"Every exit is an entry somewhere else." Tom Stoppard

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.

Enter Exit.

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.


Good article rabbit, wish I owned a PSP. Well, no, that's not true. Anyway, what this really did was make me nostalgic for Comic Zone and Earthworm Jim at the same time. You really made me realize that we haven't had a kind of goofy, stylized 2d platformer in a while. I think all the systems are due one.

I do hope Comic Zone comes out on the Wii... I loved that game, but only ever played it emulated. I'd love to play it on a real screen while kicking back on my couch.

A couple of the screenshots look like they could be from the Elevator Action series. Is the gameplay similar?

Interesting connection. There are a few scenarios that use elevators, and you are indeed working a path through a structure, but the core gameplay is very very different. In EA you spend most of your time evading and shooting your way through enemies. Exit is actually quite slow and calm. The time alloted is usually quite sufficient to get a level clear once you figure out how you're going to go about it. In many cases you make a mistake which makes the level impossible to clear without retrying (thankfully, very quick to do).

It's an aquired taste. Despite its appearance, it's not really a "light" game. You really need to think your way through methodically.

DS is best and anyone that says otherwise is a homosexual!

Question - When I click on the first screenshot, why does it take me to Microsoft.com?

It's our new secret ad system. Thanks for the .06 cents!

errrrr, I mean, fixed.

Elysium wrote:

It's our new secret ad system. Thanks for the .06 cents!

ha, pranked!

I did Gamefly this game and for a while planned on buying it, but the more I played it, the more I did grow (eventually) tired of the trial-by-error gameplay. I completed thirty-something puzzles and then started jumping around on the selection screen to avoid doing them all sequentially. Finally, hitting a series of puzzles that took place in complete darkness save for a small halo of light around Mr. Esc had me powering the PSP down and mailing the game back to Gamefly.

It's got great style, and is a wonderful concept, but I just don't think I'm up for a game like this anymore. And when you try a puzzle 20 times, finally figure it out, and accidentally fail because of somewhat wonky controls, it can get pretty frustrating. I wanted to like it enough to buy it, but instead I merely recommend the rental approach. Either way, it is a definite must-play for hungry PSP owners looking for something to play.

Microsoft? Did the new guy blow a URL? I'd swear on a stack of classic games that I'd checked every link...

RandomlyGenerated: I don't think I disagree with what you've said. It comes down to how much you like or dislike this kind of puzzle game to start with, and how much the feel-factor makes it worthy of more than a casual week or two of playing. I figure (personally) it's good for about 15-20 hours of 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there playing before it goes in the trade pile.

Chiggie Von Richthofen wrote:

You really made me realize that we haven't had a kind of goofy, stylized 2d platformer in a while. I think all the systems are due one.

don't forget about alien hominid's PDA games...


Chiggie Von Richthofen wrote:

You really made me realize that we haven't had a kind of goofy, stylized 2d platformer in a while. I think all the systems are due one.

Sh*t. I did forget about those.