Thursday, January 23, 2014

REVIEW - Olli Olli.

Olli Olli is a 2D skateboarding game.  It is entirely a score pursuit, where victory is earned at the tail end of a single, massive, level-spanning, unbroken combo of grinds, tricks and spins, and it is hard as hell.

They could have named it Dark Souls Skate, as players would then be more adequately prepared for its brutal difficulty and the cheerful earnestness with which the game punishes failure.

An indie title that earns its thirteen dollar price tag by way of the need for constant and repeated retries, it's got that Hotline Miami method of addiction. When a game is this rock-hard, it's easy to get frustrated.  When restarting is instantaneous, it's harder to walk away without trying to see if you can overcome its latest challenge.

Though, after two days with Olli Olli, I feel like I'm done with it.  I can't admit it's not nearly-perfect in its own highly-concentrated way, but it's also not a game for everyone.  I'll probably return to its cruel hills when I find myself with an appetite for its unique offering, but after two days I find I'd rather not play it, right now.


What Olli Olli attempts to do, it does really well - which is why it's received such critical acclaim from the enthusiast press.  As a game about skateboarding, it does a masterful job of encapsulating the feel of chaining together tricks, grinds and perfect landings not through thought, but earned muscle memory and instinct.  It's a game its developers want you to go a little zen with while playing, and - maddening difficulty aside - it achieves it.

It sets the player on an entirely reasonable difficulty curve, in which even the first level will see you tripping up and faceplanting a half-dozen times before you successfully make it to the cheering crowd at the bottom of the hill.  That first hill was candy land compared to what comes after.

Simply landing your board on concrete is something the game permits you to screw up - if you don't tap X as you hit the ground, you'll get a sloppy landing and take a half-second to regain your balance.  If that half-second was a half-second you needed to wind and release the jump that would see you safely over an obstacle or flight of stairs, well, you're eating pavement.

The big retry button in the top-left corner of the screen is wisely-placed and repeatedly used. 

That sounds simple enough, but Olli Olli mixes things up by ensuring - in the later levels - that you're almost never skating on a flat surface.  The late levels are almost-exclusively made up of grindable rails - and successfully landing on a rail is done with a snap of the analog stick.  These late levels quickly teach you to hit your grinds perfectly, as an early flick of the stick will see you losing momentum, but a perfectly-timed grind offers a speed boost - without which you won't make it over the next jump.

In the late levels, you almost never touch the ground - and what ground is offered are fleeting, tiny patches of terror on which you must properly land, wind a jump (again, with the analog stick) and release to soar over the next gap in safety.

These can be overcome - it can all be overcome - as in real skateboarding, cleverly enough, with practice.  Do it and do it and do it again until you can do it without thinking.  Until you simply do.

Olli Olli is its own zen koan.


When that thoughtless state comes over you, it's something absolutely remarkable as you Impossible onto a ledge, nose grind your way down a hill, chaining tricks off a dozen different surfaces and come out of that in a 520 olli spin to nail the landing with perfect timing, the tiny board doing its tiny animated flips beneath your tiny pixel feet.

It's lovely, and as a game that does what it sets out to do, Olli Olli is excellent.  When you're really gleaming the cube, it's divine.

Perhaps I'll come back to it, and invest the time it requires to harvest the fun of the game's promise - but, as in real skateboarding, sadly enough, I'm not sure I'm willing to put in the work.

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