A Boy and his Blob - Review
19/12/2009 at 22:03
I really wanted to hate A Boy and his Blob. Don't ask me why, but I'm starting to get sick of all these beautifully-presented and utterly charming 2D games. It's the year 2009, for goodness sake, in the decade of the shiny bald space marine(tm)! But, developer WayForward Technologies had to go ahead and remake an obscure (in the UK at least) 1989 NES game - resulting in this, a 2D adventure that's not quite a modern classic, but certainly up there with the best of this generation. Oh well.
A Boy and his Blob, then, is a puzzle-platformer that borrows heavily from different games, but its one major influence is clear right from the outset: Braid, a game that is undisputedly a 2D classic, modern or otherwise. Whilst being nowhere near as inventive as Jonathan Blow's remarkable indie game, A Boy and his Blob does share many similarities - namely the unique and unobtrusive hint system, the design of the hub and, most obviously, a gorgeous 2D hand-drawn visual style. The game starts off with an extremely cartoony (and action-packed) cut-scene which, although intended to give you a taste of the sort of things you'll be getting up to in the adventure, bears no resemblance to the rest of the game. The titular (nameless) boy is the character under your control, and he starts the game in his rather large treehouse where he is awoken by a nearby explosion. You have to go and investigate the surrounding area until you come across the spaceship crash site where you meet, and befriend, the adorable little blob that will ultimately prove so versatile and useful to you during the course of the adventure.
You then return to your treehouse hub where you can access the first of 10 levels in the opening world, and that's when the adventure starts off properly. There's no introduction story, background information on how the blob came to crash on planet Earth, or indeed any text at all - but it's assumed that the blob needs help to return back to wherever he/she/it came from. This minimalist presentation works really well however, as you're free to concentrate on working your way through the 40 levels in the main adventure mode.
The opening few levels are set in the green fields surrounding the boy's home, and serve as a chance for the player to get to grip with the simple controls. The boy himself is controlled with the analogue stick and only uses three buttons, one of which (A) is context-sensitive and is used mainly for his modest jumping ability. The second button, B, is used for throwing jelly beans, and is where the 'puzzle' part of this platformer comes into play. You see, the blob - who accompanies you throughout the whole adventure - seems to have an affinity for the little sweets, and eating them is necessary for its unique ability: transformation. These jelly beans come in multiple flavours (colours) - each bestowing a unique transformation upon the blob once eaten - though in truth, the colour of the jelly bean is irrelevant, as pressing Z opens up a handy circular menu that shows you all the selectable jelly beans for each level as well as their transformation ability. To get the blob out of any transformation, the boy can call by pressing the C button, whereupon it'll happily return and wait patiently for its next jelly bean fix.
Initially the transformations are quite basic - a ladder for the boy to reach a high platform, a parachute for him to glide down safely, a hole in the ground for the boy (and anything else) to fall though etc. - and the puzzles themselves are quite simple, mainly thanks to the aforementioned hint system, which has conveniently-placed signs featuring crude drawings indicating whichever ability is needed in order to pass a particular obstacle. Early levels are short, with each containing only a handful of these obstacles before the exit point, as well as frequent checkpoints ensuring that death (which comes easily to the vulnerable little boy) is never an issue. They're strictly linear, too, each obstacle needing to be overcome in a specific way using a specific ability, with little to no scope for experimenting.
So - for the first half at least - A Boy and his Blob feels underwhelming. The ingredients for a great puzzle-platformer are certainly there, but there's a missing spark, with the lack of challenge not helping matters; after all, there's no fun in overcoming an obstacle when there's a sign showing you exactly what you need to do. Personally I was more interested in trying to find the hidden treasure chests - collecting all three in each level unlocks a bonus challenge level - but even those are signposted, with colourful fireflies hovering in the vicinity of any chests. The linear nature of the levels also means that simply wandering off the beaten path will often lead you to stumble on a secret location. At this point I couldn't help but wonder: surely this would have been much better suited to being a short and sweet downloadable title, instead of a full-price disc release that may well outstay its welcome long before the end?
Fortunately, the gentle difficulty curve ramps up considerably in the second half of the game, with longer levels and more complex puzzles as well as plenty more of the black jelly-like enemies that populate the game world. Although the puzzles by themselves can never be described as ingenious - most consisting of Zelda-esque block-pushing and switch contraptions - it's the blob's weird and wonderful transformations that ultimately make the game a joy to play, each new one a delightful surprise. There are around 20 abilities in total and, one or two control quirks aside, all of them are wonderful to use. There are a handful of boss battles too, and they are extremely well-handled - tricky but also mercifully brief, exactly how it should be in this sort of game.
Like most games though, A Boy and his Blob is not without its issues. Frustration can creep in during later levels thanks to slightly iffy collision detection, and there are a few instances of poor level design - for example, 'blind' sections where you have no idea of where enemies are positioned in a particular area - that can lead to much teeth-gnashing and possible joypad-flinging moments. These sections are rare, however, and the generous checkpointing means that you're never more than a few seconds away from getting back in to the action.
The cynical may also point other, smaller niggles - such as the fact that you're restricted to using a set amount of abilities in each level, ensuring that all puzzles have to be solved in a certain away. And the frequent loading screens - even mid-level - can irritate. But only the really cynical would take heart with these and other smaller issues, and overlook the truly glorious aspects of A Boy and his Blob. It's packed with content for one thing - in addition to the 40 levels in the main adventure (which should take around ten or so hours to complete, and is full of twists and surprises right up to the very end), there are an additional 40 challenges which feature short, tougher levels with no checkpoints. Finishing these unlocks bonus material such as concept art, storyboards and even developer videos.
It is a lovingly-crafted game indeed, absolutely gorgeously presented with exquisite animation that perfectly captures the wide-eyed innocence of a six-year-old child. The soundtrack is just as good, providing the perfect backdrop to an epic and memorable adventure that takes in plenty of varied locations. And if that still hasn't convinced you, then consider this: there's a button just for hugging the blob. I consider myself a cynical person, but even my heart melted. Perfect for children, then, and for those of us who always will be young at heart.
Eat that, Mr. Bald Space Marine.