THQ's de Blob, a game about a hyperactive blob covering a monochromatic cityscape with paint, presents an serious challenge for this particular writer. The problem is this: how to describe it without making accidental puns about blobs and color? For example, I can't say that the art design "oozes style," although it does, or describe the musical style as "slick," or refer to a "colorful cast of characters." Most of the phrases in my Hacky Game Writer's Handbook (2008 Ed.) are off limits now. Well, I got through my review of Bejeweled without calling it a hidden gem, so I can probably do this. No more blobs, colors, or references to Jackson Pollock.
I'll also be avoiding the phrase "mixed bag," for reasons that will become increasingly clear.
First, let's talk about the story of de Blob, which is an unmixed, entirely fun bag. A city of free-thinking artists of many hues is enslaved by the fascist INKT Corporation. INKT is really good at what they do, and within a single cutscene, they've drained all color from the world, set up propaganda broadcasts, and turned the local blobs into soulless black and white bureaucrats. Each cutscene is an entertaining bit of dark humor and physical comedy, as the Inkies move on to ever more elaborate strategies for winning the War on Color. And each of the game's environments is packed with cute references: The Church of Inktology, Guggentraz Island, the Ministry of Ink. The Inkies' crazed leader, Comrade Black, has become my new favorite adorable dictator, narrowly edging out Wallace Breen, Half-Life 2's cuddle bear of a collaborator. "Welcome to City 17. It's safer here ... in my beard."
The city's only hope is Blob, who appears to be the one blob in the city named Blob, and his rag-tag team of color revolutionaries. The whole plot is really just a pretext to make the player feel comfortable splashing paint all around the city in the name of liberation. In the real world, that's called vandalism, and it's a serious offense against all of society. But de Blob, somehow, manages to make graffiti look cool. The music, which ranges from jazz to funk to swing, gets peppier and catchier as you accumulate more paint and different styles, and the environment is designed to become more interesting and livelier as well. For example, splattering a billboard doesn't just change its color, it transforms it from a dour Big Brother-style propaganda poster to a cheery mural. There's an immense visual and musical payoff for filling the world with color.
While bouncing from rooftop to rooftop, you may, accidentally or on purpose, hit the blimp. Each level has a surveillance blimp floating about. Splatter it once, and it becomes a multicolored awesome blimp filled with party gas. This is the very best moment in all of de Blob, and it is delightful every time. The blimp. Hit it.
I wanted to mention how much fun that is before moving on to other issues which, unfortunately, detract from the experience a bit, turning de Blob into, shall we say, a variegated sack.
The controls are an all too common Wii design mistake. Jumping requires a quick flick of the Wii remote downward, and there is no way to remap it to a button. Simply put, it's annoying and bears no relation to the action performed on screen. Jumping up, left, right, or down is the same motion, and the only way to tell which way you're headed is a hard to see arrow which shows your momentum. Blob actually controls with the left thumbstick, so there is no reason, other than pointless waggle, to not use the A button to jump. Instead, the A button brings up a tiny, useless map. No kidding.
Now, this isn't a game breaker, because most of the precision jumping involves special jump pads or targeting an opponent with the Z button, which flings Blob in any direction without regard to momentum or physics. It's a very obvious workaround for an obviously flawed mechanic. In theory, Blob can stick to the side of a building, then bounce off and grab another, painting a whole city block in one smooth sequence. I've never pulled that off. Flicking the Wiimote that rapidly nearly broke my wrist. I stopped trying, because I like my wrist.
At times, the design of de Blob seems to be fighting against its own premise, which is a shame, because it's a damn good premise. de Blob is all about individualism and freedom, yet each level has an arbitrary time limit when all I want to do is explore every inch of the city and slather it with paint. Yes, there's a free play mode, and the free play is 100% entertaining, but I had to play through the story mode first to unlock the levels, and story mode is a bit too challenging for my taste. The levels are very long and have no save points. I also learned to skip all the missions in which some hippie artist girl told me to paint buildings in specific colors, which she chose, without my input. I didn't join the freedom fighters so I could be strictly timed while taking orders from some hippie. I joined so I could stay up late and deface public property. Stop harshing my marshmallow, lady.
Despite these rookie missteps, de Blob has too much going for it to be dismissed as "some good, some bad." The music, the visuals, and the characters are worth the hassle of a few failed missions or timeouts here and there. And broken wrists heal eventually. I look forward to a sequel which smooths away the rough edges and keeps its focus on what makes this game unique. Our protean protagonist deserves more virgin canvases on which he can splatter his gelatinous glee.
de Blob: It's not as disgusting as I just made it sound.