Review: Pitfall The Lost Expedition (XB, PS2, GC)

Platform: Microsoft XBox
Category: Platformer
Developer: Edge of Reality
Publisher: Activision
Also On: PS2, GC
The Down-Lo: Welcome to the jungle. We’ve got fun and games. The same old fun and games, but fun and games nonetheless.

Ah, Activision. Activision and I have always had a healthy relationship. I suppose my semi-loyalty to the mega-publisher conglomerate really kicked in around 1999 when they brought over Virtual On: Oratorio Tangram for the US Dreamcast after Sega of America foolishly passed it by; not only publishing it, but going the extra mile adding two new controller configurations to compensate for lack of the near mandatory arcade Dual Sticks. Ever since satiating my fanatical love of this arcade classic I’ve been in a ridiculous dept of gratitude to Activision and have come to realize just how many great gaming memories I owe to their publishing umbrella. Kaboom, Grand Prix, Tony Hawk, good Spider-Man games, Dragster, and of course a humble little piece of gaming history that we like to call Pitfall.

Debuting on the Atari 2600 in 1982, the original Pitfall could very well be considered the Precursor to today’s modern day platformer. The Castlevanias, the Sonics, the Metriods, the Mega Mans, the Bionic Commandos… they all pay homage to a little sprite named Pitfall Harry and his perils through dangerous snake infested, crocodile filled, scorpion crawling jungles. Timed jumps. Vine swinging. Exploration. It all began here. Activision literally created a genre with this classic. Now that I think of it, I’m even more indebted to Activision than I once thought thanks to Pitfall’s groundbreaking influence; me being the platformer action/adventure addict that I am.

Alas, while Pitfall started off on the cutting edge, things sure didn’t stay that way. Subsequent Pitfall games have been significantly less innovative, chiefly following the same formula the original laid down with only some minute enhancements, thus making the sequels fairly forgettable. For instance Pitfall II: Lost Caverns… many of you probably never even knew there was a direct sequel on the Atari… had nowhere near the impact the classic original did. Which brings us to the latest game in the series, Pitfall: The Lost Expedition, for the next-generation consoles currently sitting in our living rooms today. How does it stack up against a market brimming with competition it literally helped to spawn? Very good surprisingly. But unsurprisingly, like its sequel predecessors, the core gameplay is not the most original experience to be had.



LET’S REVIEW
10-Point Reviewing Scale Technology: “It pisses off game companies.”

STORY:

I’ll give em’ this. One drastic change from Pitfall games previous is our hero himself, Pitfall Harry. No longer a faceless personality-less clichE adventurer, he’s been infused with a ton of charm and charisma. Today’s Pitfall Harry is arrogant, cocky and sarcastic, yet at the same time good hearted, brave and dashing. He’s the kind of guy that’ll selflessly risk life and limb in the face of overwhelming odds to save that damsel in distress, only to gratuitously stare at her butt two seconds later while she’s trying to recuperate. I screamed like a giddy schoolgirl when I saw him do that. And when you think about it, that’s how he should act. We’ve seen the guy spend his entire life battling through ridiculous dangers the likes of which most sane men would run home cowering in fear to wet their beds. You’d be a bit smug too if you went through all those perilous exploits and came out unscathed. Harry’s one-liners, condescending facial expressions, and antics add a great deal of appeal to your adventures, and as egotistical as he is you’ll find yourself really getting behind the guy just because.

The plot is told from Harry’s perspective using the technique of backwards storytelling. The Lost Expedition starts near the supposed end of the game, with Harry in an intense life or death battle against a demonic fire jaguar amid a ring of flames. Bam. Off the bat you’re immediately thrown into a mess of a jam and gameplay starts right then with you battling for your life to get out of it. I loved that. Never have I started a 3D platformer where I battled one of the end bosses right away. Best of all once you “win”, Harry being the overconfident shmuck that he is, lets his guard down allowing the jaguar to get the best of him anyway! Awesome. Just as it looks as though our hero is about to be taken out for good however, the scene freezes, Harry begins to narrate, and we’re brought back in time to the previous day, with Harry and co. aboard a plane filled with various scientists and explorers. On board is Harry’s fellow colleague, Dr. Bittenbinder, leader of this expedition, and along with the good Doctor is his extremely well endowed bookworm of an associate, Nicole. The pieces of how Harry’s predicament came to be start to fall together when suddenly, lightning strikes the plane, and it’s sent crashing down towards the harrowing South American jungle.

From there the plot continues as told through between mission narrations by Harry along with the occasional ingame cut scene. Starting out as a scavenger hunt for his lost aircraft mates, the story eventually branches off in several random directions. We’ve got rival native tribes battling it out. An old rivalry flaring up between Harry and his arch nemesis… up to no good no doubt… Jonathan St. Claire. And of course there’s the prerequisite for any clichE jungle adventure: Mysterious remains of ancient and prophetic civilizations. While I really enjoyed the biting delivery of Harry’s commentary and the ironic feeling of the story in general, the plot isn’t exactly Shakespeare. Some plot points are just plain silly bordering on hokey, but thankfully the game seems intended as such and knows not to take itself too seriously. Ultimately this game’s charm got to me. The tons of Indian Jones and old school Pitfall references, the comical dialogue attributable to not only Harry’s but the entire cast’s likable personalities, the light hearted nature of the game… it’s nothing new or particularly mind blowing but the tale The Lost Expedition tells is amusing and very well done. If this were a Saturday morning cartoon instead of a videogame, I’d sit down wearing my Ninja Turtle underoos with a bowl of Frosted Flakes and watch it.

Story rating: 7/10

GRAPHICS:

Huh. What the heck is it about these graphics? They’re not really all that impressive, but at the same time they are. Yes, for a game that takes place in a fixed location like the jungle the environments have a good amount of variety and some overall pleasant scenery to transverse, but when one takes a closer look you notice how… well, ugly certain details are. Get up close to a leaf or tree trunk and take notice of some less-than-stellar textures. Frame rates sporadically drop and the camera, normally on point, gets caught in a bad spot every so often. Visual problems abound, such as difficulty reading the dulled out Hints bar instructions at the bottom of the screen when it pops up to give clues. Lighting and fire effects… such as those from Harry’s torch… while functional, look flat and two-dimensional. And don’t even get me started on the horrid in game water effects. Feh. But I guess it all comes back to charm and style, something this game has in excess, as somehow everything aesthetically turned out fairly well. The Lost Expedition has a distinct look, featuring goofy and extremely exaggerated characters… take one look at the racks on some of the chicks in this game and you’ll know what I mean… along with decidedly vibrant and rich color schemes added in with some slapstick-wacky yet fluidly flawless animations. The artistic, heavily styled look helps to mask many of the game’s technically weaker aspects.


Pitfall’s graphics aren’t awe-inspiring, but good nonetheless.
As is the case with most multi-console releases, of the three versions available, the Xbox version looks both the best and performs the best overall. While playing the Xbox version I did see the potential for the graphics to become a bit drab (it was bordering on it to be honest), but I suppose the power of the console prevented that from happening as for the most part everything looks crisp and vibrant. No such luck for the GameCube and PS2 versions though, as things are noticeably drearier, especially for the… say it with me class… PS2 version. And remember those occasional frame rate drops we talked about? There’s even more “occasions” on the PS2 and GameCube editions.

Some technical weaknesses aside, The Lost Expedition does a good job using what it does have to create a delightful and engaging backdrop for your jungle swinging adventures. Just don’t expect poetry in motion.

Graphics rating (for a Xbox game): 6/10

SOUND:

Ahh. Probably my favorite aspect of the game. The voice acting for the entire cast… especially Harry… is funny, fitting, and fantastic, contributing greatly to the game’s deliberate silliness. We’ve got some great dialogue delivered here with some of the best comedic timing I’ve seen in the genre outside of Jak II. Music too is pleasant on the ears, featuring a well-orchestrated soundtrack with compositions fitting appropriately to each respective environment. In game sound effects are equally impressive. Aside from some repetitive, ear-bleed inducing enemy dialogue… one more screeching howler monkey or ooga booga yelling native and I was ready to strangle my cat with the Xbox controller cord… the general acoustics are an achievement. Pitfall doesn’t overload your ears with nonstop sensory data, but rather the game knows when to keep quiet and let the sound effects speak for themselves just as it knows when to kick in the music at the right moment to immerse the player. Very nice.

Sound rating: 8/10

CONTROL:

Yup. No doubts about it. This IS 3D Pitfall. Vine swinging over chasms. Attacking scorpions. Avoiding rolling barrels. Jumping across backs of hungry crocodiles. One constant platforming rush of a challenge after another. Just as in the Atari original, Harry’s life is filled with inordinate amounts of difficulty. And that’s a good thing.

Harry controls like most platformers you’re probably used to. He can run, jump, double jump, roll, grab onto ledges to pull himself up, swim, utilize some simplistic combat moves and use items he finds along the way. As you progress you’ll unlock and learn how to perform more advanced moves like the Rising Strike (helps you reach higher platforms) and the Heroic Dash (perform high bursts of speed to run over hot coals and escape enemies) among a barrage of others. You earn some of this expanded repertoire by buying moves from the Shaman Shop using Mystic Idols as currency. Idols are received from rescuing languishing aircraft survivors and finding mini Idol temples hidden away throughout the jungle. Shamans trade your Idols for almost everything you’ll need in your quest, such as new pieces of your map or energy upgrades. Earning these items and extra abilities is crucial, as it allows progression through previously unreachable areas… although not all skills/items are obtained from Shamans… for instance, an area will have poisonous plants where you can’t progress without first obtaining a gas mask or a collapsed cave entrance will need dynamite to open up your way.

For the most part it’s pretty easy to control Harry. Analog control is fluid as is button response to your jumps, which is very important in a game where 80% of the puzzles are jumping related. Combat comes up more than one would think in a game such as this, so it’s good that performing attacks goes off without a hitch as well. The interface for switching and using items is also very intuitive and quick to operate. Using the right analog stick works Harry’s right hand to pick up items and the like, putting a unique twist on what could have just been the standard “action button”. I’m impressed. Even the Achilles Heel of nearly every modern 3D platformer, the camera, behaves itself. Yes, it gets caught in some places (let’s face it, they ALL get caught), but it’s one of the solider I’ve seen as of late, even if that’s not saying much.

It’s not all lollypops and candy canes, though. Notice I said, “For the most part it’s easy to control Harry.” I don’t put those kinds of clauses in just to fill up space ya know. Again most of the game is reliant on jump puzzles; and while jumping from vine to vine or from platform to platform you’ll sometimes end up missing a jump that perhaps you shouldn’t have. How can I put this? Many times when I thought I had made the jump, in reality I just “missed” it and I watched as Harry sort of floated above the ground… even though it LOOKED like he should have landed on it… with him sliding off the platform instead of either hitting the surface with both feet or at least grabbing onto the platform’s edge to pull himself up. We like to call that bad collision detection. It’s rare but maddening when it arises, as sometimes I thought I was going the wrong way because the game wasn’t “letting” me get to a certain area.

Even with some collision detection issues and an ever so slightly par-for-the-course annoying camera, the controls are solid. Nothing pioneering or new here (boy, where have I heard that before) but the controls were meant to be straightforward and easy enough for anyone who’s ever played a game in this genre to use, which they are.

Control Rating: 7/10

REPLAYABILITY:

From beginning to end the whole game can be finished up in around 9 to 10 hours. Not exactly a beast of an adventure, but it’s of moderate good length. But a reason to play after finishing it? Well, it’s a linear adventure with a fixed ending so no dice there. The Native Games (cute little tribal inspired mini-games) were thrown in for good measure, but they’re only a mild diversion at best and hardly lasting. I suppose the real appeal for replay here is your reward for collecting all the Mystic Idols… and there are plenty to collect… because that unlocks the emulated version of Pitfall II: Lost Caverns. Eh… but even that footwork is rendered unnecessary, as you could just say screw it’, track down the cheat code, and enter it from the very start. While it’s obvious the developers put forth a conscious effort, you’ll sadly find that once you’ve finished The Lost Expedition you’re pretty much done.

Replayability rating: 6/10

BALANCE:

Not bad. If you leave the Hints option turned on it serves as an invaluable tool teaching the baby steps of gameplay, slowly weaning you off the nipple as the game moves forward, and squeezing the teat again at appropriate moments to teach the player new techniques. Although the game never truly reaches the testicular fortitude testing abilities of say a Billy Hatcher or Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando, the game’s challenges, platforming elements, and enemies increase in difficulty and quantity the farther into your adventure you go. Bosses also suitably start out as pushover pipsqueaks but later become bigger nuisances.

Where things go awry is with the game’s pacing. I’ve never backtracked so blasted much in my entire life. Towards the beginning of your adventure it’s all-good, but later on (once your abilities expand and new areas open up) you’ll frequently find yourself replaying through places you’ve already been, just to reach your next goal. The world does have some short cuts but more often than not, it’s time to turn around and go through it all over again. And it’s not just a hop, skip and a jump either. I estimate nearly an hour to two hours of gaming was wasted on these trips alone. That annoyed me.

Still it’s better than average. Less backtracking would have helped, but the game’s no walk in the park and should keep you fairly challenged throughout without too much cheese.

Balance rating: 6/10

ORIGINALITY:

Hmm. This is probably The Lost Expedition’s only real weak area. Is it fair to penalize the deficient of originality for a franchise that all but created adventure gaming as we know it today? Yes. Yes it is. Franchises like Mario, Jak & Daxter, The Legend Of Zelda, Sonic The Hedgehog… despite their industry longevity they constantly reinvent themselves. Pitfall does not. That doesn’t make this a bad game. Far from it. But that doesn’t change the fact it’s a platformer set in a temple-filled jungle with conventional controls, standard puzzles, occasional bad camera angles and is a sequel to boot. Style or no style, it’s all old hat.

Originality rating: 3/10

ADDICTIVENESS:

Ya know, I was fairly enthralled with this game. It’s not like I played it for hours and hours on end, but each time going back I got a little more acclimated to it and slightly more addicted. The amusing story and great voice acting will pull you into Harry’s world and help to carry things when the constant backtracking and occasional platforming hiccup become wearisome. It’s that blasted charm again. It draws you in and keeps you hooked for well longer than what would simply be another generic platformer should.


Come on, you know you want to see how this ends…
Also, the second I found out the original Pitfall was hidden inside (and to a lesser extent Pitfall II), compelling bonuses if there ever were compelling bonuses, I kept playing obsessively until I got them. Perhaps that was just the nostalgia gamer in me, but it was great motivation to keep the midnight oils burning.

Addictiveness rating: 7/10

APPEAL FACTOR:

This’ll appeal to the average-joe’ platformer player, seeing as how it’s easy on the eyes and not too hard on the challenge. Nostalgic gamers drawn to the Pitfall name should get a kick out of it as well, especially with the inclusion of this game’s Extras. It doesn’t feature gob loads of violence, gratuitous sex, or puppies drowning so kids will enjoy. Yet it’s not over the top cute or too childish looking for more mature’ gamers… if you like to think of gamers who want gob loads of blood and gratuitous sex as mature… to dismiss because it’s “too kiddy” (I still don’t forgive you retards for missing out on Billy Hatcher). The “E” for Everyone ESRB rating literally fits here, as it’s potentially for everyone to enjoy.

But not everyone will find his or her way to this game. The Lost Expedition is not a huge blockbuster of a release by any means. It came out quietly. It’ll be enjoyed quietly. And it’ll pass by once everyone has had their fill quietly. That’s because, in part, we’re not exactly being blitzed with the heaviest marketing campaign in the world here. But also because The Lost Expedition isn’t anything new. A million other adventurers of equal or greater value are sitting on the shelves for every system this game was released on. We’ve got a crowed market and it’s taking more and more to draw in attention. I mean, in a time where great games like Prince of Persia sell mediocre, you have to expect some level of gamer apathy. Those that do give it a go though, will find a solid platformer with nostalgia to reminisce over and charm to spare.

Appeal Factor rating: 7/10

MISCELLANEOUS:

Retrogamers rejoice! If you couldn’t tell by now, I’m real happy with the Extras. Bebito was gushing more than a bus load of priests at a Little League Game when I found out Pitfall and Pitfall II: Lost Caverns were both sitting inside this baby just waiting to be unlocked and have their sweet gaming juices sopped up like a biscuit in gravy. And unlike that sadistic bastard, Ninja Gaiden, you don’t need to sacrifice your left testicle (or ovary for you ladies) to obtain them. The original Pitfall is quickly gotten hold of within the first 2-3 hours of gameplay right after you find the torch. Pitfall II is a bit more difficult, as you need to find ALL the Mystic Idols to unlock it; but as previously mentioned there are easily accessible cheat codes you can find to bypass the work for both games if you’re among the whiny crybaby breed of gamer. Playing these gems with an Xbox controller takes some getting used to (the PS2 Dual Shock is the most fluid, followed by the GameCube pad), but once over the hump they were nearly as enjoyable as once remembered. Perfect bonuses to round out an already solid package.

Miscellaneous rating: 10/10


Short Attention Span Summary
After playing the barrage of Lowriders and Kirby Air Rides thrown in front of me as of late, this was a breath of fresh air. Though it has its hiccups, I’m very pleased with the latest iteration of one of my most beloved gaming memories. I’d say if you’re in the market for a solid, challenging, and amusing 3D adventure you could do much, much worse than to pop in some Pitfall. It’s not going to dethrone the Jak & Daxters and Ratchet & Clanks that are constantly pushing the envelope of our day. But Pitfall proves you can have a simple, tough game that stands as a solid example of good software design without going out of your way to do the shocking or entirely innovative. Sometimes all you need is to take an already proven formula, infuse a little charm, and add some fine tuning to succeed at making the average platformer romp into something special. Hats off to Edge of Reality for accomplishing just that. With charm and charisma to spare, Pitfall: The Lost Expedition delivers as the sleeper hit of the Spring that you should definitely check out if you’re a fan of the genre. Good stuff. Thanks yet again Activision.