Fame is a very fickle thing- and Indie fame doubly so. A game can go from Indie-darling, IGF finalist and one of the PAX 10, it can gain fame due to outside circumstances, such as being developed by 2 men in Israel, and get picked up for exclusivity by a large publisher such as Microsoft. Yet, the game can come out to nothing but questions of “what’s THAT game and why does it sound like a name for diarrhea?”
Such is the inauspicious fate of The Splatters, the first game from Israeli developers SpikySnail. After making the circuit rounds and accruing some buzz, standing along with names like Amnesia, Bastion and Minecraft at the 2011 IGF, it was then quietly released (on the same day as the hotly anticipated Fez, no less!) mostly to questions of what the game was; early fame gave way to late obscurity. Now that it’s out, though, this physics-based, fluid-dynamics action puzzler has its chance to shine, but unfortunately doesn’t hit that mark. What had a chance to be a cool, fun and challenging puzzle game with a satisfying splatter mechanic instead wound up as a frustrating, difficult to control exercise in all of the frustrating parts of a puzzle, lacking any hooks to keep you coming back and wanting to continue on.
At its core, The Splatters is a really fun idea- your titular Splatters live to die, and it’s your job to slam and flip them around so that they die with style and sprinkle their juices over the level. It’s not completely mindless, and there is the aim of getting the liquid onto these bombs, which are clustered all over the levels. Get enough liquid on, and they pop, but you don’t really have too much time for it- the liquid eventually dribbles off over the edge. Get all the bombs, move on to the next round.
You’re also working a stunt multiplier for doing specific stunts, like sliding around on curves or slamming into spikes. Facilitating this, you also have some special maneuvers you can do to redirect yourself, letting you spill your Splatter’s juice over a greater area. The Splatters and bombs eventually get color-coded, adding in an extra challenge of working your way around the level to get to a specific bomb.
The game works like you’d probably expect from something like this- a multi-level high-score challenge with a 3-star system to try and encourage replayability, and other, extra goals, like completing a level without failing. There’s also a decent video-sharing service in Splatter TV, and you can show your fantastic high-score run to all the people out there. It even shows which buttons were pressed when, so they can act as tutorials as well as bragging videos.
There are also a few modes to take into account after you beat the tutorial area. One of them is meant to facilitate ever longer combos, setting up more bombs, more Splatters, and even giving you chances to earn more points between rounds. The other is set up more rigidly, with only a single Splatter and specific shots you have to use. This works best as a puzzle, since it really makes you think about what you’re doing, and doesn’t work if you just fling yourself around like a crazy man.
This game looks nice, but uninspiring. The Splatters themselves have a good blobby look to them, and the liquid physics for when they fall apart are convincing enough- it looks like a balloon filled with paint just popped all over the place, and watching it flow is pretty neat, too. The bombs also look nice and squishy, and it can be fun watching them spring back and around when you destroy a bond that was stretching them in some way. When the bombs pop, you get a great effect of glitter popping out and flying everywhere, a great visual touch to underline their destruction.
Levels are similar- they look nice, have a good resolution, but they’re just odd and not really too visually stimulating. They’re just made of stuff, and it doesn’t have any cohesive design. One level has a bird with spikes on its beak, the other has some rails with a shoe in it, and I don’t really know why. The levels also get reused, so you’ll see that bird more than enough times on your way through the game.
On a semi-related side note, the interface got me into a weird thought train. It’s all set up through TVs, like we’re watching some kind of reality show about these blob creatures that are just killing themselves for points and our viewing pleasure. It made me start wondering if we were actually recreating some sort of Running Man-esque prisoner-execution-as-entertainment show happening, And it’s not just the UI, either. The first levels are called “become a star”, so it’s clear that someone’s broadcasting this to a bunch of people who really want to watch these Splatters die, and I’m not entirely sure why.
Unfortunately, this semi-related mental adventure is kind of the most fun I’ve had with The Splatters.
See, there are times when this game works, and when it does, it’s all right. You’ll find yourself zipping around, slamming into things, and then drizzling down all over a bunch of bombs as the camera whips around, and the frenetic action of it all actually pretty good. As the last bomb explodes, you sit back and actually feel a little satisfied.
But aside from those moments, the game is, at best, uninteresting and, at worst, completely frustrating. There are just too many problems keeping it back. The Splatters can be difficult to get a feel for how they move. I still get surprised at the times that they don’t pop when they should have, but there’s also the problem of the game just being too hectic. Ironically, I felt the extra maneuvers just gave me less control and made everything more chaotic. I can slam into a wall with bombs, but the bombs just bounce away then. Or there’s the weirdest one to use, the move that reverses time/momentum (sometimes seeming like both, other times seeming like just the latter), which shoots things back the way they came. But your Splatter has a great habit of hitting in a way that makes it pop, or catches an angle that makes it splat, and you have to restart a level for the nth time. Aiming your Splatter doesn’t help these issues either, as the zooms in and can mess up a shot because you’re not entirely sure where you’re aiming anymore. The targeting arrow is also very small, and you wind up hoping you’re pointing right instead of being sure of your shots.
Even restarting the level takes too long, though, since everything doesn’t just pop back in- it flies in from off-screen and liquidates everything on-screen; so on levels you’re having a problem with because of the unwieldy characters and controls, or the bombs bounce away when you try to hit them, or your liquid doesn’t spread the way it should, you have to sit through a good 4 or so seconds when it should really be much faster.
The mode that’s there for setting up long combos is especially bad. There are bombs everywhere, and the game isn’t good at sending indications about what it is you’re looking at or where the bombs actually are. I had many times where it told me to try again, but I had no idea where the bomb was and never found out. As far as I know, it wasn’t there, so I don’t know what I did wrong.
Really, the best part of this game is the Master Shot segment, which sets up the shots you need to do, showing some prior planning that it just doesn’t feel like the other areas have. It gave me a much better appreciation for what I was doing. Before that, having played the other modes, I was convinced that the special moves weren’t actually a solution, so much as a lack of one, like the developers couldn’t figure out how to solve something and just introduced more mechanics to hopefully cover for themselves. This mode at least showed some care in the way the levels were set up, and even helped me play the game better. Still, this game has the same problem- it’s either so bad it’s horribly frustrating, or, at best, just the epitome of forgettable.
I guess the best way to sum up the problems with The Splatters is that it has two of the greatest sins a game can have. First, and this is especially a problem with the puzzle aspect, it does a poor job of answering “why did that happen?” Be it weird problems with the reverse mechanic or angles that make you explode, even though you can’t see them, or a lack of a good estimate of how much liquid makes a bomb explode, it leaves you a little confused, even when you’re doing great. The second is by far the worst though- the game’s just boring. Yeah, it has moments where it all works out, like I said, but it isn’t enough to get its hooks into you. It just falls flat, showing small signs of life, but otherwise just not worth your time. Hopefully SpikySnail is able to take what they learned and bring out something neat next time around- it’ll be a shame to see Israeli development stop just as it started.