In the beginning, there was Mario. Mario was bright and colorful and cute and innocent. Parents approved of Mario games. They were clean and wholesome and as American as Nissan automobiles.
Then there was Sonic. Sonic was everything Mario was not. He was fast. He was rude. He tapped his foot if you put down the controller for too long. He had attitude.
Pre-adolescents that grew up on Mario flocked to Sonic in their adolescence. His rebellious nature appealed to a generation that was just beginning to assert its independence. In Sonic's wake, platforming games in general started to slowly change. Color palettes became darker. Characters became more smart-alecky. Even Crash Bandicoot, one of the last bastions of platforming wholesomeness, had a sort of wry, devil-may-care attitude about him.
As gamers and games have continued to mature, so have platforming characters. You can't turn around these days without running into a big-name action/adventure game that features a bloodthirsty vampire, an undead devourer of souls, or some other shallow characterization that just exudes darkness. Some marketing director at Acclaim seems to have caught on to this trend and tried to apply it to Vexx. He obviously didn't try very hard.
As I played Vexx, I could almost pinpoint the exact places where the meddlesome marketer must have said, "this should be edgier." The inexplicable floating demons on the title screen. The still beating hearts that replace the "cutesy" stars and shines of the Mario games. Even the way that Vexx seems to have a permanent scowl on his face throughout the game. It all smacks of a flimsy facade placed on a boilerplate platforming game.
Things start off well enough. In the opening cutscene, the player learns the tale of Vexx, an enslaved young boy who gets pushed too far by his master. When Vexx tries to lash out, he is almost killed by Yabu, the evil sorcerer who is the leader of the slave-driving Shadow Minions. Vexx is saved by the heroic sacrifice of his uncle, who dies in the process of distracting Yabu long enough for Vexx to escape. Conveniently, Vexx manages to stumble upon the Astani War Talons, a pair of ancient power claws that are infused with the power to stop Yabu and his minions. As the games tagline says, "Vengeance has a new name."
Now this is some suitably serious stuff. There's no wimpy 'save the princess' motif here. Vexx is out to avenge the death of his dear, departed uncle and free his race from the hand of a dark overlord. Bring it on!
Unfortunately, after this promising start, Vexx abandons almost all pretence of its dark storyline and instead falls into the pattern of a remarkably standard platforming game. Unlike American McGee's Alice, which had levels that were as twisted as its storyline, Vexx has levels that do little to distinguish themselves from the countless, cartoony platforming levels that have come before them. There's a mountain level. There's a desert level. There's an underwater levelyou get the idea. Not only that, but the enemies are generally cute little blobs with rounded corners that hop around and die with cartoony "splat" sound effects. What happened to dark? What happened to edgy? What happened to any cohesive sense of style?
Vexx's gameplay is also horribly stereotypical for the genre. The player's arsenal of moves includes a backflip, a long jump, a midair ground-pound attack, and a variety of other staples that totally waste the potential of the undeniably cool power claws that grant Vexx his power. The game does gain points for including an interesting mechanic that involves juggling dead enemies with air attacks to build up a special meter. Unfortunately, the meter is rarely useful and the risk involved in attempting to juggle enemies is hardly worth it.
Vexx's goals also left me wanting. With the exception of the standard "collect X floating items in this level" goals (which aren't necessarily bad, just not terribly exciting), most of the goals are endlessly compartmentalized into mini-games and hidden portals that take you away from the main level to an isolated area with its own motif and goal. With the exception of the first level, these interminable sub-sections made the levels feel like disconnected sets of random challenges rather than tight collections of goals integrated into a living, interconnected world.
Again, there are a few bright points. Some goals, like the one where a Lilliputian Vexx needs to use a giant video game controller to play a simplified game of Breakout, were clever enough to bring a stupid grin to my face. But for every one of these interesting goals, there were two that had some sort of ridiculous premise (like the mini-games that required you to "fight your inner demons" on a different plane of existence) or incredibly frustrating series of unforgiving platforming challenges that made we want to stop playing.
Vexx also has its share of more technical problems, not least of which is the amazingly long load times. Players are faced with 15 to 30 seconds of loading every time they (1) collect a wraitheart (2) enter a new level (3) enter one of the many subsections of that level that aren't yet in the system's main memory or, occasionally, (4) lose all their lives and have to go back to the main menu.
These frequent interruptions further prevent players from immersing themselves in the game's world and are simply unforgivable when year-old games like Jak And Daxter provide persistent worlds free from any visible loading. Add in a substandard camera and some slightly imprecise controls, and you have a game that looks like it was rushed out to avoid being released too far after the holiday rush.
Vexx is a lot like the middle-class, suburban kid in high school that tries to make everyone think he's cool by wearing nothing but black and listening to Metallica. It's all an act; a dark pretense put up to hide a depressingly normal game that doesn't really know what it wants to be. There's nothing wrong with ignoring the wholesome, sugary sweet conventions of the Mario series, but game makers should at least try to ignore them with some conviction.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.