Without a doubt, the next generation of hardware should be pretty fantastic from a technical standpoint—and by extension, the games should be too. These superpowered machines are more potent than ever, and it's pretty clear that the stakes are being raised for developers who want to compete; the market is being driven towards an endless cycle of must-be-a-blockbuster. However, what about indie developers and people with new ideas, or those working on a shoestring? In the coming days of mega-content and greater emphasis on details, online modes and maxing out all the bells and whistles, is there any room in the marketplace left for small studios and niche titles? There just might be on portables.
An atavistic excursion into 2D puzzle-solving, Exit is exactly the sort of game that most likely would not be released into the home console pool alongside the imminent hyper-light-sourced sharks and high-definition barracudas. Taking its core inspiration from classic material like Mechner's original Prince of Persia and Oddworld's Abe's Oddysee, it seems to fly in the face of current trends. There is no high-tech hocus-pocus; no normal mapping or completely interactive and destructible environments. It's probably about as far from open-ended, shoot everything, absurdly-realistic rendered adventure as you can get. And you know what? It's awesome.
Exit stars a visually abstract escape artist called Mr. ESC, tasked with entering dangerous situations to save civilians by pushing blocks, sliding down ropes, jumping gaps, and doing all sorts of puzzle-ish things that aren't currently in vogue. Without any real need for a story and no peripheral elements to distract, this experience is sharply focused and finely honed towards deductive reasoning and decisive action.
A typical level is a small, self-contained problem made to look like the side view of a building or set of rooms. A quick glance usually reveals what elements are present and what dangers must be avoided. The trick is that Exit places a high priority on doing things in a specific order, and although the idea of what must be done will emerge quickly, it sometimes takes a little trial and error to discover when to do what.
Over the course of 100 levels, a wide variety of elements like balancing pulleys, traversing slippery ice, swimming underwater, activating fire extinguishers, and manipulating the environment are masterfully introduced without ever overwhelming or overloading. By doing so, Exit manages to retain a high level of freshness and interest through to its conclusion— and it's also a neat trick that Taito managed to do it while never deviating from the basic formula the way some other games tend to go off-track when developers run out of ideas.
In addition to the constant expansion of factors to contend with, Mr. ESC can also employ the people he rescues towards the ultimate goal of escaping. Civilians come in three sizes, each with its own characteristics: normal adults are analogous to Mr. ESC, big adults can push heavy crates but can't jump far, and small children can crawl in narrow spaces but need help getting up to high places. Although the artificial intelligence for these helpers is weak (a lot of babysitting is needed to make sure they stay on task) controlling multiple characters at the same time adds a welcome level of complexity to something that would otherwise be fairly cut and dried.
The difficulty curve from start to finish is very measured, and I applaud Taito for the great care taken in designing these levels. For a game based solely on solving puzzles, being either too easy or too difficult would mean disaster. Although a lot of creative thinking and experimentation is required, the developers have done an outstanding job in making sure that challenge is present without too many sticking points along the way. There are definitely a handful that might stump, but in the case of frustration it's possible to jump around to another puzzle and come back to tough ones later—a brilliant move.
Exit is smart and successful for three reasons: one, because its goals and identity are crystal clear, and the developers stick to them. Two, because it takes full advantage of the PSP, not only by replacing raw horsepower with style and finesse, but also by keeping in mind that portable games should be different than console games by their very nature. Three, because it's the sort of unusual, different and refreshing project that seems to be becoming rare these days. If getting games like Exit means that I have to look to portables to find them, then plug in my battery charger; I'm here to stay.