how many went unnoticed. These can boil down to simple health upgrades or more combat moves to increase your arsenal, and they're not required to finish the game. This adds replay value, and encourages exploration, but it's also laudable because it means that Sideway wants players to improve Nox through actual platforming, instead of taking the easy road with a numerical upgrade system or any half-baked RPG elements.
Overall, Sideway moves a little slower than most platformers. Nox doesn't move very fast, but he's got jumps for days. It's very much a vertical game; slower than Mario or Mega Man, but there's also more control given in the air, and I rarely found myself slipping off of platforms or missing jumps, which is this genre's kryptonite. There are a few times when the camera pulls back too far from the wall, or allows environmental objects to block what's happening, but, especially for a new IP, you couldn't ask for more solid mechanics.
Sideway's art style is terrific. In addition to a diverse set of enemies, everything that moves is animated with a slick graffiti touch, as if it's been sprayed on the wall in real time. The particle effects in particular add a lot to the experience. For example, when Nox leaps off of a bounce pad, you see him sprout wings at the apex of his jump, but they're made to look as if the brick was just tagged with the design. These little flourishes accompany every animation, and keep the game vibrant and interesting against the backdrop of its workaday urban environments. There is a touch of slowdown when Nox turns a 3D corner, but overall it's an excellent looking game, downloadable or otherwise.
This is where your appetite for platformers will tell you all you need to know about how much you're going to enjoy Sideway. Ardent fans of the genre will find a fun and engaging campaign, but if you're more of a fair-weather fan, like myself, there will be moments in the latter half of the game that will tempt you to snap your controller in two. The levels get steadily trickier, combining enemies with environmental hazards, and the only thing that frustrated me in these sections was Nox's rather languid approach towards gravity. The game demands that you carefully time your jumps so that you have enough space to avoid traps, and enough time to avoid enemies. It is anything but an exact science. If Nox fell or jumped just a little bit faster, things would be perfect, but he doesn't, and it makes the levels feel agonizingly claustrophobic at times.
At other points, the levels seem bizarrely over-designed. Platforms or safety nets that Nox doesn't really need are scattered liberally through some areas, or enemies seem to be placed in laughably unchallenging places. Towards the end, the game oscillates between a roguelike and a breezy exercise from point A to point B. It's an odd criticism, but it makes the harder moments all the more frustrating.
Despite its warts, Sideway New York is a great way to spend a weekend. The hip-hop soundtrack might not be for everyone's tastes (the game is rated E10+, which is more than a little awkward when you can hear the F-bombs obviously censored from some of the songs), but the graffiti art style and detailed animation feel fresh. As a ten dollar DLG, I can say that there's enough about Sideway that's unique and ably designed for it to do well, despite the Skyrims and Modern Warfares of this season. Playstation Plus subscribers can pick it up for a discount through the end of the month, and I recommend it for anyone interested.