(Scene: anywhere at any time in the last five years. Two gamers are mid-conversation: 'A' is someone attempting to be funny about video games, 'B' is… well, 'B' is a representation of me… i.e. pretty conceited.)
A: Have you ever noticed how main characters can be shot dozens of times in-game, but one bullet in a cutscene will incapacitate them?
B: Yes, it's to ensure that not all games are unforgivingly hardcore.
A: So… how come EVERY game has zombies, Nazis, or mercenaries in it, eh? EH???
B: Because those are the enemies we can best justify (to ourselves) in killing without mercy, due to fundamentally inhumane aspects of their construct.
A: Well… why?
B: …because explosive barrels provide an additional play mechanic, as well as a short yet visceral peak throughout the course of a level… *sigh*… (B exits without A.)
The post-modern activity of cackling at the discrepancies within video games has in itself become a cliché. After all, it's easier to mock convention than it is to devise an amusing and original idea.
From scene to play
One Epic Game's big hook is that it pokes fun at tropes in gaming between each level of its play. It does this by breaking the fourth wall. How? By zooming into the charmless main character's face whenever he snidely quips that something he's about to do is absurd because THIS IZ A VIDEOGAMEZZ!!!11
This referential comedy feels tired, falls flat every single time, and isn't helped by some inherently poor joke construction.
Meanwhile, play itself consists of protagonist Alpha Dog automatically running from left to right, firing upon enemies and hopping across gaps - all of which is controlled by just two buttons. In the randomly generated stages of the Free Run mode, this Canabalt-meets-Contra play is enjoyable, if limited by the width of the PSP screen.
There's no aftertouch control to speak of, which exacerbates the title's biggest flaw: the player can easily misjudge his jumps due to the insufficient time given to mentally calculate how far his next leap needs to be. When you overshoot a platform, or run into one too many enemies, or miss a crucial jetpack pick-up because of this, it's difficult not to feel a little cheated.
On the subject of the jetpack, it's never made clear enough whether you'll be needing it for the forthcoming landscape. It may just be a nice addition to your arsenal for skipping across a chunk of challenges, or it may be vital to your continued success due to a chasm you're unable to jump normally.
If the item is in a tricky spot, you may choose not to risk grabbing it, only to be penalised by immediate death from a bottomless pit, and subsequently having to restart from the beginning of the level or a recently passed checkpoint.
Other items include the temporary addition of alternative weapons from the standard and slow-firing pistol. Though most weapons are useful for ridding your path of bad guys, the shotgun is almost entirely useless, the trinket labelled 'S' becoming another obstruction to avoid, along with piles of chemical waste and clumps of spikes.
The Story Mode adds modifiers to the central gameplay, such as requiring you to only kill specific enemies or reaching a target distance, and there are awards to gain by fulfilling in-game criteria. It's a neat way to stretch out the experience for those that find One Epic Game particularly engaging.
One area in which the title really excels is the direction of its visual design. Sprite work is excellent, reminiscent of the cutely serious expressions of the cast of Metal Slug. Backgrounds are varied and multiple layered, full of colour and detail as they zip by.
I desperately wish that the team had dropped the pastiche element of the title and embraced the ridiculous conventions of the medium. But it hasn't, and instead has fallen back on jokes that every core gamer has heard before.
Even if you can look past this tired angle of approach, you're still left with a product that's great looking but mediocre performing, with a tendency to treat its players unfairly through cheap deaths, courtesy of hampered spatial awareness.