Skylar and Plux: Adventure on Clover Island Review

There is a fine line between being charmingly Indie and jarringly amateurish.  There is also a fine line between being heartwarmingly nostalgic and grossly outdated.  Meet Sylar and Plux: Adventure on Clover Island, a new 3D platformer that straddles these lines as precariously as any game in recent memory.  Skylar and Plux is, unapologetically, a throwback to the PS1 and PS2 era, when character platformers like Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter dominated the gaming landscape.  Since these games have largely dried up since then, the time seems right for a game like this one to come in and provide a new, old school character platformer for fans to enjoy.  This game is a valiant attempt by Right Nice Games to fill that gaping void, as the game wears its sincerity on its sleeve.  Sincerity is the biggest thing that it has going for it, however (other than the game's fantastic soundtrack).  Skylar and Plux is, unfortunately, limited in its scope, and it suffers from some classic low budget rough edges.  It is perfectly competent in everything that it does, but there might not be enough of that everything to satisfy the hungriest fans of the genre.

In Skylar and Plux you play as the titular Skylar, an acrobatic (and completely silent) cat.  Skylar is a master thief who recently botched a job and has since been imprisoned by the evil overlord, CRT, in his grand space station.  The game begins with you escaping the space station and landing on Clover Island, where CRT is wreaking all kinds of havoc for some nefarious purpose.  You quickly team up with Plux, a high-pitched (and somewhat poorly voice-acted) owl who acts as the game's sidekick and hint character.  Together, the two of you explore the island and find the items that you will need to ultimately defeat CRT. 

If the game's two protagonists sound like a hybrid ripoff of Sly Cooper and Ratchet and Clank, then that is because they are -- and quite shameless ones at that.  However, the game is so devoid of pretense that it you may find this completely lack of originality to be forgivable.  After all, the developers themselves would probably be the first people to admit what the game is.  All of its marketing materials specifically mention that it is homage to the 3D platformers of old.  Does that acknowledgement make it okay though?  How much should a game be allowed to subsist on "homage"?  You will probably find yourself pondering this question as you play through Skylar and Plux, because it is one that comes up often.  Your answer to that question will probably determine how much you enjoy the game.

Despite the game's obvious attempt to recreate the spirit of an old character platformer, the story was not doomed to be a "me too" affair.  The game would have benefited tremendously from some quality writing that could have given Skylar and Plux their own personalities and backgrounds.  Unfortunately, this pair of protagonists has little story or background, and no chemistry ever develops between them.  They seem to exist only to check off a "buddy protagonists" box, and not because there was a good story to tell.  Skylar never says a word throughout the game and Plux is mostly given dull dialogue to speak -- either generic friendly banter or puzzle solving hints.  Some of Plux's dialog is downright infantile, as if the developers were trying so hard to target an "E" rating for the game that they overshot the mark badly and created a game for five-year-olds.  This is especially true of some of the hints that he (she?) gives you, which explain some obvious things in an almost insulting manner.  The supervillain, CRT, is written with a lot of fourth wall breaking, self-aware humor, but many of his lines also fall flat and most of the humor fails.   The writing and voice acting are two areas where the word "amateurish" is a little too appropriate for the game

Over the years the platformer genre has evolved to include lots of supplementary game elements like collectibles, stealth, weapons and upgrades, RPG elements, and minigames.  Unlike the series that it attempts to emulate though, Skylar and Plux stays surprisingly bare bones.  Besides the crystals that you collect by killing enemies and destroying boxes, there is only one collectible in the game.  The gameplay sticks mostly to just jumping, punching enemies, and swinging.  Over the course of your travels, you gain three special abilities as well -- a rocket jump, a time slowing mechanic, and magnetism.  In the second half of the game these abilities are put to occasional use solving some simple puzzles, and the magnetism has some fun uses in combat.  There is also a short section where you encounter some time shift stones, similar in nature to those found in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.  For the most part though, the gameplay never develops a lot of depth or variety.  Or difficulty.  Towards the end of the game, the most advanced platforming and puzzle challenges that you face are the types of challenges that you would find before the midpoint of a typical platformer.  Skylar and Plux may be a faithful attempt to capture the spirit of an old school 3D platformer, but it fails to incorporate most of the improvements that have been made in those games over the years.  To its credit, the game is a tight experience that executes everything that it does very well.  It also does not overstay its welcome or try to wring more out of its gameplay than it deserves -- it is about a five hour experience, with one big hub area and three themed areas that you visit once.

Sylar and Plux was the product of a small team (by today's standards).  It has some areas where it compares very favorably with its peers, but tradeoffs are evident in some places too.  One of its positives is the bright, colorful scenery, which sports a surprising amount of variety for a game that is so short.  The game's graphical fidelity, at least when things are stationary, is quite strong.  It looks a lot like an HD remake of a PS2 game, which in this case is a good thing.  Level sizes and view distances are also impressive. Where this game really stands out -- and is even better than the other games in its genre -- is with its soundtrack.  The music in the game changes constantly, depending upon which area you are in, and it is always perfect for the situation.  Skylar and Plux benefits from a laid back, jovial atmosphere that is communicated by both its graphics and its music.  In many ways, the game's lovely presentation is an asset to the game.

Skylar and Plux does not fare as well visually when the game is in motion, however.  Animations are crude and, in some cases, downright painful to watch.  Realistic physics are almost nonexistent too -- barely anything in the game looks like it has weight.  When you punch enemies for instance, the sort of just float backwards and disappear into a flurry of crystals.  This problem is especially noticeable when you fight the game's final boss, who reacts to your punches as if they have no force behind them.  These areas are where the big budget development teams have a big leg up on a small studio.  They are not deal breakers by a long shot, but they can be hard to overlook at times.  If you can overlook them, then you may find the exploration and platforming in Skylar and Plux to be a rewarding experience. 

No matter what your favorite character platformer series is -- be it Sly Cooper or Ratchet and Clank -- Skylar and Plux is likely a game that won't measure up to it.  It is a game that can be forgiven for all of its flaws though, because so much genuine love went into the game that it is nearly impossible to actively dislike it.  There is nothing cynical whatsoever about this game.  Instead, it oozes with an almost childlike enthusiasm, which is something uncommon in today's environment of dark, gritty games and hopelessly bloated development budgets.  It is that enthusiasm, along with the constantly changing music and scenery, that wholeheartedly carries the game and gives you the ability to overlook its shortcomings.  The game may be guilty of relying on that sense too much, forcing you to look the other way at everything that it is missing or does wrong.  Gamers who require more robust gameplay mechanics or more collectibles may find themselves underwhelmed by Skylar and Plux.  They should still be able to appreciate the effort though, if not the result.