Friday, November 22, 2013

Blinx: The Time Sweeper - Is It Worth Your Time?

As many of you may be aware, the Xbox One is out. This is a day I have been looking forward to for a good while, and so in anticipation I acquired my copy of the system early. The system showed a lot of promise, and from what little I have seen of it so far, I am satisfied.

Also, the new Xbox One system came out today.

But that’s not the One we’re getting into right now.

In all seriousness, we are going to dig into a game called Blinx: The Time Sweeper, released for Microsoft’s original Xbox system back in 2002. This is a game I got for my birthday a while ago, long after I came into possession of an original Xbox, making this game my first, and, at the time of this writing, only, original Xbox title. Before getting any further, let’s get into a little personal history with the character of Blinx.

In my childhood, I was well aware of the existence of Blinx, I just didn’t exactly have the system to play the game on; I would not receive my first gaming system, the PlayStation 2, until much later, so the only way I had any gaming experience was through PC/internet games, playing on someone else’s system, or playing in-store demos. Blinx was one game I demoed in a store, like maybe two or three times (which may or may not have included the now defunct Circuit City), but I got some enjoyment out of what little I was able to play, and since then the game had been in my mental wish list of games I wanted to play. I was also aware of the existence of the game’s only sequel, Blinx 2: Masters of Time and Space, but only after seeing it on store shelves, and even then I wanted to experience what Blinx was like, even after the character unfortunately faded into obscurity. Now that I was able to do so with the first game, I can say that the game is overall…just okay.

The Time Factory, whose employees are all cats, is a facility that is responsible for making and distributing time across an infinite number of worlds, in the form of Time Crystals. However, Time Glitches may sometimes occur from unused Time Crystals, resulting in the creation of Time Monsters. Should this happen, it is up to the Time Sweepers at the Factory to eliminate the threat. Blinx is but one of these Time Sweepers, minding his own business when it is reported that the Tom-Tom Gang, a gang (whose members are all pigs) who runs a sort of black market on time between worlds, has caused great unbalance in world B1Q64, causing the Time Factory to force all Time Sweepers in that world to evacuate so they can cease the flow of time. However, when the Tom-Tom Gang reveal they have captured the princess of B1Q64, Blinx instantly falls in love, heading towards the Time Portal to that world so that he may rescue her.

Blinx, the titular Time Sweeper.
During the game, you are tasked to defeat a given number of Time Monsters across each level within a 10 minute time limit. Using Blinx’s Sweeper, you can suck up trash scattered within the level, which can be fired at the Monsters. Sometimes you can even run into a member of the Tom-Tom Gang, creating a mini-boss fight as you prevent them from taking gold from within the immediate area. Levels also often feature a number of hazards and doors that can only be opened by stepping on large buttons; these buttons can also activate whatever is needed to continue the level, such as activating moving platforms and creating large jump pads. These mechanics work well to feed into the central platforming aspect of the game; however it wouldn’t really stand out without the ability to control time.

Yes, you have the ability to control time, which seems to come with the job of being a Time Sweeper, with your powers including pausing, rewinding, fast-forwarding, and slowing down time, and even being able to record yourself to aid in solving puzzles. Each of these powers can only be used for a brief period, and some of them are more useful in particular situations, so you have to be careful with how you use them. However, in order to use them, you have to worry about Time Crystals scattered in each level.

You see, in order to be able to use these powers, you need to collect the right number of Time Crystals (3 of any like Crystal + 1 different Crystal give you 1 of that power; 4 of any like Crystal gives you 2 of that power), as well as pay attention to their shape and color (ex. PAUSE Crystals are blue and moon-shaped). On top of this, you can only hold a certain number of total time powers at any time, and going over the limit overrides another power, so you have to be careful. This also extends to RETRYs, which are essentially your lives, represented by red, heart-shaped Crystals, but they are kept in a separate part of the screen away from the time powers. When you die in a level and you have at least one RETRY on you, the game will rewind a few seconds to before you lost a life, allowing you enough time to undo whatever mistake you made. However, if you don’t have any RETRYs when you die, the game ends (this can also happen when your 10 minutes in the level run out).

Pictured: How Time Crystals work.
Adding another layer to the Time Crystals, unused powers and lives carry over into the next level, which can provide a certain tactical advantage for the time powers, but can also create more of a sense of urgency when it comes to your RETRYs, depending on how many you still have.

As an added bonus, there are Time Crystals that appear golden. These, however, are not really Time Crystals, but rather the aforementioned gold, whose value depends on size, but not shape. These will not give you any powers or add to your Crystal count, but will give you currency to spend in the Stores found in each set of levels, where you can upgrade your Sweeper to hold more and bigger items, hold more time powers or RETRYs at a time, or even buy new outfits for Blinx to wear (and of course, Sweepers and outfits are among the more expensive items). You can also purchase additional RETRYs, which may save you some pain in later levels. Levels also feature hidden Cat Medals, which more often than not require you to go above and beyond to nab them, and additional gold can be obtained by having any amount of trash left in your Sweeper (and even then it depends on the type of trash and how much you have).

The gameplay features involving time, while unique and interesting, are not without their drawbacks. The fact that you have to collect the Time Crystals from within the level to use any of your powers can be a bit of a drag at times, since the Crystals, when not placed at predetermined points in the level, are often random drops, which can alter your plans significantly if you are trying to get a specific power. I’ve had it where I was trying to get 2 of a certain power (or RETRYs), but the proximity of the one required Crystal to an unrelated one resulted either in me getting only 1 of that power or a bad combination, which annoyed me a little. As for the rest of the gameplay, while taking down monsters seems fun at first, I eventually became disinterested with the game about halfway through due to the sheer monotony of the whole thing, with little variation outside of visiting the Store for an upgrade or two or facing a Boss, especially since each Stage, or set of levels, is always 3 levels and a boss fight, with a Store unlocked after beating the first level in each Stage. Granted, some of my mistakes that lead to frustration were more a result of human error and I’m aware you can visit previous levels to improve your time, but I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to keep playing. I might go back to the game in the future, especially since at this point I have no idea what the Cat Medals are even for.

There are, however, some things that I think the game does really well. Though I have literally no other Xbox game at the time of this writing to compare the game’s graphics to, I would still say the graphics actually aren’t too bad for an Xbox game, especially for a game released in 2002, and they seem to hold up fairly well, probably helped by the cartoonish visual style. The character designs actually have a lot of variety to them, mostly when it comes to the Time Monsters, who each have a unique design so you can tell from a distance what kind of monster they are and, based on their color scheme, how hard they would be to take down. The members of the Tom-Tom Gang manage to look distinct from one another (though their names, along with a handful of Time Monster names, only show up in the manual) and, admittedly, Blinx himself looks kind of adorable sometimes.

What I’ve also noticed in my time spent with this game is a little detail regarding Blinx’s animations, specifically falling animations. When Blinx falls from a great height, he will normally land flat on his face without taking damage (unless, of course, in the off chance there is a hazard underneath him). However, if he falls from just the right height, he will move such that he lands safely on his feet. Since real-life cats can actually do this to an extent (please don’t try this at home), this is one small detail that, for me, helped sell me on the fact that he was a cat, since evidently the team working on the game must have done some amount of research on cats. Also, when you hit a wall, Blinx will slowly slide down while attempting to cling onto it, though this action also tends to make him more adorable.

Benito, leader of the Tom-Tom Gang
(according to the manual)
The levels themselves have some good design, but the way some of them are laid out tends to lend more to the difficulty than some of the Time Monsters do (levels with swinging axes present can get more than a little frustrating). While the levels themselves feel long due to how they are laid out, it often feels like you are just ascending further up within an enclosed space, but that doesn’t mean the designers didn’t go wrong when working with limited space. On the other hand, at least one or two levels felt like you had to complete the level in a specific fashion, otherwise you are wasting precious time if you mess up (fortunately, if a Time Monster goes into a currently unreachable space that would require tedious backtracking, it will simply reappear in the more immediate space with damage intact).

The music in this game is also very good, with some very catchy tunes present in each level, the music variety itself depending on Stage and whether it is a Boss fight. The tone of the music nicely compliments the design of each level, making each Stage feel more unique. Then there’s the voice acting, or lack thereof. The characters speak in a nonsense language (with subtitles provided), which makes sense from a practical standpoint as it makes it easier to carry the game over between multiple countries, with prompts and subtitles being the only language change. This also gives the setting more of a unique feel, since neither the Time Factory nor B1Q64 are evident to be related to our Earth in the first place (especially regarding the Time Factory).

In the end, Blinx: The Time Sweeper is a bit of a mixed bag. While some aspects of the game are good, especially in its visuals and sound design, it has some moments of seemingly unnecessary difficulty, especially since more difficult levels can make the 10-minute time limit a bit stricter than in earlier levels. However, despite my feelings on this game, I would encourage anyone who (still) has an original Xbox to play the game for themselves to see what they think of it, especially if they are a fan of platformers. If you do, I would recommend playing it in short bursts, particularly if it starts to feel like a chore. From what I gather, things change a bit for the game’s only sequel, which I hope to get to play at some point in the future.

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