You have to hand it to Microsoft. Despite being relative newcomers to the gaming scene, their first-party development teams are already becoming powerhouse developers whose games have proved integral to the sustained success (such as it is) of the Xbox. But perhaps what is most surprising about the Redmond, WA-based giant is that they've not simply bent to the whims of the market and released hackneyed, generic games to fill shelf space. Blinx: The Time Sweeper, Microsoft's previous in-house attempt at a platformer, was one of the more innovative platformers in the last few years, but it was met with the game industry equivalent of the golf clap. Although I liked the time-manipulation concept and the small, puzzle-oriented levels, I was turned off by the overtly childish theme and the game ultimately did not prove the breakthrough Microsoft had hoped for.
Their newest attempt at platforming, Voodoo Vince, similarly breaks the mold of the genre, shying away from the collecting and exploration aspects and focusing more on smaller, puzzle-based levels often meant to exploit the masochistic nature of its off-the-wall theme. As a voodoo doll saving his owner from the clutches of a comically dimwitted madman, Vince must not only follow in the platforming traditions of jumping, stomping, and collecting, but he must make use of his environment to inflict pain on himself in order to solve puzzles and defeat enemies. At its core, Voodoo Vince is a very conventional platformer, and I suspect that those who frequent the genre will find the game slightly less appealing for its lack of original mechanics. But this is a game that nonetheless excels because of its bizarre theme and the humorous contexts through which it is acted out.
The game adheres closely to the basic conventions laid down by Shigeru Miyamoto in Super Mario 64 way back in 1996. Vince has some basic combat moves, automatically grabs onto ledges, and can chain assorted moves together for tricky jumping or combat situations. He moves briskly and controls with exceptional responsiveness. The game even borrows Miyamoto's boss formula, which requires you to exploit a weakness through a chain of puzzle-like events, and repeat twice. But although there is a small amount of extraneous collecting that may be voluntarily pursued, the game is mostly based on simple puzzles that require use of assorted objects in a specific sequence. One of my favorite levels in the game occurs early on, in which Vince has to make his way into a museum by playing a song for a jazz-loving ghost. The level features a number of stores or events such as a burlesque house, a movie theatre, and a costume ball that are each open at different hours. Vince must solve a simple puzzle to gain access to a clock tower that allows him to manually change the time, and then figure out the sequence of stores or events to attend in a way that allows him to learn a jazz tune that he can play for the ghost. This system of rewarding the player for small accomplishments propels the game along despite a relatively modest difficulty.
But the real star of the show is the humor. Vince can collect a large assortment of voodoo powers that act as a bomb of sorts, defeating all of the enemies around him. By collecting orbs that spawn from defeated enemies, Vince builds a meter that when full allows him purge himself of life through all sorts of comical antics. He may be crushed by a car, disintegrated by a UFO, jump into a bathtub with a shark, gunned downed by 1930s mobsters, or be stomped flat by the giant sandal-clad foot of an angry god. Voodoo Vince's humor works best in the context of the action rather than the cinematic sequences that occur throughout the game, which are mildly amusing but not particularly clever. It's the moments like when Vince has to make sausage for a Cajun chef's gumbo by tossing adorable cartoon characters into a meat grinder or when he must defeat a monster-spawning egg by launching himself from a crossbow through a torch and into a batch of explosives that the masochistic concept is most rewarding.
But even with that element aside, the game is very creative and challenging in a way that, despite the drastic thematic difference, is very similar to Super Mario 64. In addition to solving simple puzzles and performing suicidal acts of voodoo magic, the game varies nicely in providing interesting contexts for the basic mechanics. Many of the challenges are based on unique interactions with other characters and the environment, such as when Vince has to follow the footsteps of a butler's ghost, or when he must use a spring to bounce himself into a cannon that launches him to the end of a level. It's a successful formula of providing simple mechanics, then applying them to a rich variety of situations.
Voodoo Vince is also one of the most aesthetically appealing platformers I've seen. Not only are the graphics very crisp and smooth, but the levels are designed with an appealing originality that is as unusual as it is attractive. All of the characters animate beautifully, and the music—ranging from upbeat jazz that recalls the likes of Django Reinhardt to melodic serenades—is bar none the best music I've heard in the genre and fits the backdrop perfectly.
Voodoo Vince is a platformer for people who don't like platformers. Its unique theme and dark humor make it well-suited to gamers (such as yours truly) who enjoy the mechanics of the genre but are aching for a more refreshing and mature thematic backdrop. Though not the lengthiest platformer around, it's long enough to be satisfying and filled with enough rich gameplay to make it a worthwhile trek. Voodoo Vince is a well-crafted game that does a fine job of breaking away from the thematic conventions of its genre, and does with a sense of panache that makes it one of the most memorable platformers since Rayman.