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Tales From Space: About A Blob

20:0214/02/2011Posted by Simeon PaskellOne Comment

Drinkbox Studios’ Tales from Space: About A Blob got us thinking that there really should be a genre created called ‘Blob ‘em ups’. Through the likes of LocoRoco, A Boy and His Blob, De Blob, Silly Putty, The Maw and many more, the humble, amorphous blobs have achieved a great deal in the world of videogames, never letting a lack of limbs hold them back. The particular blob taking centre stage in About A Blob is a versatile little orange chap who (among other things) can absorb items strewn around 2D platforming worlds and spew them out as lethal weapons. The game as a whole mirrors this ability by absorbing ideas from numerous other games, but does it manage to deliver them out with the same kind of deadly accuracy?

Modern platformers really need to do something special to standout from the crowd; unfortunately this is something that the opening salvo of Tales from Space: About A Blob fails to do. Charitable critics may describe it as extremely understated, while harsher ones might label it unexceptional. The intro also fails to set your imagination on fire, with a brief, strangely soundless cutscene detailing a blob-based narrative of the most rudimentary kind that can be succinctly summarised as ‘Blobs invade earth’. It really doesn’t make you sit up and pay attention.

That the first few levels following this are similarly unexciting doesn’t bode well, and it is easy to feel like the game is merely going through the motions with an eye on a quick buck. The platforming feels solid if unexceptional, and the visuals are cleanly rendered but lacking a sense of individuality. Fortunately, rather than settling into this groove and churning out an experience of the most perfunctory kind, it’s not long before you find the game wrestling back your interest, not through some clever new mechanic but with some rather lovely background art. Sliming along, you suddenly spot a wonderfully rendered cartoon human going about his business, completely oblivious to the tiny alien blob in his midst. This small encounter proves to be just a taste of the lovingly kitsch, 1950s Americana inspired adventure that About A Blob eventually manages to weave.

About A Blob grows in stature steadily throughout the experience – the blob himself physically increases in size and gains new abilities, and the levels become more confident, engaging and imaginative. While controlling the blob initially feels very run of the mill, new skills and abilities are drip fed and before long he has a repertoire that makes for some immensely satisfying puzzles and reaction-testing platforming, much of which wouldn’t look out of place in a Mario game. There is very little fat here; the blob’s skillset is focused, well implemented and a testament to what an excellent job Drinkbox does of exploring the possibilities of a magnetism/repulsion mechanic, plus electricity manipulation.

Impressively, despite borrowing many ideas from other games – some almost wholesale –About A Blob never feels like a dodgy knock off. The Drinkbox team displays a genuine talent for cherry picking great gameplay mechanics and slickly combining them in a way that feels both celebratory and, more importantly, absolutely cohesive. So, we witness the object collection/growing mechanic of Katamari Damacy mixing with the fiendish physic puzzles of Limbo, the rollicking platforming of LittleBigPlanet and the look and feel of LocoRoco (complete with the blob whizzing through pipework in an almost identical manner). It is the similarity to Katamari that is the most striking however; once you get to grips with the blob’s ability to grow by collecting bits of rubbish, it feels inevitable that the game will follow trajectory mapped out by Keita Takahashi’s classic Roll ‘em up – but the game still manages to feel hugely compelling.

That About A Blob gets away with this is in a large part thanks to the blob himself- thanks to a pair of hugely expressive eyes, he exudes a degree of charisma that far outstrips his simple design. Each of his moves are accompanied by specific expressions, from squinting when moving fast to exhausted lethargy when being filled with electrical current – he also squishes, bounces and slides around the levels with real energy.His constant changes in scale from tiny, test-tube subject to city devouring mega blob also facilitate a transition from a feeling of inconsequential vulnerability to joyous, unstoppable, world-devouring superpower. It’s a formula that worked for Katamari Damacy; and it works just as well here.

The world that the blob inhabits is also (for the most part) beautifully rendered with each locale showcasing an eye for detail – and an underlying dark humour – that tugs you ever onwards, if only to see what surprises lie around the corner. It wallows in its 1950’s sci-fi/horror setting and is filled with small, but memorable moments – from snuffling up the organs from a recently opened corpse to rampaging across open countryside absorbing shocked looking cows and straw-sucking farmers – that can’t help but make you crack a smile.

The biggest problem with About A Blob is its brevity. While there are plenty of items to collect (a task that may well fuel multiple play-throughs) and a well implemented two player mode, the game is slightly on the short side.While this is more forgivable for a £9.99 downloadable release, the game would certainly have benefitted from the inclusion of some sort of score attack or challenge mode.

Like Limbo, Flower and Braid before it, Tales From Space: About A Blob is the type of release that makes you thankful for the existence of downloadable gaming and the freedom that it gives developers to create lean, punchy and engaging games that would have no doubt been doomed to obscurity had they been launched full-price at retail. With a glint in its eye, Drinkbox has approached an ageing concept and run with it, applying liberal amounts of personality, taut game design and a cheeky sense of humour that make for one of the most effortlessly enjoyable games we’ve played in some time. It also functions as a wonderful counterpoint to the blood, dirt and violence of many mainstream releases, harking back to a more innocent time when frivolity in gaming was rife, and the mass execution of crowds of civilians in Russian airports was solely the domain of shocking news stories.

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One Comment »

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