Review: Archer Maclean’s Mercury (Sony PSP)

Genre: Puzzle
Platform: PSP
Rating: E (Everyone)
Publisher: Ignition Entertainment
Developer: Awesome Studios
Release Date: 04/06/2005

Old-school gamers will often recognize the name Archer Maclean. The British development guru was responsible for some classic pieces of computer software back in the 1980s, with International Karate and Dropzone being the most notable. In later years, Maclean turned his efforts toward programming pool and snooker games, becoming a legend in the field. Recently, Maclean’s created a unique liquid metal puzzle game for the PSP, aptly titled Archer Maclean’s Mercury. Even if your only experience with mercury was high school chemistry class or watching Terminator 2: Judgment Day, you’re in for a treat.


GRAPHICS

Mercury nearly sets a new standard for impressive graphics. While the backgrounds, obstacles, and various structures within each level are very nice looking (each “world” has a distinctive scifi look), it’s the blobs of mercury themselves that are truly amazing. They really do look and behave like the real thing!

The mercury rolls and oozes around just like a semiviscous liquid metal should; honestly, the physics engine defies description. Even better, there’s not a bit of slowdown; considering how tough the game gets in later levels, this is a godsend. Everything flows very smoothly (pun intended), even when the mercury splits up into numerous pieces, or when there’s a lot happening onscreen at once. The icing on the cake is the great implementation of particle and lighting effects.

(Rating: 9/10)


SOUND

The music in Mercury is very subdued, and sometimes nearly nonexistent. While in other games, that would drop the sound score considerably, it’s actually a very smart move on the developers’ part in this case. While playing Mercury, you’ll be so transfixed and intent on rolling those little blobs around, that the musical accompaniment will nearly disappear. A blaring score would only serve to irritate and distract the player, so the subtle tones in Mercury were a good choice. Most of the sounds that you’ll be paying attention to are the various noises that the blobs and obstacles make; aside from the expected “bloop” effects you’ll hear when the mercury pieces move about, there’s a lot of mechanized effects when your liquid metal flows through doors, activates switches, etc.

(Rating: 7/10)


CONTROL

Ever played one of those “labyrinth” games when you were younger? You know, that infernal wooden box with the two knobs on the sides, where you had to tilt the top of the box to make a marble roll around without falling through holes? C’mon, you know you have. Mercury is the exact same concept, but to a much more complicated degree.

Control of the “table” in this case is handled exclusively by the PSP’s analog nub. Whichever way you push the nub, the table will angle in that direction. The precise control offered by analog movement is a requirement here, and thankfully, the response is spot-on. This is a double-edged sword; while the control is great, Mercury is a tough game. If you keep losing, you can’t blame the control scheme; it’s simply because you suck.

Mercury isn’t just rolling blobs around and trying to avoid holes. You wish it was that simple. As you progress through the game, you’ll encounter obstacles, machinery, and other environmental artifacts that can help or hinder you in your quest. For example, sometimes you’ll have to drop some of your mercury into a bucket to lower a bridge, then retrieve that mercury before rolling the entire blob across. There’s also machines called paintshops; these change the color of your blob. Since some doorways are equipped with filters that only allow mercury of a certain color to pass through, you can see how the paintshops are handy to have around. Later stages feature all manner of crazy gadgets, like flux cannons, vaccuum pipes, spinners, and teleporters. Using these various devices to your advantage is a core gameplay element in Mercury, so mastering them should be a top priority.

In a game this bent on precise control, it had better have a good camera system, and Mercury delivers. You can rotate the camera around the playfield in 90- or 45-degree increments, or even set it to free rotation if you choose. You can also zoom in and out, and when you have more than one blob of mercury rolling around, you can set the camera to target a specific one (by default, the camera will zoom back so that could see all of them). The only quirk with the camera is that in later levels (especially the really big ones), you really can’t find a good compromise between zooming out far enough to get a lay of the land, and keeping tabs on multiple blobs of mercury.

(Rating: 9/10)


MODES

As expected, Mercury has a rich single player mode. There’s over 70 levels spread across numerous futuristic worlds, and making it to the later ones is a challenging task indeed. When you begin the game, only the first world is available. This whole set of levels is a tutorial, which will teach you how to complete each type of level you’ll face. The various levels fall into five categories: task, race, percentage, combo, and boss. Task levels require you to hit a set amount of beacon switches scattered throughout the area. In race levels, you need to reach the end of the level within a defined timeframe. Percentage levels require you to complete the level by hitting a pressure switch with a certain amount of mercury remaining (say, 60% or more). Combo levels are a combination of the previous three level types, and finally, you’ve got the devious boss levels. Just in case the other levels didn’t challenge you enough, these will surely drive you nuts. They’re considerably harder than the others, and there’s often monsters called Mercoids floating around. Mercoids actually eat mercury, and do so at a rapid rate. You can imagine what will happen if one of the little bastards catches you.

There’s also plenty of bonus levels to keep you on your toes. These stages are unlocked by meeting certain criteria in other levels, such as finding a shortcut or beating a preset score. Last but not least, there’s a slick two-player mode. (Note: the other player will need their own copy of the game.) This functions just like any other mode, with the same level objectives and gameplay. However, now you’ve got the secondary objective of trying to beat the level before your opponent does. They’ll appear on your screen as a “ghost blob,” as shown below.

This ghost blob won’t interfere with your bit of mercury; you can pass right through it, and vice versa. Still, it’s handy to know where your enemy is, especially if you want to screw them over by hitting a switch to move a platform at an inopportune moment. Well, inopportune for them, but very convenient for you!

(Rating: 8/10)


REPLAYABILITY

Mercury will take you a very long time to complete, simply because there’s a lot of levels and a majority of them are tough as nails. Even if you complete the regular worlds, there’s still bonus levels to find, and there’s always high scores to beat.

(Rating: 7/10)


BALANCE

The first few worlds aren’t so bad, but then the difficulty shoots up exponentially. You’ll be practicing like mad just to survive the later stages, but it’ll leave you with a nice sense of satisfaction once you complete them. Casual gamers may be a bit put off by the extreme difficulty, but considering that it’s not super-hard right off the bat, your skills will improve with time and patience.

(Rating: 7/10)


ORIGINALITY

Leave it to Maclean to take such a simple, time-honored concept and turn it into a fantastic puzzle experience. Labyrinth-esque games have been done before, but never to such an impressive and stylish degree. Seriously, who in a million years would’ve thought to use the 80th element as the focus of a puzzle game?

(Rating: 8/10)


ADDICTIVENESS

How can a puzzler not be addictive? Well, I suppose if it was badly designed, it wouldn’t be addictive, but that’s certainly not the case here. It’s very easy to lose many hours of your time playing Mercury, and they’ll pass by in a flash before you even realize it. Even if you’re going to be late for work, you’ll try to squeeze in “just one more level.”

(Rating: 8/10)


APPEAL

The fact that many gamers haven’t heard much about Mercury is also its biggest asset. It launched within two weeks of the PSP’s release, and fans of the handheld system are ravenous for new titles. Since Mercury looks (and is) very different from every other PSP game, it should draw in many a curious player.

(Rating: 8/10)


MISCELLANEOUS

Fans of the Game Boy Color classic Kirby Tilt ‘N’ Tumble, listen up: Mercury was originally slated to ship with a tilt sensor that would plug into the PSP’s USB port. Unfortunately, there were some technical problems with the peripheral, so you won’t be seeing it if you nab a copy of Mercury. The good news is that the tilt sensor is still being worked on, and Mercury should still support it when the sensor is eventually released. Then you won’t have to use that analog nub anymore…you’d literally tilt the PSP itself around to move your mercury! Mercury‘s great on its own, but this is certainly something to look forward to, and will likely attract gamers to the title all over again. You can be sure that the tilt sensor is a lock for Mercury 2, which is already in the works.

(Rating: 7/10)


Final Scores:

Graphics: 9/10
Sound: 7/10
Control: 9/10
Modes: 8/10
Replayability: 7/10
Balance: 7/10
Originality: 8/10
Addictiveness: 8/10
Appeal: 8/10
Miscellaneous: 7/10

Overall Score: 78/100
FINAL SCORE: 8.0 (GREAT!)