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Tak and the Guardians of Gross

Score: 90%
ESRB: Everyone 10+
Publisher: THQ
Developer: Blitz Games
Media: CD/1
Players: 1
Genre: Platformer/ Platformer (3D)/ Family

Graphics & Sound:

In my next life, I want to come back as a developer for licensed games. By my calculation, these folks can't lose. If the licensed game is bad, everyone has sympathy and says it stands to reason, since expectations were already low. If the game is good, you end up lauded as gods or goddesses for beating the odds. We've played our share of licensed games and found very few that beat the odds against mediocrity, but Tak and the Guardians of Gross is just such a game. Imagine our surprise when we broke the wrapper on this one and found a real Platformer contender for the Wii.

For starters, it's a beautiful game. Coming off the heels of long sessions with Crash: Mind Over Mutant, we can say that Guardians of Gross trumps the bandicoot with ease. The difference is instantly noticeable, mostly because of smart design choices like layered environments that look like cel animation, intelligent cameras that pull in on the action and position themselves to show key gameplay elements like switches, and highly interactive environments. Each stage includes some huge set pieces that will have you working through what seem like endlessly unfolding areas, filled with enemies and mini-bosses. In a nod to Shadow of the Colossus, the levels you play through actually are the bosses, and each has a unique theme. Tak shows off some neat powers and moves that are as much fun to watch as they are to play. Cut scenes are done in a style almost identical to the animation for the Nickelodeon show, and Tak and the Guardians of Gross even includes an entire episode as a bonus!

The rich visuals in the game are matched by great music, sound effects, and voice acting. Sure, the voices are snarky or sometimes downright obnoxious, but that isn't too different than what you'll find in the show's humor. Helpful little hints will materialize on the screen and comments from Tak help keep you on track. There are good moments where the music rises in tandem with an increase in the action, such as the entrance of a slew of enemies or a particularly intense moment like the sliding scene at the beginning of the Gorgonzilla level. Not all of Tak and the Guardians of Gross plays out from a traditional platforming perspective. There are segments that are more akin to a shooter or a casual puzzle game, to keep things interesting.


Gameplay:

Tak and the Guardians of Gross looks like what you would get by combining Shadow of the Colossus gameplay with Tomb Raider platforming and adding a dash of MediEvil humor and exploration to the mix. It has all the foibles of any 3D game, including controls that sometimes go sideways on you, but the majority of Guardians of Gross plays like a dream. The story is forgettable, but typical fare for Tak, who can't seem to keep away from trouble. After unleashing horrible, nightmarish, and yes... gross monsters into the world, it falls on Tak to make things right for his tribe and everyone else.

He can't do it alone, especially since each of the Guardians of Gross involves a special skill or power. Defeating a boss will require all of Tak's agility and puzzle-solving skills, in addition to these powers. Guardians of Gross starts out with some basic training. Learning how the character controls is essential to moving smoothly through subsequent levels. There are neat moves like wall-running in addition to all the standard platforming tropes. Thankfully there isn't a huge amount of complicated jumping from platform to platform. Instead, the jumping punctuates a variety of obstacles that require hanging from ledges and ropes, balancing and sliding on vines, climbing and jumping from poles, and using switches or moving platforms to maximum advantage. The wall-run is probably the most complicated move, especially when used in combination with jumping. Motion controls on the Wii are used for the most part to trigger special magic, rather than in connection with platforming.

Special magic comes in several varieties. Tak can bust out basic attack juju using his staff at any time during battles, and does this cool flip-over-your-head move on enemies that couples nicely with a magical swat on the rear. Once the juju meter is full, Tak can unleash a major attack that works like an air raid, destroying multiple enemies instantly or a single boss. Using this strong magic strategically is a big part of breezing through battles. Other magic comes into play mostly for solving puzzles and navigating the boss "levels." Each boss has a theme, such as being made of slime or cheese or garbage. Before Tak enters a boss, he'll take on a power that relates to that boss's base element. The slime levels are disgusting but cool, because you'll have the ability to turn into a ball of slime and use some Super Monkey Ball moves to roll around on walls or ceilings. The developers for Guardians of Gross clearly show their love for the entire library of platforming titles; imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery. The breaks in platforming will take the form of "something else," such as a straight-up shooter level on rails, a puzzle-block game, and even the rail-sliding segment mentioned above. It all may sound a bit derivative, but it doesn't feel that way as you are playing. Where games like Super Mario Galaxy build on one "big idea," Tak and the Guardians of Gross uses the big ideas of an entire generation of platforming titles as its coat of many colors or awesomeness. Say what you will about originality, but this game is way more fun to pick up and play than the relatively stale Crash: Mind Over Mutant.


Difficulty:

There are several methods for lowering or raising the bar in games like this. Some are unintentional, like bad camera or design. Tak and the Guardians of Gross is almost entirely free of these kinds of issues, at least beyond the unavoidable placement problems that sometimes creep in with a 3D camera. If you, the gamer, place yourself in a tight spot and can't see the character, is that really the game's fault? There's no doubt that some of the jumps are iffy due to tricks that the 3D perspective plays on you, but Tak has a wonderfully forgiving control scheme that lets him clamber up almost any surface and grab tight to overhangs to avoid falls. The intentional efforts to raise or lower the bar are nicely implemented here, also. As you progress in the game, enemies move from very stupid and soft to things that are quicker and more resistant to your attacks. An example from the Gorgonzilla level is the section where enemies come out in sets of two, wearing impenetrable cheese armor. Tak has this magical cheese juju that can change blue or green cheese from solid to liquid and back again, but what affects one cheese also affects the other... Using the juju on enemies with green-cheese armor makes them vulnerable, but instantly makes the blue-cheese armor enemies untouchable. Juggling like this crops up more as the game progresses, but in a slow and deliberate fashion. The early stages of Tak and the Guardians of Gross may feel a bit tame to experienced Platformer fans. but there is plenty of fun to be had for everyone as the game progresses to about a Medium on the difficulty scale by the time everything is done. There's some additional and optional challenge to be had through side missions that involve collecting special objects, which ratchet the difficulty up a bit more.

Game Mechanics:

Wii games have collectively done a great disservice to motion controls. Where motion has been included meaningfully, it has built a bigger fan-base for the platform and advanced the notion of what electronic entertainment might look like in the future. Where motion has been included gratuitously, it has confirmed people's preconceived notions that games are at best, "not for them," and at worst sophomoric trash that is just for kids. Imagine our surprise to find that a game marketed to kids has implemented motion in a very smart and restrained fashion. Tak and the Guardians of Gross uses motion in just a few places and all of them are connected to simple actions that reward, rather than frustrate, players. Tak will scramble up a wall or do complex acrobatics with a button-press, grab a switch automatically, and then require that you shake the Wii-mote to have him drop down and pull the switch. Levers and rotating switches are controlled by locking on with the (Z) button and then using the Nunchuk's analog stick. Casting some magic requires that you shake the Wii-mote to charge and then fire a blast, but nothing more complicated than that. Using all the buttons on both Wii-mote and Nunchuk isn't a problem, since they are implemented intelligently. Platforming fans are accustomed to having plenty of thumbs and fingers moving anyway.

It doesn't take more than about 30 minutes to master Tak and the Guardians of Gross, but there's plenty of fun gameplay under the hood beyond that. Dedicated gamers can squeeze quite a few hours out of this, between the sliding-block puzzles that protect unlocked concept art, replayable levels in Challenge Mode, or the isolated mini-games that appear between major stages that are available later for point jockeys. The only things holding Guardians of Gross back from being a true sleeper/cult classic are lack of online integration and multiplayer. Why these were omitted for Wii is a mystery, and a disappointment. Not that developing a game is easy, but losing out on the vast potential of some multiplayer co-op or online play keeps this one from being, like Bo Derek, a perfect 10. If not Bo Derek, would you take Jamie Lee Curtis? Kids, ask your parents if you don't understand these actress references from the '80s, but what we're trying to say is that Tak and the Guardians of Gross is a real looker, combining beauty and a surprising surfeit of brains. Highly recommended.


-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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