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The Secret Saturdays: Beasts of the 5th Sun

(D3 Publisher; US: 20 Oct 2009)

What’s so wrong with 2D, anyway?  Why is it that whenever a developer is given a known commodity like an animated movie or a popular TV show, they elect to make the hero of the game based on that known commodity run around and jump and battle baddies in a 3D world?  Are there just that many readily available 3D engines out there now that programming in 3D has actually become easier than programming in 2D?  Is it just what the developers feel the public expects from a game?  Is it a commandment from the publisher that the game must exist in a three-dimensional space?


Not knowing the answer to any of these questions, it still feels strange (having grown up with the 8 and 16-bit systems and now enjoying the superpowered machines of the current generation) to find that two dimensions has become the exception rather than the rule, and enough so that a 2D game is enough to give me hope that, yes, this new licensed property won’t be as lazily hacked together as so many others.  Not only is a 2D game a break from the norm, but developers still feel so insecure about creating a game in two dimensions that they tend to pull out all the stops in terms of graphics, controls, and imaginative variants to the play style.  The last 2D platformer I played was Klonoa, which, despite its status as a remake, was one of the most memorable gaming experiences of the past year.  That was months ago—and, granted, the last 2D platformer I should have played was Shadow Complex, but I’ll rectify that soon enough—but the fact that it’s been so long since then still seems odd, even as three dimensions have been dominant for so long.


As you’ve probably guessed by now, The Secret Saturdays: Beasts of the 5th Sun is the rare 2D platformer created out of a licensed property, and as such, it largely feels like a refreshing approach to a game based on a popular franchise.  As is to be expected with this sort of property, however, a few niggles rip and tear at the experience, somehow managing to make it feel like less than it could be and reducing it to the level of “typical licensed property” despite the appeal of 2D in a 3D world.
Part of the problem—a big part actually—is that High Voltage simply wouldn’t commit to the 2D perspective.  While the idea of a 2D game taking place in 3D space is nothing new, and is in fact part of what makes Klonoa such a wonderful experience, there are a number of transitions to 3D in Beasts of the 5th Sun that detract terribly from the game.  Most boss and miniboss battles in Beasts of the 5th Sun take place in 3D as the camera pans out and up when you enter the room in which such a battle is going to take place, giving you the typical 3D perspective familiar to players of pretty much any 3D platformer in the last ten years.  The problem here isn’t necessarily the switch to 3D. Such back-and-forth transitioning could potentially make for a varied play experience, extending the life of the game.  No, the problem here is that the switch to 3D seems to have been done for the sake of such a switch—most 3D sequences involve hacking at the attack buttons until you beat the baddie that’s trying to tear you limb from limb / vaporize you / eat your brains.  Once the hacking is over, you go back to 2D for ten minutes until the next such battle and repeat ad infinitum.


Even the option to fight as some of the bad guys that you beat (depending on how you beat them) simply can’t compensate for such a lack of imagination in these sequences.  It’s to the point that one suspects that if the developers could have invested what time they spent wedging 3D sequences into this 2D game on, say, imaginative and frightening 2D boss battles instead, we could have had something truly memorable on our hands because, if we get rid of those sequences, Beasts of the 5th Sun‘s 2D platforming does so many things right.


Of particular note is the ability and necessity to use environmental cues to solve puzzles.  Throughout the game, there are benign and not-so-benign creatures placed sporadically through the levels called “cryptids” that can be controlled in a variety of ways, each of which allows for the ability to do extra things.  Some open doors, some serve as pivots for a grappling hook, and so on.  Figuring out how best to use the cryptids scattered throughout the levels is the primary bent to the platforming, and it shifts the brain into a slightly more puzzle-oriented approach to platforming than the typical run-jump-hack platforming formula.


Still, almost as jarring as the switches to three dimensions are the switches into story exposition that happen.  The presentation here is absolutely second-rate. There were moments with pauses in dialogue that actually had me unsure as to whether or not I should be doing something.  The graphics style in these moments is comparable to that of another little-known title, the downloadable Rocketmen series on Xbox Live Arcade, and this is not a good thing; it looks like 2D sprites with extra lines to simulate a third dimension.  Awkwardly.  Again, rather than allowing the player to get in the spirit of uncovering more and more of the story, each of these expositions simply feels like a wait to get back to platforming.


The recently-released New Super Mario Bros. is 2D and proud, and that’s one of the many reasons that it excels, particularly on the Wii.  It should serve as proof that playing to nostalgia and putting an emphasis on brains rather than reflexes is not an awful way to go about designing a game.  Unfortunately, The Secret Saturdays: Beasts of the 5th Sun couldn’t quite commit to a play style from a previous generation, and for that matter, it misses the distinction of being a superlative example of a gaming property based on a television license.  Perhaps if The Secret Saturdays maintains enough of a following, it is a wrong that High Voltage will be able to rectify the next time around.

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Mike Schiller is a software engineer in Buffalo, NY who enjoys filling the free time he finds with media of any sort -- music, movies, and lately, video games. Stepping into the role of PopMatters Multimedia editor in 2006 after having written music and game reviews for two years previous, he has renewed his passion for gaming to levels not seen since his fondly-remembered college days of ethernet-enabled dorm rooms and all-night Goldeneye marathons. His three children unconditionally approve of their father's most recent set of obsessions.


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