The Lean Mean Rolling Machine.
Sometimes nuggets of wisdom can be found in the most unlikely of places -- written on a bathroom stall, printed inside a gum wrapper, or buried in a children's movie. Who would have thought that when Shrek was using an onion metaphor to describe himself, he could have just as well been describing THQ's de Blob. Yes, indeed, this is a game with layers.
It's easy to be deceived by de Blob's packaging. I know I was. Bright shiny colors? Check. Cutesy main character? Check. "E" for Everyone rating? Check. Wii exclusive? Check.
Immediate thoughts of "Oh no! I've accidentally picked up a casual game or worse, a children's title!" went racing through my mind. Alas, I had promised to play through it, so I grudgingly slipped the disc into the Wii and expected the worst. What I got instead was one of the best, non-first-party games to hit the Wii this year.
The perception problem is likely to be de Blob's biggest challenge. This is a game that presents itself as deceptively simple as Katamari Damacy, yet as you delve deeper and deeper into the game you realize that there are multiple layers of depth, both in the gameplay and in the presentation. de Blob is a game that is both easy to play and frustratingly difficult to master. It has a story, delivered by way of brilliantly animated shorts, that will have young ones giggling, while safely portraying what some would consider subversive themes: doing your own thing, rebelling against authority, and filling the world with graffiti. In short, once you peek behind the looking glass, you realize de Blob is a lot more than its cover.
Things start out basic enough. In fact, the first world doesn't even have any enemies. Instead, it's there to ease you into the gameplay mechanics while introducing the underlying concept behind the challenges. That is, assuming you don't choose to skip them.
There are a few challenges that you're required to complete, but the vast majority of them can be skipped. Find a particular bit too difficult? Don't bother with it. Just want to speed run to the end of the level? Go right ahead.
The challenge system is really something of a user-defined difficulty level. Casual gamers can have fun just exploring the levels, painting things up and bopping enemies on the head, while hardcore players can master the challenges and reap the unlockable rewards. Oh, and if you happen to be an obsessive-compulsive completionist, de Blob also has you covered. The game has 100 different achievements (10 per level). Yeah, good luck with that.
Controlling Blob (very original, ya?) is intuitive, if slightly imprecise. After all, he is a big wet blob of paint, so you shouldn't expect to turn on a dime. Rather, you have to let inertia work to your advantage. Keeping Blob moving at all times is often easier than trying to slow down and taking each obstacle one at a time.
Painting objects is likewise a simple matter. All Blob has to do is touch an item to cover it in paint. Just like an oil slick, the paint oozes across the surface until the entire item is covered. To reach anything above ground level, you just flick the remote like a paintbrush and Blob dutifully jumps into the air. It's a control scheme that doesn't need to be explained, though I would have appreciated a little more depth. After all, the Wii controls do offer a lot of potential, and this is one area where de Blob merely scratches the surface.
Each of de Blob's 10 levels is an expansive affair, with multiple sections to complete and obstacles barring your path. My first time through, I averaged about an hour per level, completing the majority of the challenges but collecting less than half of the achievement goals. Time seemed to fly on by, with the levels feeling a lot shorter than they really were. To the game's credit, the only reason I know how long it took is because each level has an active timer that shows itself at the end.
As I mentioned earlier, how you progress through the game is entirely up to you. After completing de Blob, I went back to speed run a few levels by skipping the challenges and passing with a bare minimum score. Areas that had taken an hour, were now taking around five to seven minutes. I was missing out on the relaxing, even-paced gameplay during my speed runs, but at least I was racking up time achievements.
Completing any level (except the last) unlocks it for free paint mode, which is just what the name implies. Here you have no time limit and no enemies. You are free to just roam about the level and paint it up at your leisure. There's no real point to it, but it is oddly satisfying. Going further, finishing each of the levels with a silver or gold rating unlocks additional challenge levels, which when completed, rewards you with concept art and promotional movies, some of which are quite amusing.
Early on, the level design is basic with relatively flat areas and shallow jumps. The designers subtly start ramping things up near the end of the second level, and before I knew it, I had Blob smashing enemies and flying across chasms as if it were nothing. Because everything builds organically, I never felt as if the game suddenly "got hard" for no reason. There were two or three challenges in the latter half of the game where the developers apparently got lazy and decided to use a generic "jumping puzzle" for a challenge, but these were the exception rather than the rule.
While the environmental challenges were one aspect of the game that the player has to overcome, the color challenges are just as important. You see, de Blob has access to the three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. You can mix these in pairs to form the secondary colors orange, green, and purple or mix all three to form the tertiary color brown. It's all very kindergartenish, but it works. (How else would it?)
de Blob starts with having you paint blocks of buildings a single primary color. Then, you have to paint different blocks with multiple colors. Then, you have to start mixing colors before you paint the blocks. And finally, in the later levels, you have to paint different items on different levels different colors (whew!). Because every item you touch automatically gets painted with your current color, movements need to be carefully planned out. You can't just jump around like a madman and hope to complete a challenge.
Enemies in the game follow a similar pattern, with simple and straightforward INKT foot soldiers appearing in the early levels before being followed by soldiers with inkthrowers (sort of like flamethrowers but with ink instead of fire), ink turrets, ink tanks, and the elite, colored ink soldiers. The colored soldiers post a particular threat because they can only be smashed if you match their color. Simply put, if Blob = Red and Soldier = Blue, then Blob = Screwed. At their most basic level, the INKT enemies are just obstacles to smash, but like many things in the game, if you're creative you can use them to your advantage.
One of Blob's most useful maneuvers is the lock-on attack. The lock-on allows Blob to jump into the air and then zip straight towards your target – even if the distance is farther than Blob would normally be able to jump. Better yet, you can lock-on to paint bots and level triggers as well as enemy soldiers. So you can see how it can be used to quickly race through a level (it's faster than rolling) or as an aid when navigating a narrow path lined with treacherous obstacles. After all, why bother jumping from platform to platform when you can simply lock-on to an enemy and use his hapless soul to guide you in to a safe landing?
Alas, the lock-on does have one flaw and that is the lack of target selection. The game will automatically lock-on to what it deems the "best" target and there is no obvious way to flick between different on-screen targets and choose the one you really want. Most of the time this wasn't an issue, but it did induce a few game swearing moments. (Yes, I know you're not supposed to curse at an E-rated game, but hell, the ESRB wasn't rating me.) Hopefully, this oversight can be address in the inevitable sequel.
Oddly, de Blob's weakest point is the music. The developers chose to go with a subdued jazz soundtrack that is more or less forgettable. With the rest of the game exhibiting such an incredibly high level of polish (even the loading screens have an interactive story board describing the upcoming mission), the relatively bland soundtrack stuck out like a sore thumb. I'll be honest, I'm not really sure what kind of music would have worked best here, but I know that muzak-twitching jazz isn't it.
Rounding out the pack, de Blob also offers a basic two to four player multiplayer mode where you can race around in paint competitions with friends. It's not as engaging as the single-player game, but it does make for a nice diversion.
As a game that started life as a student project at the Utrecht School of the Arts in the Netherlands, de Blob most definitely scores high in the originality department. The path to commercial release means what you see on your Wii is a bit different than the original freeware PC game, it hasn't lost touch with its roots. What's here is just as wild and wacky as the original and it's a benchmark game for the Wii. If you own a Wii, this is one game you don't want to overlook.