Review / Raskulls (XBLA)

“Oh great, another Tetris clone with some little twist to make it just different enough to avoid trademark infringement.”

That’s what I said to myself when I first started up the new Xbox Live Arcade offering, Raskulls, without knowing anything about the game and just taking in the odd shaped blocks my character had to break through. You, however, should not make the same mistake. Halfbrick Studios, best known for their iDevice lineup of games like Fruit Ninja and Monster Dash, have come out swinging on XBLA with a cheerfully colorful world filled with skull headed little people that has been invaded by rodent aliens. See? Tetris be damned.

Starting out in Raskulls as a solider who must retrieve an alien rat-napped skull medallion, which even the characters refer to as merely a plot point, the humor bar is placed and repeatedly pointed to and laughed at, causing it to grow old quickly. The medallion is saved but is put up for grabs in a in a tournament devised by the skull king in order to catch the evil Pirats. Along the way in his quest to retrieve the medallion,  the soldier gets hurt and cannot perform his duties as laid out by the king, so the wise ruler of the land resorts to the next best tournament competitor: a knight guarding a bridge.

Sadly the soldier cannot go into the forest alone – it is wheelchair inaccessible –  to inform the knight of his new duties, leaving the king no choice but to send a message to summon the next best thing: a dragon. These messages, by the way are just notes attached to large bricks which the king hurls out the royal window. A lot. Off go the dragon and wheelchair bound soldier on a mighty quest to fetch the knight. The soldier understands that the competition is tough and uses this time as a training ground for the dragon.

All that has been to get to this one point: the gameplay is frantic and fun for a while, then it quickly devolves into frustration. At the start of each level a brief explanation of is given on what is expected, such as complete the level in a certain amount of wand zaps or clear all blocks within ‘x’ amount of time, and, if applicable, how quickly it must be completed. The end goal in each of the ten different levels is simply to bust the multicolored blocks that are in your way and finish as quick as possible and/or before your opponent. Each Raskull, whether in single player, Xbox Live multiplayer, or split-screen multiplayer, is armed with a block zapping wand in order to accomplish this feat. The wand, incidentally, is really good at zapping opponents to slow them down a bit – if you can catch them. That being a huge “if” and therein lies a major issue.

The soldier doesn’t let on during the training process but it become very evident that once an opponent, whether it is computer controlled or an actual other person, passes you in the level, there is very little chance of catching up to them. The scattered mystery boxes, which hold power ups, and the frenzy jars, which refill your frenzy meter allowing you to trigger a temporary boost to movement and zapping speed, do little to help play catch up to the first place player. Once the other player gets ahead, skill and tactics go out the window and it becomes a matter of sheer luck for the other player(s) to take the top spot. This can cause the game to feel challenging the first time around, but quickly becomes tiresome.

From a level selection standpoint, the path the characters have to follow is a throwback to the Super Mario World style of progress. Starting at one point and only able to proceed once conquering it, occasionally opening a ‘secret’ path, the gameplay is linear but not in a bad way. This is a platformer we are talking about here, not an open world expedition. Choosing to enter a point brings up a menu to select which challenge, if there are multiple available at that particular area, to go for. While Raskulls saves progress after each attempt on an area, this option allows for direct entry into a certain part of the chosen area. This is really helpful during the competition portion of the single-player as the challenges are broken into tiers, and they are tough enough to make you enjoy being able to step away for a minute to stem the urge to hurl a controller.

+ Colorful world
+ Large amount of game modes
+ Fun to play…

– …for awhile
– Once you’re behind, you tend to stay there
– Humor get a bit stale