X-Scape Review: The Beauty Of The Old UglyS

Can you love shapes and straight lines? Crimson spider robots casting maroon shadows? Pink stripes painted beside tan in tunnels of sky-blue enemies? Fly to an era when game graphics were ugly and the best of that ugliness was beautiful.

Your method of time-warp transportation is X-Scape, another downloadable DSi game with a questionable name, this one from the talented people at Q-Games. That's the studio run by Dylan Cuthbert and responsible for other quality DSi titles and PixelJunk games, all throwbacks of one sort or another that give modern audiences passage to the aesthetics or action of the past. More relevant here is Cuthbert's experience in the early-90s era of proto-3D gaming, back when a gamer could count the triangles that composed their ship in the breakout Super Nintendo hit Star Fox. X-Scape is a return to primitive 3D. You play the game from the first-person perspective of a pilot of a tank that blasts the aliens who stalk across the game's many starkly landscaped planets. This is a tank that can fly or swoop through angled tunnels, all painted various colors of sherbet.

Loved
The Colors: You haven't seen a new game that looked like this since you traded in your SNES, upgraded to a Pentium 2 or in some other way left the fever-dream 3D graphics of the mid-90s behind. You haven't seen colors like this since the last time you squeezed your eyes really tightly or didn't care that you used the blue crayon for trees and the orange one for ocean. Other games go for realistic gray tones or retro primary colors, but each new free-roam planet or Descent-style tunnel of X-Scape presents a two-or-three-colored unstirred soup of unusually-combined colors. This game tugs players, eyeballs-first, into worlds of garish beauty. (Watch the X-Scape trailer to see some of the game's extraordinary hues.)

The Shapes: In the early days of 3D gaming we players saw shapes and angles, not many curves. We guessed at what those shapes were supposed to be and we damn well loved the wonderment of it all. X-Scape recreates that experience of gaming as a waking dream, the kind of visually hazy experience that operates as a dive into visual metaphor. What's the giant flower next to the big pyramid all about? Are the two orange lines on black terrain the tracks of tanks or the scratch of roadway? Let's drive over and see. In this dream-logic of a gaming landscape, the sloped peak is a launching pad toward which to accelerate so it may set our craft aloft for some first-person aerial combat. The ziggurat is a garage in which to drive to obtain tank-improving collection or shooting quests. The diamond is an enemy that will split in two if it is shot. This game is drawn in a visual style that celebrates an aesthetic wrangled from the limits of old tech.

And, Oh Yes, A Game: X-Scape is not a complex adventure. Fly through a tunnel dodging closing hatches and enemies in order to drive across a planet shooting enemy tanks and bugs; collect power crystals to open gates to new tunnels and new planets that allow variations of the same. There is a lot of Star Fox to these missions, some Battlezone, some Star Wars. It's not terribly complex and even pleasantly obscure, with old-school rabbit holes of pointless optional explanatory text that is produced by the investigation of various mystery radio signals. Action is all on the top screen. The bottom screen shows the controls of the tank and a radar that is only slightly less abstract than the graphics in the upper screen. You play to blow things up and hop worlds, a simple sci-fi jaunt.

The horde of progress toward realistic graphics had no bustling pull on the makers of X-Scape who have instead erected a virtual monument to one of gaming's uglier phases and made that past look daringly gorgeous. On the bedrock of solid if un-innovative game design, they've built a beauty that, by the way, sounds great too thanks to an old-fashioned ominously-bleeping score. Make no mistake. It doesn't look like a super-model. It looks like an abstract classic fashionable enough to strut in 2010.

X-Scape was developed by Q-Games and published by Nintendo as a downloadble game for the DSi on May 31. Retails for $8.00 USD. A code to redeem this game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through the single-player campaign to tank-level eight.

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