Inside Pulse 12

Review: Downstream Panic! (Sony PSP)

Downstream Panic!

Downstream Panic!
Genre: Puzzle
Developer: Eko Software
Publisher: Atari, Inc
Release Date: 02/05/2008

Ok. When I agreed to review this game, it was just so that I’d have an excuse to buy it and find out just what in the hell it was. The screenshots didn’t give much away, (except that there was fish) and very few people seemed to know what it was. Fast-forward a few months later and finally the game hits the shelves. Turns out, its a puzzle game where you’ve got to guide countless fish from the top of the level to the bottom, whilst avoiding sharks, birds, road blocks, and of course, giant fish with teeth the size of your head.

Now many don’t want to believe this, but the PSP is already home to numerous original puzzle games. Crush, Lumines, and Exit were all received pretty well. Those are some pretty big shoes to fill, especially in my eyes. To top it off, moments after it was revealed, people started making comparisons to Lemmings and LocoRoco. All in all, Downstream Panic had a lot to live up to. Does it fit the bill, or does it fall flat on its face?

Modes

A giant cyclone has swept through the ocean and blown all of the fish out of the water. You’re going to help them get back. While this is far from the most exciting premise a game has delivered, at least it brings some sort of sense to the mayhem. It’s better than no explanation as to why fish are being poured out of a giant fish bowl onto dangerous territory.

There are only three modes in Downstream Panic. The first is story mode, which is an odd title since there is no story besides the one I mentioned above. Story mode contains eighty levels of varying difficulty for you to play through. You will see some themes emerge about every ten levels. Sometimes it will be sunny as a Disney movie, and other times you’ll have to work in thunderstorm, or even a blizzard. What’s really great about these is they offer new elements to the mechanics, but I’ll get to that later.

After you complete a set about of missions in story mode, you’ll unlock free play. However, this isn’t just your normal free play mode where you get to replay story level. You’ll be able to use money earned throughout the game to buy tools and equipment that weren’t available before. This will allow you to save even more of the fish, and get a 100% on each level. It’s up to you how much time you really want to spend on this, but it could give you some closure on level where you had to sacrifice one too many fish for your liking.

There’s also survival mode, which can better be coined as “THE GAUNTLET OF DOOM” mode. Here you’ll play through the story missions one by one, but you’ll keep the same fish throughout the whole eighty levels. That means, if you lose a fish on level one, you’ll have one less fish on level two. The idea is, see how long you can go before you lose all of your fish. If you manage to complete this mode, you have my undying respect and awe.

That’s it. There’s no multiplayer, as this is a strictly single player game. There’s no training missions, or bonus levels to complete outside of the story mode. (Although Atari claims there will be downloadable levels.) The worst of it is there is no create a map. This game SCREAMS for it. How can you play through this game and not want to cultivate your own landscapes for the fish to traverse? You can’t I say! You simply can’t! The PSP has a solid internet community. This game would have so much more volume if you could create your own maps and share them online. Something like that would have boosted this game up to the next level.

Graphics

A lot of people compare the graphics of Downstream Panic to that of LocoRoco. I don’t get it. Sure, the fish have smiley faces, but everything I see reminds me more of WORMS than anything else. The environments are pretty simple really. The landscape is smooth and circular, as to allow the water to run as well as possible. Unlike LocoRoco, the landscape is filled in with detail to let you know what it is. There are small lines to indicate dirt, and green patches to represent grass. Grayish areas are rocks, etc.

The water “physics” in this game aren’t too bad, but aren’t too great. I believe its water just by the color, but it really acts more like a combination of water and sand. As it pours through cracks, it really feels like instead of a stream, we’re getting grains of sand falling. I guess you really can’t expect much on the PSP when it comes to advanced water physics that some much higher tech consoles still struggle with.

The fish are very bright and cute looking, so much so that when they die, you actually feel a little sad for them. The sharks and birds all have a menacing look to them. You’ll learn to hate them, trust me. Graphically, there really isn’t a lot to this game. It goes for a simple art style of rounded shapes with minimal detail so you can tell what’s what. The only interesting thing to note is that when the fish die, there is a little burst of blood. Given the games cute nature, this is a real shocker, but manages to add to the game in that you really don’t want these little fish to die.

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Audio

Here comes another inevitable comparison to LocoRoco. The fish sing. Of course, they only sing one song really. It might be cute the first few times, but play this game long enough and you’ll turn off the sound as an instinct.

Apart from that, there are relatively few sound effects in the game at all. The fish make a few cute sounds throughout. The sharks make a satisfying chomp when they get a hold of your charges, and the various tools you use all make appropriate sounds, such as an explosion when you use a bomb, or a whoosh sound when you use a fan.

There really isn’t much to talk about here.

Control and Gameplay

I want to say one thing before I start tearing this game a new asshole. It’s incredibly fun for the first thirty or so levels. It’s only in the later stages of the game that the real problems emerge and rob the player of a fun experience.

OK. Where to begin? There are a hundred fish to save in each level, however, depending on the mission, you’ll have to actually rescue somewhere between 55-95 of them. You rescue them by using tools to lead them to a specially designated area at the bottom of the screen. Let the fish drop anywhere else, and they’ll end up in the jaws of the biggest fish you’ve ever seen. (They look like giant Goldfish cracker come to life. Scary.) The tools you get at first are pretty basic, and further the Lemmings comparisons. You’ll have bombs to blow paths through dirt, and plants to create walls so the fish can’t go careening off the edge. Later in the game, however, you’ll start to find some truly unique and interesting tools to use. One is the cloud. All the water and fish that land in a cloud will stay in that cloud until you click it and cause it to rain. In the meantime, you’ll be able to use fans, if you have any, to blow the cloud elsewhere on the screen. This can often prevent your fish from falling to their deaths and is one of the coolest things about this game. There are also winter storm clouds that kill all the fish that land in them and turn the water into snow. That snow can be used to block holes in the fish’s path. Pretty neat, huh? Then there’s the attractor, which will draw all fish to its center and hold them until water starts rushing out from underneath them. All of these tools are really neat….in theory. Too bad the controls don’t do them justice.

First off, this game uses a cursor, which automatically made me wish I had a mouse to use rather than the PSP’s analog stick. It just doesn’t go fast enough, especially on the later levels where timing is anything. There’s also no button to scroll down the level, which means you have to drag the cursor down to the bottom of the screen to move your view. Again…too slow. To top it all off, there’s no zoom button either. The only really useful feature they DIDN”T remove is the ability to speed up time when all you’re waiting for is the fish to follow your perfectly made route. That’s just a simple press of the triangle button.

Downstream Panic! 3

Lack of control options is only one of the problems here. You’ll also discover that the game is just a wee bit of a perfectionist. Often times, you success can be determined by pixels. For example, there are points in the game where you’ll have to blast a bit of dirt so that a boulder that was stuck behind it can roll free and help you out somewhere else. If you’re the slightest bit off in your aim, the boulder could get stuck, or not even roll at all. I swear to god, one time I blew everything away except a single dust particle and that one pixel stayed in mid air and kept the giant boulder at bay, meaning I had to restart the entire level. This happens with other items too, like the plants, where if you place it just the slightest bit off, water can fall on either side of it, therefore making it a terrible wall. It may sound like a minor complaint, but when you see the level and know EXACTLY what to do, only to have it foiled by a magical gravity defying pixel, it can quickly become frustrating.

Ooh! I haven’t mentioned the most irritating thing in this game; the water itself! It’s completely unpredictable in nature. You’ll have it flow fine most of the time, but some time, it will mess you up bad. Let’s say you need water to fall off of one rock and onto another. You’ll place a plant on one side of the bottom rock so that the water only goes one way. Well, sometimes the water will push all of the fish to the next section, and sometimes it will leave one or more fish behind that can never be saved. They’ll just sit there like a marooned pirate, and there isn’t a damned thing you can do about it. Then, when you lose your mission, by one fish, you’ll be ready to throw your PSP halfway across the room. There is FAR too much luck involved in this, especially since it’s a puzzle game.

That being said, it can still be a ton of fun. There are some really great mechanics at work here, if only they had been implemented by someone with half a brain, or maybe just on a PC, this game could have been something really great.

Replayability

There are eighty missions to play through, and three different ways to play through them. While for a puzzler, that may not be the most we’ve ever seen, it’s a pretty good start. So, at least for the first time through the game, there’s a strong amount of value.

However, there really isn’t that much replay value to be had here. Each puzzle has a trick to it, and once you solve it, most of the intrigue of each level is gone. It’s not like Lumines, Tetris, or any of the classic puzzlers in that each time is different.

True, the ability to buy weapons in free play mode does allow you to find new ways to solve old puzzles, but this kind of excitement can only go so far. So unless you really enjoyed the game, you’re probably not going to pick it up too many times after the first run-through.

Balance

I think I ranted about the frustrating controls a bit earlier on. Well, they’re only part of the problem. The first thirty or so levels of this game are pretty straightforward and easy. Most of them are just to get you used the mechanics and several of the early items to use. You won’t find yourself restarting too much.

Then, around level thirty-one, the difficulty spikes, like a seismograph when an earthquake strikes. The puzzles not only become more devious, there is a startlingly large increase in the number of enemies and ways for your fish to die. To top it all off, timing starts playing a dominant factor in all of the proceedings. You have to use the right tool at the right time all of the time. Any misstep is going to cost you dearly. The game starts becoming more about trial and error rather than using your brain to figure out the correct path.

For instance, there is a level later on in the game where the water pours into a large open basin. There are five conch shells at the bottom. Each one will occasionally spill out some water (and fish) below. Directly below this basin is a herd of giant piranha like fish that will kill everything that gets in your way. Your only way to save them is to blow a cloud to catch the water. Problem is, there is no way to predict which shell will release water at any give time, and so instead of solving a puzzle, you have to figure out the pattern by trying the level multiple times. It’s just frustrating to have that kind of thing in a game like this.

Downstream Panic! 1

Originality

Never mind how easy to draw comparisons to Lemmings, LocoRoco, or WORMS. I must say this game has a lot of new things to offer. The use of water to carry the fish around the course was something I don’t think we’ve seen before. It offered a totally new look on this kind of gameplay. For once, the creatures you’re trying to save aren’t so stupid as to walk off a cliff. The fish are legitimately bound to follow the water’s whims. It really adds to the charm of the game.

That being said, beyond the use of water, its pretty much Lemmings turned on its end.

Addictiveness

As easy as the first thirty or so levels are, they are also like crack. You can move through them at a brisk pace, and you’ll honestly be excited to see what new tools/and or puzzles await you at the next screen. Even at the later levels, you’ll feel compelled to continue on.

Case in point, I didn’t stop playing until I finally got too stuck to move on. Every now and then, I’ll pick the game up and try to figure out what I’ve missed. I’m sure if this game was just a tad bit better designed, it would have been crack to puzzle users everywhere.

Appeal Factor

The PSP has a penchant for attracting unique puzzle game concepts. That was what interested me in this game. I enjoyed the offerings of Crush, Exit, Gunpey, and Lumines more than words can say. I was hoping Downstream Panic had some of that luster in it.

There was also a ton of mystery about this game upon its announcement. I think the game benefited from some hype because it honestly looked interesting. It’s hard for a game to stand out, and Downstream Panic managed to pull it off, if only a little bit.

All in all, puzzle fans who like a challenge should have some fun with this game, and it’s a great portable title to be sure.

Misc.

To further expand on the portable nature of the game, it fits the requirements of a portable game quite well. The levels rarely take more than a few minutes to play through once you know the trick. It’s great to sneak in a level or two on short car rides, or even on breaks during work. There’s no worry about save points, since the game gives you the option to save after each level.

This could be the start of a great puzzle series. The only problem with the game in my opinion is the platform they chose to release it on. Had this game been on the DS, or the PC, a lot of my gripes would have been averted, such as the poor, and lacking control options.

I’m really hoping that the dev team takes a look at the mistakes they made in this game and learns from it. A sequel would be more than welcome on different platform. That being said, a PSP owner shouldn’t hesitate to buy this game if they need a puzzler to give them a few headaches.

    The Scores

Story: Decent
Graphics: Mediocre
Sound: Poor
Control and Gameplay: Mediocre
Replayability: Good
Balance: Poor
Originality: Very Good
Addictiveness: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Good
Miscellaneous: Good

FINAL SCORE: Mediocre

    Short Attention Span Summary

This game could have been really great. Saving fishes from certain doom is most certainly fun. Unfortunately, in order to save them, you’re going to have deal with poor controls, missing controls, and unfair difficulty spikes. I truly believe that a future, updated release on a different system could really go a long way to making this game quite good. As for now, unless you need a puzzle fix, it would be in your best interest to spend your money elsewhere.

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