Saturday, February 8, 2014

Blinx 2: Masters of Time & Space - A Better Use Of Time

As with the original Blinx: The Time Sweeper, Blinx 2: Masters of Time & Space is a game I had been aware of in childhood, albeit with the inability to play it until recently. I knew about the existence of this game after happening to see it in a store (likely a Circuit City or Best Buy or something, I don’t remember), with no idea what the context of the box art was (I didn’t think to look on the reverse side of the box). However, Blinx was still somewhat fresh in my head at the time, and I still wished I had the chance to see what the sequel was like. Now that I have an original Xbox to play it on, I decided to give Blinx 2 a try after finding out what the full experience of the original ended up being. While I am truly impressed with how much has changed between games, it still could have been improved in at least one or two areas before release.

While on another gem-stealing spree, the Tom Tom Gang blow up a wall and come across a big crystal (later revealed to actually be called the Big Crystal), which Benito, the leader of the Tom Tom Gang, runs up to grab while his cohorts try in vain to stop him. As Benito grabs it, he ends up cracking the Big Crystal as it floats away, to his confusion. Meanwhile at the Time Factory, an army of Tom Tom Gang members (all glowing green) invades the Factory and causes destruction. As this happens, Blinx intervenes with various time powers to help his fellow Time Sweepers fend off the Tom Tom Gang, getting a scar in the process. Suspecting something has happened to the Big Crystal, the CEO of the Time Factory orders Blinx to go to another world and try to figure out what’s going on. As Blinx reluctantly follows orders, he is happy to see that other Sweepers decided to join in. Meanwhile, Benito has begun having dreams about a girl named Mina, who tells him he needs to restore the Big Crystal, a task Benito thinks will allow him to see her in person. After waking up, he soon finds out about the Tom Tom Gang invasion on the Time Factory, which Benito never ordered, believing it to be the work of imposters. In response, he has members of the Tom Tom Gang set out to investigate and help try to figure out what’s going on.

The story of Blinx 2 generally has some more meat to it than the previous game, which I commend, since it helps give the player more of a purpose than “restore a world in 10-minute intervals while also trying to stop the Tom Tom Gang”. The universe the games take place in is actually fleshed out a bit more in this game as well, giving the player a sense that the stakes are higher this time around as we learn the backstory of the Time Factory and the significance of the Big Crystal to the fabric of time. We also learn more about what the Tom Tom Gang is actually like, making every important member more 3-dimensional rather than the somewhat flat interpretation shown in the original game; they’re not straight-up evil, rather they’re shown to have concerns not only for their boss, Benito, but also for each other, though the same can’t be said for how they feel towards the Time Sweepers. Regardless, it’s good to see some character development on both ends between the Time Sweepers and the Tom Tom Gang.

Blinx gets somewhat of a redesign in this game.

The gameplay is also fleshed out as well when compared to the previous game. The Sweeper you are given as a Time Sweeper now has more capability than before, which includes the ability to hold more time powers at a time; rather than having a limit on how many you could have at once, you now have a limit on how many you can have for each time power (ex. you can initially hold up to 2 of each individual time power instead of initially 5 total time powers including duplicates). You are also not bound by having to sweep up a number of Time Crystals (which also receive a positive design overhaul to resemble the powers they represent) in a row, rather you can sweep up Time Crystals in any order you wish, so long as you sweep up 3 of each Crystal to get one use of the respective power. You can also eventually gain more abilities for your Sweeper, including a later ability to combine time powers. All of these enhancements to Sweeper usage allow for some much needed freedom in the gameplay, all of which is on top of the fact that the timer no longer restricts itself to 10 minutes, allowing you to take as much time as you need to complete a level. Also, rather than having the same goal of defeating all of the Time Monsters as in the last game, you have a choice of goals to meet in each stage, with Time Monsters not always being a priority, and even then you are not required to eliminate all of them; Time Monsters commonly give you Time Crystals upon defeat, and can respawn to give you the required Crystals needed to get through an area (the Crystals they drop are more context-sensitive in general, but it’s still a nice change of pace).

Adding to this is a nice bit of variety, made possible partially by the addition of being able to play as the Tom Tom Gang, whose gameplay is based more in stealth and using space powers, in the form of gadgets, to sneak around. Such gadgets include sending in a distracting decoy that fools Guard Sweepers, grenades that can pause time, space tunnels that allow you to travel underground to most areas, and invisibility cloaks, among other things. Some of these can hinder your abilities in some way, especially when you have to carry loot around as well, but they can come in real handy in a pinch. You also have access to a variety of arms, which ranges from a slingshot with sleep darts to a sniper rifle or from a metal bat to a fireworks launcher, their usefulness depending on the situation. Unlike the Time Sweeper sections though, you only have one goal to accomplish when playing through a Tom Tom Gang section, but this can be attributed to serving the story more than anything.

It is now possible to play as the Tom Tom Gang.
(Controls in the flip-side of the manual, seen here.)

The lack of any time limit makes it easier to complete a level, but it’s also much easier to collect money in the game. This subsequently makes it easier to go through the shops in each respective hub world (one for each side) and pick up any new gadgets or upgrades you might need to beef yourself up (you also have the ability to clean your clothes for some reason). However, I found it a lot easier to accomplish this with the Time Sweepers than with the Tom Tom Gang, though that likely has to do with how different their styles of play are. You also have to go through tutorials in order to be able to access later stages of the game (on both ends), though this makes sense considering you’re learning a skill you’ll need to get through the next level. You can also go through challenges to acquire new items, recruit new members into your team, or earn Cat/Pig Medals for your collection(s), among other goals.

As mentioned in the previous paragraph, you now have a team to keep track of, though it mainly comes into play when you reach a certain point of the level, where you have to fend off the other side while trying to keep yourself and your teammates alive; if you are taken down, you are then put into control of one of your teammates and the fight continues until you run out. Tying into this is a character creation system you have to go through when you start playing each side for the first time. This system is actually pretty deep and allows for a lot of freedom in creating your ideal character, which even extends to name, team name, and the design of team logo and flag (these last two are more limited, presumably for good reason) though the custom characters have the same voice no matter how you design them. As a downside to this, however, you are unable to actually play as Blinx throughout the whole game, despite him being involved in the story and his name being in the title, which lead to me using the character creation tools to create a cat resembling Blinx, down to his name; as for the Tom Tom Gang, I based my design somewhat off of the box art (because creativity).

On the subject of designs, not only does each non-playable Time Sweeper or Tom Tom Gang member look somewhat unique, but the designs of the Time Monsters get something of an overhaul, looking more menacing and frightening compared to the more cartoonish designs present in the original. The Octoballoon (a returning Time Monster), for instance, not only looks more menacing with having the balloon directly attached to the head rather than by what appeared to be “strings”, it also has a more tactical approach to combat by gaining a pair of arms it can swing at you with should you get too close, in addition to throwing garbage at you from a distance. While the Boss battles themselves can be a little underwhelming, their designs are also interesting and the strategies used to defeat them can get really clever.

The Tundragon, a monster from the Tom Tom Gang's
side of the story.

While I praise the character designs, I also praise the look of the game in general, as it is an improvement over the visuals of the original Blinx. Today, things such as the character animations might not be anything to write home about, but the graphics are overall good for the time the game was released (I don’t have many Xbox titles to go by at the time of this writing) and they still hold up somewhat thanks to the aesthetic of the designs. The sound design is also good, with a good soundtrack that goes with each setting well (though some tracks can get a little grating when repeated long enough), and sound effects carried over from the first game that still work well here. Notably, this game features the characters speaking in English for the first time, which I only found to be a good thing since I could spend less time trying to catch the subtitles. The voice acting itself is actually not that bad, with each voice fitting the characters well without becoming annoying, including the voices provided for the player-created characters.

One last thing I want to comment on is the difficulty. From what I have mentioned previously, the increase of freedom leads to a significantly lowered difficulty, especially now that there is a handy Checkpoint system in place in case you run out of Retries (as a Time Sweeper) or you run out of life (as a Tom Tom Gang member). However, the difficulty may have been lowered a little too much, since there is also a significant increase in hand holding, where others tell you through text boxes exactly what you need to do in order to get through the stage, with little to no opportunity to figure things out for yourself. Still, at least I was able to actually finish the game, something I have not yet been able to do with the first.

Blinx 2: Masters of Time & Space is a vast improvement over Blinx: The Time Sweeper, though perhaps maybe too much of an improvement in terms of difficulty. The story is more engaging, the characters are more fleshed out, and the Time Sweeper abilities receive an unbelievable amount of innovation, with the addition of Tom Tom Gang gameplay increasing the variety even more. If you are a Blinx fan, it is likely you already own this game, though if you only have/played the first game, I would definitely encourage you to seek this title out. If you have never heard of Blinx before, but the premise of being able to control time intrigues you, and especially if you are a fan of platforming games, I would tell you that Blinx 2 is a better representation of what the concept has to offer, though one should still play the first game in order to better appreciate the sequel.

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