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Critter Crunch
  PS3PuzzleNA  
  opened by paleface at 04:08:02 12/21/09  
  paleface [sys=PS3; cat=Puzzle; loc=NA]
           
A downloadable, 2D, high-res action puzzle game in the "ball dropping" style that's been so done to death, although in this case the sort of collection of balls--or here, little roundish animal "critters"--slowly descends the screen in a bunch, while you move back and forth at the bottom, sucking them up one-by-one with your long tongue, and then spitting them back out. You can also vomit.
 
The idea is that certain critter types will eat other critter types, so you want to tongue up a critter that another critter eats, and then spit it at that eater; the eater eats it, and, sated, sods off or pops or whatever, giving you points, and no longer threatening to reach the bottom of the screen and end your game. If more critters of that type are next to the eater, they go too, so you can get big combinations--and then if others are descending on the same vine below those who leave, they climb up the vine to possibly be eaten by whatever's now above them, which will result in chain combos and more points.
 
As you play through default campaign mode, going through a somewhat linear progression of puzzles across a jungle island, accompanied by a reasonably amusing storyline about a researcher finding rare crazy critter species, this collection of critter types, and their who-eats-who interactions, becomes surprisingly complex. The critters--later ones do exotic things like changing into other critters, or exploding, or not eating anything (gotta explode or combo or otherwise destroy those indirectly)--are well thought-out for the most part, and the progression of finding new things and new twists to the gameplay is very satisfying for a game of this type.
 
In addition to the mildly increasingly difficult path stages along the way, you can go off the path a bit to do other types of stages: Challenge stages where your interactions with the critters are subject to different rules, like a time limit, or having to get a certain number of a certain type of critters, or a certain number of combos, etc, and Puzzle stages, where the critters don't move downward, so you have all the time you like to make your move, but you only have a certain number of moves to clear the board.
 
There are a lot of both of those types of stages, which unlock as you play through the regular campaign; you can go and play them separately once you've unlocked them, which is nice. The Puzzle stages can be mind-bogglingly frustrating at times, but are all in all fun and satisfying to complete. I enjoyed the Challenge stages much less, because they're just making you play the regular game in a specific, limited, arbitrary way; I didn't complete a few of them that require you to get a certain number of chain combos within a very strict time limit, because setting up combos like that on purpose is...a real pain.
 
Oh, the vomiting: you have some kind of nephew who shows up at the side of the screen when you get a particularly big combo, and if you move next to him and press the special vomit button, you regurgitate into his mouth, for which he rewards you with extra points. Meanwhile, however, the critters are descending faster than ever, so you can't really do this much when times are tough.
 
The music and graphics are lively and peppy, the 1080p hand-drawn animated 2D graphics in particular having a pleasing cel-shaded animation look about them. As you would expect, there are online leaderboards.
 
So after playing through campaign mode I was pretty happy with the game, and campaign mode is pretty long, so really, for a downloadable game, it's pretty easily worth the dough.
 
I *was* hoping for an "endless" type of mode I could happily play whenever I liked outside of the campaign mode, and there is one, but it feels very slapdash. You can't even access it until you beat the campaign, which feels like a very unnecessary restriction. But the real problem with the endless mode is--and this is surprising in these days of easy casual games--the difficult ramps up to really tough levels within just a few minutes, so it never feels like you've managed to play for a very satisfyingly long time in any single game, even if you got a pretty good score. And the scoring seems a little iffy; the real money is in massive combos, and those are way easier to get earlier on, and not worth much less than they are at higher difficulty levels, *I think*, so the success of my scores, even if I got to a relatively high level, seemed to be based mostly on whether I managed to get some lucky large combos at the beginning. Ehhhh.
 
And then some of the Challenge stages, as I mentioned, are very annoying.
 
Oh yeah, the other not so great thing about the game is that it has significant slowdown when there's a lot going on; this tends to be at its worst when you make a massive combo and your nephew shows up, because not only are there a ton of falling/exploding critters on the screen, and you don't have much time to take in their new layout, but your nephew actually pops over the screen for a while when he arrives, blocking nearly a quarter of the play space. Not cool. And because rapid, precise movement across the board requires perfectly timed taps on the controller, the slowdown will throw you way off just when you need to be at your fastest. It's downright bad; even at 1080p, you'd think the PS3 could handle the relatively simple--I mean, they're not really warping or whatnot--2D graphics at a smooth speed, but for some reason it can't.
 
The speed gets really really bad when "poison" is involved; this gimmick, encountered in some campaign and challenge levels, and constantly in Endless mode (ughhhhh), makes a point-deducting packet of green "poison" drop from infected critters when you hit them, and if you feed a poisoned critter to another critter, that other critter is now poisoned, too. Getting negative points instead of cool good points when you rush over to collect items from the fallen critters is just really not fun, and anyway since the items block your path, in any kind of busy situation you not only don't have time to check if they're poison or not, but you really don't have the option of avoiding them anyway, because you've got to get through them to the trouble spot of descending critters. Anyway even so I wouldn't really care about the poison much, except that its transparent green cloud particles slow the game way down. The poison sucks big-time.
 
Also somewhat less than great are weapon-like power-up items you sometimes get from fallen critters. These are limited in number, and are usually things that you can throw upwards into the critters to disperse them, or at least rearrange them. It sounds like a nice thing to make the gameplay more interesting, but they're really luck-of-the-draw, and it's really not that fun to try toggling through them when you have multiple types, and a ton of descending critters on your hands.
 
The final thing I'm going to whine about is that some of the set challenge stages can be more or less impossible to complete--and sometimes endless mode, for that matter, is suddenly way harder--just due to a random distribution of a rocky blocker type of critter that has to be destroyed indirectly; these will keep marching steadily down the vines at you, and if the distribution of goods or critters around them is such that you don't have a combo or weapon handy to take them out, you're pretty much hosed. I guess I should be a better player and be able to deal with them no matter how hectic the normal eat-matching of the stage is, but it's just another thing that seems like it wasn't very thoroughly play-balanced.
 
Critter Crunch is very good in some ways--the art and story, for instance, are way above average, as is the complexity and cleverness of the critter taxonomy, and the variety and challenge of the Puzzle stages--but other areas--Endless mode, which should really be the meat of the game, for instance--feel rather poorly thought out. I'm particularly bummed about the really un-fun nature of Endless mode, because it means that I don't have much reason to go back to the game at all after having finished the campaign and puzzles; generally you'd assume a puzzle game would have a good replayable endless/arcade style mode, with maybe a tacked-on story/challenge mode, but here the situation is reversed, and it makes Critter Crunch unusually short-term for a puzzle game.
    

 
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