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Rotastic

(Focus Home Interactive; US: 21 Sep 2011)

Rotastic has a simple premise: swing around a screen and collect the floating gems. Even at its most complex, it only requires two buttons. But Rotastic milks this simple mechanic for all its worth, offering up puzzles, boss fights, survival challenges, and even some surprisingly exciting multiplayer.


Each level is just one screen with “hooks” floating in the air. You fall into the level and hit the A button to throw a rope on the nearest hook. Then you swing. Around and around. You want to let go at just the right moment so that you fly to the next hook while maintaining your momentum. You don’t use the control sticks, you have no control while in the air, and everything depends on the timing of your swings.


Some levels task you with collecting gems as fast as possible. These are pure puzzle levels; they’re all about finding the most efficient path through the hooks and then executing it perfectly. Since there’s a considerable amount of skill involved in getting the timing down, some of these levels can get frustrating when you know exactly what to do, but you just can’t do it. However, the game is never so strict that it prevents you from moving on. If you fail too many times and get a Game Over, you get the option of skipping the level. High scores just earn you bronze, silver, gold, or diamond helmets and later worlds take a lot of helmets to unlock. Thus, it’s good to earn as many as you can, but this demand never hampers the game’s pacing.


Other levels have you destroying bricks or birds by smashing into them. Still others are like obstacle courses with spinning blades and switches that stand between you and the gems. These levels are less about finding the perfect path and more about your general skill with a rope. All of this creates a great variety that never gets predictable. The game introduces a new twist at just the right moment to keep things interesting, but even with all the added challenges, it never loses focus on its core mechanic: swinging is everything.


Where it does lose focus is its learning curve. After the first few worlds, the difficulty ramps up and stays that way. Traps clutter the screen, leaving you very little room to swing without dying. Whereas before you might play a level multiple times trying to shave off precious seconds and earn that diamond helmet, after the difficulty spikes you’ll be thankful just to get through a level. What was once a casual but challenging game becomes as mercilessly demanding as Super Meat Boy. I ended up skipping many of the later levels because they felt unfairly hard and simply weren’t fun.


If Rotastic was just a single-player game it would be disappointing, but it’s saved by the wonderful multiplayer that has up to four player swinging around on the same screen. There are three modes, and it’s strange to write that because in each mode you’re doing the exact same thing—swinging as best you can—but by simply changing why you swing, your entire strategy changes.


You’re either competing for gems, points, or kills. The Collect sees who can collect X amount gems or points first. Since the gems appear in predictable patterns, players tend to congregate around certain hooks and for certain lengths of time. But while they’re circling at a “gem’s length” of rope, it’s easy for other player to get in closer and cut their rope by swinging into it. Whoever attaches to a hook first sets themselves up to be cut. Asa result, it’s a fast-paced, tricky kind of race where you’re always waiting for someone else to make the first move.


If you’re playing for points, you earn points by doing tricks: make a figure 8, bounce off the wall, fly across the entire screen, etc. While “gem race” encouraged you to make tight circles to avoid being cut, the “point race” is all about going big. Each player mostly does their own thing, but there are still enough collisions and accidental (and purposeful) cuts to keep things highly competitive.


But Deathmatch offers the most fun. Everyone is focused on cutting ropes, so everyone is trying to outmaneuver everyone else. There’s a cat-and-mouse quality to this game; you stalk a player until they mess up, latching onto a hook with a dangerously long rope, giving you a prime opening to attack. But you have to watch yourself as well because you can be certain that the other players are waiting for you to panic as well. You’re never safe, always moving, and with four players, it can get chaotic but never confusing.


Sadly, the multiplayer doesn’t include online play. It’s just local multiplayer. This is disappointing since it drastically limits the number of potential adversaries. The AI is pretty clever though, so they’ll present a worthy challenge if you’ve got no one else to play with.


Rotastic needs more medium difficulty levels and some online play, but the competitive aspects are so unexpectedly fun that you can forgive its flaws. For as brutal as the game can get, it’s nice that it never punishes you for skipping levels, so even terrible players can see all that the game has to offer. And there are enough helmets available in the early levels for you to unlock all the worlds with little trouble. Despite its frustrations, Rotastic keeps encouraging you to play it, and you should.

Rating:

Nick Dinicola made it through college with a degree in English, and now applies all his critical thinking skills to video games instead of literature. He reviews games and writes a weekly post for the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters, and can be heard on the weekly Moving Pixels podcast. More of his reviews, previews, and general thoughts on gaming can be found at www.gamehounds.net.


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