Cubixx HD Review
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 3
It’s been a busy couple of weeks for Laughing Jackal; most studios are happy with a spread release plan, de-risking their operation by staggering content throughout the financial year. This has the joint benefit of keeping income levels (and therefore shareholder dividends) consistent and the studio can usually survive a poorly performing release on the expectation of future income from their pipeline. A strategy that is rarely seen is to flood the market with different products all at once – while you may receive a spike in income the trail off in following quarters is harder to explain to your investors. From a gaming point of view there are also questions of quality to consider – with a limited pool of developers and QA staff one needs to consider whether the same due diligence can be paid to multiple releases in a short window. With both OMG-Z and Fighting Fantasy: Talisman of Death Laughing Jackal produced strong games that are both immensely playable and have scored well across critical reviews. In timing their first PS3 PSN release, Cubixx HD, to coincide with their mini offerings Laughing Jackal are attempting to conquer two distinct markets in one fell swoop and, in a nutshell, it would seem to have worked.
Cubixx HD is an update of the 2009 mini Cubixx. The heritage of the game extends beyond 2009 however with the core concept coming from Taito’s 1981 arcade offering Qix. Qix saw you controlling a small marker within a play area the shape of a rectangle, the goal being to draw lines and claim areas within the rectangle whilst avoiding the Qix. Other key game play factors included the Sparx (enemies which travel along all completed edges) and Fuses (which appear if the player halted for too long whilst drawing a line). Both the arcade release of Qix and the inevitable ports to the home consoles of the day were well received and the addictive style of the game has ensured that its basic concepts have been copied many times over.
The evolution from Qix is evident from the start - instead of playing on one surface you are now playing on six. The basic gameplay premise remains the same, with risk factors such a score-multiplier based on how many of the cube’s faces you have cut through thrown in. The mental planning required to tackle some of the later parts of the game is taxing, making Cubixx HD as much of a recollection puzzler as it is arcade classic.
Presenting you with 50 levels through which to play Cubixx HD isn’t just a simple slog. While the presence of a checkpoint every five levels may sound generous the reality is that as soon as you are out of your first set the difficulty curve kicks in and you are forced to improve or die. The cube faces evolve from containing only the Cubixx to providing an environment for all sorts of game changing enemies, from black clouds that home in on you and slow you down, making you an easy target, to asteroids which can take you out if you are caught within their blast radius. As you progress through the main levels you will also unlock a whole slew of other modes, including time trial, score attack, line attack and various challenge levels. The challenge levels exemplify Cubixx HD - for each one it can be insanely difficult to meet the highest standards, but you keep finding yourself returning to the challenge again and again and again, the one more go mentality taking control as you obsessively attempt to progress.
Returning for a moment to the early 1980s, Qix was where it was at; simple gameplay hooks, a risk/reward score-attack style of play and the knowledge that everything you did was because of your own skill at the game. Like the other arcade big hits luck did not come into the equation and every death lay firmly in the hands of the player. While this was standard fair in 1981 modern players are used to having their hands held, to generously spaced checkpoints or save anywhere functionality. Cubixx HD doesn’t disappoint the traditionalists though, with the game proving brutally hard at times almost to the point of feeling unfair. Later levels require meticulous planning to ensure that you don’t trap yourself, surrounded by a horde of oncoming Line Chasers forced to respawn by your very hand only moments earlier. The grand sweeping cuts of earlier levels are replaced by more precise incisions, sometimes seeing you chip away at the completion percentage point by point. As your own skill level rises your lines evolve from straight squares to comically jinking lines, teasing out the biggest cut you can while avoiding the ever advancing enemies. Keeping one of the sides of the cube in your mind is difficult enough as the action level increases to frenetic but recalling all six along with where you left your escape routes makes Cubixx HD as much of a cerebral affair as a test of thumb twitch.
With all of the points raised above taken into consideration it is literally breath taking that Laughing Jackal have taken the step of allowing you to play the game in multiplayer. The cube takes on a new life as you and up to six close friends attempt to dominate one another and prove who is the king of the modern arcade. What is entirely reprehensible is the fact that the multiplayer option is only an option offline with no way to take the action to the PSN. The odds of the regular player ever getting to experience the full impact of this mode are therefore low and it feels like a return to the early days of the online offerings of modern consoles where the potential of network play was undervalued. Whether this was omitted because of a lack of confidence in developing solely for the PS3 or because of the pressures of launching several titles in a small window it certainly ensures that Cubixx HD misses out on delivering its full potential.
Multiplayer gripe aside, what is clear is that Cubixx HD is a strong addition to any game collection and will offer you hours of addictive, manic, compelling and frustratingly euphoric gameplay. Every death in the last level before a checkpoint, every time you just miss out on achieving a platinum challenge will steel your resolve and see you begin afresh with new determination. With no-one to blame but yourself Cubixx HD is about playing against yourself, testing your patience and your ability to accurately judge the risk/reward profile of planned actions. If you went back to the kids of 1981 playing Qix in the arcade they would laugh at you when you tried to describe Call of Duty, they would look at you through confused eyes if you even tried to break World of Warcraft down for them. If you began to tell them about Cubixx HD however their eyes would gloss over in anticipation, imagining what playing Qix on six sides could possibly feel like. They would tell you that the future of gaming sounded glorious, that the described game would be the pinnacle of the Art of the Arcade. That future is here now, that game is ready now, and those kids would have been right.