Game Description: Coming exclusively to the PSP system, Crush features an all new concept in multi-dimensional puzzle gameplay. A uniquely styled puzzle game that blends 2D and 3D graphics in an enticingly surreal environment, Crush is sure to present an addicting challenge! Puzzle your way across 40 brain-twisting levels switching perspectives from 3D to 2D to conquer your challenges. Changing your perspective on things will do more than alter your view; shift platforms and objects, activate machinery, cause immense chain reactions in the environment and overcome your enemies it's all in the power of perspective.
Illusions and tricks of the eye have been staples of cinematic entertainment ever since those unwitting Lumière fans thought the train was coming right for them. And of late, gaming too seems to have developed a taste for undercutting its own visual conventions and toying with players' expectations. Super Paper Mario, Haze, Portal and Okami have all dabbled with innovative ways of twisting the player's perception of the game world, producing unusual visual treats, cause-and-effect complexities and pioneering puzzle mechanics in the process.
Now add to that list Crush. Essentially an arena-based puzzle game about reaching the goal while collecting pick-ups, each of the game's stages multiplies in depth and puzzling possibilities with Zoë Mode's killer key hook. By ‘crushing' the game world from any 90 degree angle around the hero Danny, the player is able to turn the game into a 2D platformer and navigate areas that were broken and impossible to cross in 3D. Uncrushing the universe then allows for full 3D movement again, allowing the nooks and crannies that were hidden in the flattened world to be uncovered.
The intricacies of the system are a compulsive joy to discover, and it is a wonderfully satisfying central mechanic. It's even valiantly tied in with a narrative about Danny searching his memories for the repressed root of a maddening insomnia problem. Okay, so it is a loose enough connection to know that the ‘crush' hook came first, but for a handheld puzzle game the story elements are pleasingly well developed. The occasional comic book cut-scenes earn their keep as both rewards and play incentives, and every new mechanic, obstacle or enemy is given a reason for existing within the narrative frame. The generic pick-ups, for instance, are "Marbles" (think about it).
Special mention must also go to the superb audio design, which really nails the sense of psychological unease that forms the narrative backdrop of the four worlds. Though repetitive, the background music and effects hardly put a foot wrong in evoking Danny's haunting neuroses: whether that's in the peculiar menace of mixing "What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor" into the Seaside levels' soundtrack, or the eerily disconcerting noise of stepping on the Funfair levels' creaky steel scaffolding.
The level layouts themselves quickly become intimidating to view in the pre-stage flyovers. It can seem as if the core trans-dimensional puzzling is only engaged with once a devaluing period of trial-and-error has been gone through to break down the bewildering possibilities. And as this trial-and-error inevitability sets in, it feels unlikely that Crush will reach the intuitive puzzling heights one would have hoped. But with the satisfaction of completing a level refusing to wane, it becomes apparent that Crush is actually, indisputably, a platform game at heart.
Not only do the platform challenges increase notably in difficulty and precision (frustratingly so at times; I wish Danny was more sure-footed), but like all platform games, Crush and its core mechanic ultimately revolve around using your terrain to get from A to B. It's just that Crush's idiosyncratic rule set can make that simple task exasperatingly puzzling, to both its detriment and its credit.
If the crushing concept sounds simple yet loaded with potential, as most great puzzle mechanics are, then it's disappointing to see Zoë Mode overload their game so quickly with so many switches, enemies, special block types, power-ups, power-downs, rolling boulders, time limit segments, and more besides. Their inclusion reeks of either developer insecurity (over their one-trick design) or publisher pressure (to add bells and whistles).
To be fair, Crush does remain compelling through stages 1 to 40, and it'd be churlish to deny the designers some toys to play with for variety's sake. But the game is certainly at its strongest when you're not wrestling with the annoyances of familiar, small-time gimmicks and the titular, game-worthy gimmick is allowed to flourish on its own merit.And the final word must go to that pesky puzzle hook that just won't let your stubborn brain accept defeat. By the time Danny's clambering around the creepily off-kilter Seaside world, Crush's perception trick is fully integrated in the player's mind. You begin to see problem areas from different perspectives even before crushing them; making and remaking mental maps of each stage on the fly. And when everything's clicking (sorry, crushing) into place as it should, Crush becomes a satisfying and very pleasurable platform-puzzle workout.
Crush, for all its flaws, is exactly the sort of game that the PSP needs more of. The visuals are nice and it controls well, but the key element is originality. The central concept of "crushing" an area from 3D to 2D and back again set my brain on fire and made me rub my eyes a few times while trying to grok exactly how this crazy thing was functioning. Seeing it in action for the first time is like bearing witness to a magnificent illusion—literally watching the spatial norms I've taken for granted get tossed out a window isn't something I'm going to forget soon.
My hat is off to Zoë Mode, without a doubt. In this day and age, it seems next to impossible that a brand-new idea will come along and shake up the expectations held by well-versed gamers, but that's exactly what they've done. Although some have made the claim that Nintendo's Paper Mario series got there first, it's highly debatable. Flat plumbers aside, Crush has an identity and character all its own. If nothing else, Crush is worth investigating for the fascinating novelty and devilish manipulation of space.
With that praise given, I do have to second Andrew's thought that this wonderfully clever game starts to bog down into over-complication with an array of gimmicks and gadgets that throw a wet blanket on the crushing. The simple act of transforming an area with depth into something that could pass for an 8-bit platform game is solidly entertaining enough; it was disappointing to labor so intensely, so soon under elements that feel chintzy and tacked-on.
The rules of crushing the levels seemed a little arbitrary, as well. More than a few times, I wanted to crush something behind or above me, but the game only recognizes objects within a certain distance offscreen. If a far-away structure is outside the invisible cutoff line, the level crushes as though it's not there. It's a bit hard to explain without a short video clip illustrating my frustration, but the point is that I felt the game should flatten everything completely when crushed, and not pull little tricks on players that seem to ignore the stated logic of the game.
These two factors combined did an effective job in sucking most the delight and wonder out of Crush's gameplay somewhere near the halfway point. I completed all forty levels out of pig-headed tenacity and a flat refusal to give up, but the reality was that its appeal and entertainment value expired long before the game ran out of material. It's always disappointing to see a fantastic idea wander astray or simply run out of gas. In my opinion, it's better to leave players wanting more...and in Crush's case, less is definitely more.
There is very little for Parents to worry about with Crush. The violence involved in the game only goes as far as squashing bugs, and the adolescent romance suggested in the cut-scenes is about as innocent and vaguely hinted at as you could imagine. Only the impressively eerie, nightmarish audio design could really be seen as unsettling for minors.
PSP owners looking for a journey-shortener will be very well served by Crush. The sensibly-sized levels offer addictive gameplay, but also a sense of narrative progress and heroism that is perhaps missing from the format's less personable puzzle games, like Lumines and Mercury. For such an original game, Crush is also good value. It's polished enough that all 40 of the taxing levels are worth replaying, either for their own sake, to unlock bonus artwork, or to reach a new best time in the unlockable time-trial mode.
Deaf and Hard Of Hearing Gamers will find all spoken audio displayed in subtitles and should not be caught out by any of the game's puzzles, which are all visual and never reliant upon sound.