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Downstream Panic!

(Atari; US: 5 Feb 2008)

Ever wonder what would happen If LocoRoco and Lemmings had a baby? It’s a question I’m sure that we’ve all asked ourselves at one point or another in our lives. If, however, they did get it on, then the bastard love child of their seedy sexual shenanigans can be guaranteed of two things:


a) It would be extremely cute, and
b) It would also be extremely stupid.


Downstream Panic! is that unlikely illegitimate child, and yes it is both


a) extremely cute and
b) extremely stupid.


Quite blatantly ripping off LocoRoco‘s, colourful, chirpy art style and sense of childlike innocence, even right down to its infectious J-pop soundtrack, Downstream Panic! will win over even the most hardened gun–toting, racist Xbot prat. It just oozes character, charm and cuteness; we’re talking about looking up cuteness in the dictionary and seeing Downstream Panic! levels of cuteness here.   


The premise couldn’t be simpler: guide a set number of fish to safety, your goal being the bottom of the sea, to where your dangerously dehydrated little nippers are desperate to return so they can swim, drink and do whatever it is fish do.


A-to-B simple, no? What complicates matters, though, is that as your fish navigate the increasingly complex 2D maze–like levels, they must do so while contending with all manners of tricks, puzzles and carnivorous fish ready to chomp on their scaled arses.


Initially, matters are simple; a container in the sky releases 100 fish, these fish then mindlessly use the magic of gravity to slip and slide down the landscape. It’s your job, then, to guide a set number of them past the various traps using a small inventory of tools at your disposal, while carefully taking into consideration the small pool of water that accompanies them, as it is that small puddle that allows you to have some form of control over your fish.


So, for instance, if your fish are about to slide off a hill, then it would be best to erect a tree, which then sends them into the opposing direction. As they land on a descending platform and a school begins to build up, blow up a hole in the landscape, hurtling your fish downwards ever closer to safety. Beware those pesky cannibalistic sharks, who would like nothing more than to snack on your friends—the best way to deal with them, then, would be a harpoon to the face.


However, since the tools at your disposal are limited in quantity, or in some levels the tools that you do need aren’t even available to select, it forces you to play the game with an almost robot-like efficiency. Sadly, this kills a lot of the enjoyment to be had in Downstream Panic! and makes it far too frustrating to play through the 80-odd levels thrown in. 

Since you have no direct control over the fish themselves, the environment and its surrounding traps are continually at the forefront of your planning. Before each level starts it’s quite common to spend a few minutes or so navigating and studying every intricate detail of the landscape, plotting and mentally placing your trees, what part of the environ needs to be blown up, or which out of the two killer fish need to die, from your token harpoon. Proceed further, and other power-ups are added such as the ability to command rainwater, clouds and a fan which allows you to safely move your fish from one end of the level to the next while avoiding the aforementioned traps.


And now for the “stupid” part.


As the level count gets higher, more and more obstacles are added—poisonous mushrooms, spiky chestnuts, teleports, and storm clouds are all standing in your way—and yes, it is far too much. The term too many chefs has never seemed so apt.


Simply put, developer Eko System has overcompensated, maybe due to a fear of being labelled shallow or simple, but it’s the simplicity and accessibility that draws gamers to the puzzle genre, not hair tearing frustration, which Downstream Panic! descends into far too quickly.


Challenge is one thing, and of course puzzlers should be just that challenging, but still, a little hand holding would have been appreciated. Often the trial and error process will grate as much as the fiendish level design, and with next to no tips nor tutorials on how to proceed further should you get stuck (which you will on more than one occasion) giving up and moving on will be a first resort for many. To its credit, restarting a level is as simple as pressing the Select button and there is no punishment for doing so, it just means the game doesn’t flow as smoothly as the streams of water that your little aquatic vertebrates ride. 

When matters do get too hectic, which will happen a lot, the level cursor simply can’t keep up with the action, and scrolling up down the vertical layout becomes a chore. Soon chaos breaks loose, adding further to the random nature of the game and of course more stabbing of the Select button.

Another own goal is the lack of multiplayer, or for that matter user created content, which Downstream Panic! is positively screaming out for and which could have gone some way to elongating the lifespan of the title. Let’s face facts, a super cutesy title like this on the PSP needs as much help as humanly possible.

With a little more time and attention, Downstream Panic! could have been a classic. The art style is as brave as the concept is bold and the gameplay holds so much promise it could have been talked about in the same breadth as mummy and daddy. Sadly, the convoluted mess it turns into coupled with its difficulty which fails to take into account the wee nipper demographic it’s aimed at and you essentially have the Paris Hilton celebutante equivalent of games: someone famous because of their gene pool.

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