August 21, 2012 15 Comments
Spyleaks is part Loloish puzzler, part space shooter. Notice I didn’t say “a cross between” or “a mix of” because it’s not. In each of the five worlds in the game, you play five puzzle stages, then a space shooter, and then finally a timed “run the gauntlet” puzzle. It’s weird. I like weird, but this is a different kind of weird. Like someone making a peanut butter and cloves sandwich, where you wonder who in their right mind would see the potential in that combination.
I’ll ignore the storyline about the exploits of the greatest spy ever known. Spies typically being people who can blend in. The dude in this game has buck teeth that would draw the attention of Stevie Wonder, but he makes up for it with the ability to push safes as tall as he is with minimal effort. Not only that, but he’s so stealthy about it that he can push a safe right in front of a guy who has his eyes wide open and go completely undetected. Dude, you’re good. James Bond bows at your feet. Sigh. Obviously I did anything but ignore the story.
As far as gameplay, Spyleaks is very similar to the Adventures of Lolo, which is as of yet the only Virtual Console game I’ve reviewed here. And the only reason I did so was because I played two XBLIG titles that were tributes to the series: Aesop’s Garden and Crystal Hunters. For an obscure franchise that’s gotten pretty much no love from its developer in two decades, Lolo sure has spawned some amazing games on Xbox Live Indie Games. Aesop’s Hunters and Crystal Gardens both made my big one-year anniversary Top 25 feature. With credentials like that, there’s no way Spyleaks could be better than Aesop’s Crystal or Garden Hunters, right?
Wrong. Spyleaks is the best of the bunch. I’ll get to the incredibly out-of-place shooter sections later and focus on the 25 standard puzzles presented here. Although the game closely reminded me of the three titles I spoke of above, Spyleaks changes the formula a lot. Sure, you still shove crates, stun-lock enemies to use as crates, and ultimately try to open up an exit. Where Spyleaks changes things up is with its button and gate system. Levels typically have one or more different colored switches or buttons that you have to activate to proceed. Those switches will activate corresponding gates. It’s not an original feature by any means, but it adds to the complexity of the puzzles in the game. If Aesop’s Garden was too hard for you, don’t even bother trying Spyleaks unless you want your head to explode.
Oh, and if your head is in danger of exploding but you think you ought to try the game anyway, be a chum and make sure you live stream it. What can I say? I’m a fan of spectacles.
Stealth also factors in. Some of the enemies are situated like guards who only give chase if you cross in front of them. Whoever you’re spying on must be the most charitable mother fucker alive because he only seems to hire guards with severe visual impairments. That’s mighty noble of him, and yet I would think a donation to the Schepens Eye Research Institute would probably be smarter, what with the fact that I can walk directly next to a guard and he won’t see me. Now if you walk right in front of them, they start to give chase. This mechanic is the basis for several of the timed “finale” puzzles that close each of the five game worlds. I really enjoyed all of Spyleaks’ mind benders, but I really liked these ones. They could have been the basis of an entire game on their own.
Before this review turns into too much of a love-letter, I have some bones to pick with Spyleaks. Stun-locking enemies is done by picking up tranquilizer darts (or anti-robot-shock-things if you’re shooting machines). All movement in the game is done one full square at a time. If you shoot an enemy while he’s moving into the square next to you, even if you shoot before he touches you, you die. That’s bullshit. Isn’t the time-honored tradition in these situations “tie goes to the runner”? Thankfully, death here is treated with the dignity that typically befalls it, meaning your character does cartwheels in place and then shakes his head before flat-lining. Same thing happened to my great-great-great-great grandfather right before he died of old age. Cart-wheeled right on his death-bed did he.
Thankfully, that’s the only complaint I have about Spyleaks. . . . . is what I would be saying if not for the space shooter stuff. Allow me to brow-beat the developer for a few seconds: WHAT THE FUCK, DUDE? It’s not that these sections play poorly. They control fine, they’re handled well enough. They’re not particularly exciting though, and if I want something to give me a break from the puzzles, I’ll take a break from the fucking game!
I get it. Puzzle games are a particularly tough sell on XBLIG, and not everyone wants them. Let’s talk about a fictional, hypothetical XBLIG customer so as to not single anyone in particular out. I’ll call him, oh, Dave Voyles. Now let’s say Dave has rotted his brain out with too many rounds of Mega Man, coupled with all the head trauma he received as a young man banging his head into a wall when he had online games of NBA 2K1 all sewn up only to have the pathetic little shit he was playing against rage quit the game with 0:03 remaining on the clock, destroying is 35 point lead. Remember, purely hypothetical. So Dave’s fragile brain is no longer capable of doing puzzle games. Yet, he’s fine with shooters.
Dave is NOT going to buy this puzzle game on the basis that it occasionally takes a break to play a two-minute long shooter. He’s just not. It’s a novel attempt at luring him in, but it’s not going to sell him. Especially when there is no way he can experience the shooting sections in the eight minutes that is allotted for demos on XBLIG.
I’m not busting the developer’s chops for this, nor am I down-ranking his game in any way. Spyleaks is amazing. It’s one of 2012’s best Xbox Live Indie Games. So intelligent, so beautifully crafted, and so infectious. It’s also the perfect length (25 single-screen puzzles, 5 “beat the clock” puzzles, 5 brief shooting sections, and a finale) and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Will it be accessible to people who hate the genre? Probably not. And no, the space stuff isn’t worth playing the puzzles to get to. Sorry, I can’t get over it. How is it possible that the first game to crack the Top 25 on my brand new leaderboard since its inception could have such a weird design choice in it? I don’t get it. Breaking up an original, highly intelligent puzzler with random bits of a shooter is like breaking up the monotony of life on the International Space Station by occasionally opening up the cabin doors.
Spyleaks was developed by HeartBit Interactive
80 Microsoft Points didn’t realize until just this very moment that this game was by the guys who did Doom & Destiny in the making of this review. Not sure why they don’t have their own dedicated website though.
Spyleaks is ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. Click here to see where it landed.