Spend five minutes with Spiky Snail's The Splatters, which hits Xbox Live Arcade April 11th, and you'll likely be left with a furrowed brow.
Its objectives aren't immediately evident and its controls aren't instantly intuitive. You'll have a notion that you're supposed to fling colourful, googly-eyed blobs around, making them splat into walls and coat sticky jelly things lying around the play area, but the details regarding exactly how to do this won't come into focus. There's a good chance you'll cue to its presentation, which carries an agreeable LittleBigPlanet aroma thanks to a delightfully lighthearted score, playful menu design, and quirky levels built around oversized everyday objects, but that probably won't be enough to make you keep playing.
Spend 20 minutes with it and you'll have a better feel for what you need to do. Pop-up instructions and tutorials will help you to understand that you can control the direction of your blobs not only during takeoff but also mid-flight simply by tapping the A-button a second time and pushing a thumbstick in the direction you want your splatter to fly. What's more, you'll discover that you can pull off stunts with each shot that help build combos for higher scores and allow you to more efficiently eliminate those sticky jelly things, which you'll have come to call bombs.
Give it an hour and you'll be hopelessly hooked. You'll know a dozen different stunts, such as smashing into spikes to create a deluge of vibrantly hued goo, diving like an eagle to splatter huge groups of sticky bombs, and "flipping" the game's physics system to reverse the flow of elements in motion. You'll become obsessed with working out ways of combining stunts, pulling off as many as you can in a row for maximum splatter and huge scores, and be prodded to improve by watching videos uploaded by the game's best players that showcase incredible stunt combinations. Most importantly, you'll have come to understand that while chance plays a role, this is primarily a game of skill, and that the act of carrying out deft shots carries with it a distinct brand of pleasure conferred only by the very best skill-based puzzle games.
It shares much in common with games like Angry Birds, Peggle, and even Where's My Water?. We work with trajectories, targets, and a physics system centred around a realistic (if slightly float-y) gravity construct. It also employs the three-star scoring system made popular in the mobile game world, providing ample motivation for players to revisit levels they've completed but have yet to completely master.
But what The Splatters has that even many of the most successful physics-based puzzle games lack is an intangible, deeply game-ish quality that, I think, will strike a chord with hardcore players. To excel you'll need to develop an intimate connection with the game's rules, physics, and controls similar to that cultivated by dedicated fans of fighters and shooters. When you're in the middle of a Splatters combo you're in the zone, no more aware of the buttons you press than one is actively conscious of putting one leg in front of the other while walking down the street. It's an instinctual, reflexive experience that's satisfying in a way that only games requiring a practiced proficiency can be.
I suspect this is why we're seeing The Splatters arrive first on a console rather than a mobile device. Console players are known to take pleasure from performing feats of skill and putting their hand/eye coordination to the test. That's not to say mobile gamers don't enjoy meeting a challenge or that we'll never see this game make the leap to iOS or Android, just that it's particularly well suited for the console gaming crowd.
Regardless, you won't find many better ways to spend 12 bucks on entertainment. Give it 60 minutes to let its hooks sink in and you'll be rewarded with one of the best puzzle experiences available for Xbox Live. PlayStation 3 and Windows PC players will likely get their chance to splatter some bombs later this year.
Platform: Xbox 360 (Xbox Live Arcade)
Developer: Spiky Snail
Release: April 11, 2012