Portable gaming is an odd thing. On the one hand, the technology has come so far that the PSP will play nearly-ported titles of your favorite shooter or RPG with relative ease and minimal loss in graphics, gameplay, or content. You can play WiFi deathmatch to your heart's content. You can lose yourself in hours of Grand Theft Auto mayem.
But that's not why I own a PSP. I own a PSP to play games in those in-between moments: at the airport, in traffic in a cab, while waiting for the subway--and let's face it--on the can. (I defy you, gentle reader, to tell me you've owned your portable for more than a month and never played it in the smallest room in your house.) In response to this fundamental truth there is an entire genre of games that doesn't exist in any meaningful way off of handhelds. Shortform games like Lumines, Mercury, Sudoku, and Ape Escape Academy are examples, but even games like Wipeout Pure and Gripshift are designed for consumption in 3 minute bites.
The premise of Exit from Taito is delightfully simple: you guide the panama-hatted and red-scarved dashing Mr. Esc in a series of rescue missions (insert any number of exclamation points here). The rescue scenarios range from saving children in burning buildings to helping thugs out of underground slums. Each of the 10 core scenarios has 10 levels--progressively harder variations on a theme. Mr. Esc is usually trying to rescue a number of victims ("companions" in Exitspeak) who can each be a help or a hindrance in their own right. Occasionally, Mr. Esc is racing a competitive would-be-hero, Jet, for the glory of the day.
Exit delivers this premise in an intriguing and unique package. Taito has given us an odd, genre-crossing PSP game. Part side-scrolling platformer, part puzzle game, part comic book, it exudes style in the way Japanese developed titles often do. But rather than the videogame J-pop style we've come to expect, it's a hyperbolic Dick Tracy meets Jim Carrey version of gumshoe theater.
In typical platformer style, Mr. Esc moves boxes, uses found objects (ropes, planks, keys, fire extinguishers, etc.), jumps, climbs, and presses switches. Each of the 100 included stages takes a few minutes to complete, although frequently it takes many, many attempts to work through a sticky situation. Ubisoft took the extra step of making 100 additional stages available online. They're actually different, interesting, and in general better than the stages that ship with the game, which makes me think they were left out more for reasons of release timing than disk space.
The gameplay is engaging, but frustrating. Not frustrating in the typical and expected I-hate-this-puzzle sense, but in in the controls. Mr Esc can only jump straight up or straight across, but never on to anything. Even a waist-high crate must be laboriously climbed. I find myself constantly attempting to jump onto and over obstacles until my brain catches up with my fingers. The rest of control system is riddled with similar, ever-so-slightly-annoying discrepancies between how I expect it to work and how it in fact works.
Even more frustrating are selecting and controlling Mr. Esc's companions. Children need constant help around obstacles, but can cross fragile bridges. "Young" (an interesting Japanese translation) can help older folks over obstacles. Adults--well adults are pretty much useless. With patience and practice, I can now help them overcome their limitations and use them as a second set of hands, making for speedier Exits. But bending them to my will is often an exercise in repetitive frustration.
If this was all there was to Exit, I would consider it barely worthy of a slot in your Gamefly cue. But where the game tentatively crosses the border into "buy it" land is in the fuzzy area of feel. The graphics have a brilliant eye-popping color and cell-shaded look. And while the visual environment is essentially side-scroller, the two-dimensional world moves with 3d perspective--point of view and vanishing point shift as Mr. Esc moves around. Where most 2D platformers feel rigid, Mr. Esc and his companions move with elegant animation belying their tiny pixelated stature. They communicate real emotion and context in tiny details. A woman reaches to straighten her skirt. A child huddles in fear. A wounded companion slumps in pain. Every object in the environment moves with uniqueness and remarkably realistic physics.
Mr. Esc and his companions are voiced with an eye towards humor, and it works. Effite ladies in stylish hats complain about needing a shower. Wounded victims voice obsequious gratitude, and Mr. Esc himself calls out for survivors and complains about climbing stairs and needing to workout more. The music, which comes preinstalled at ear shattering volumes, is hyper-enthusiastic and engaging once the volume knob is cranked down from "11" to "3". The aural canvas is exactly appropriate.
Finally, the unique feel of Exit is underscored by the backstory and environment of the game. Each scenario has a 6-10 page storyboard lead-in written with a Bogartesque, devil-may-care voice and illustrated with hyper-stylized comic art (think Frank Miller with a sense of humor). These storyboards set the tone for each scenario in a compelling and engaging way, exposing the motivations of this ludicrous animated hero with the red scarf.
Like most puzzle games, Exit will lose its shine once I complete all (or most) of the levels. I find replay value on games like this to be minimal. But while I wait for the arrival of Lemmings at my local mall (inevitably weeks behind the rest of the world) I'll keep helping our intrepid Mr. Esc.