Two years ago, a heroic blob of colour named de Blob brought his elegant platforming and idiosyncratic humour to the Wii and effectively charmed the pants off us (just metaphorically, mind you). Memories of crudely drawn stick figures and childhood finger paintings flooded back as we left our creative mark on de Blob's world, saving it from blandness and liberating its tiny citizens from monochromatic despair.
While the same ideas drive de Blob: The Underground (a title that may confuse some French people), developer Blue Tongue has tried to craft the sequel into a more challenging and complex experience geared toward attracting a larger core-gaming audience. The addition of new platforms--for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and DS--as well as new gameplay elements (such as a four-player co-op mode and as many pop culture references as a game can take), are all steps in this direction. In our first hands-on preview with de Blob: The Underground on the Wii, we tested out some of de Blob's new abilities and checked out the new 2D side-scrolling component of the game.
The sequel picks up roughly where the first game left off, with one notable difference. Blob now has a sidekick--a sassy flying robot named Pinky--to help him in his quest for world colouration. The game opens with Blob and Pinky arriving in a vast metropolis populated by some very disgruntled and downtrodden citizens; it doesn’t take long for the pair to discover that something is rotten in the state of Prisma City. Indeed, Blob's old enemy Comrade Black has staged a comeback, forming a religious cult named The Blanks and is trying to convince citizens to give up their colour to find the true meaning of life. In an excellent parody of modern economic thought and numerous nods to Christianity, Scientology, modern society, consumerism and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, de Blob sets about trying to rid the city of its dark, depressive state by sabotaging Black's plans to win the favour of the people.
Our demo began with the opening of the fourth level (there are 12 levels in total). Having just rigged an election, The Blanks were on Blob's tail as he tried to find the silenced election candidates and stop the inauguration of Comrade Black. The gameplay felt instantly familiar: Before us was a well laid out and colourless city grid, an empty canvas just waiting to be painted. One thing we did notice was the high level of detail in the environment and the ability to paint absolutely everything we touched, including the ground. As in the last game, each area you paint will earn you colour energy points, which you'll need to unlock the gate to the next level. Part of Blue Tongue’s strategy to let the narrative guide the gameplay was evident in the difficulty curve of the level: Our movements were guided by more specific missions that related to the overall story. We also saw a few new obstacles that helped shape the direction we took in completing the level. For instance, some walls were marked by the sign of The Blanks, and touching them caused Blob to lose his colours. Keeping away from these walls and still managing to paint every last surface made for a much more challenging way to play. As in the first game, we were able to choose de Blob’s mood and match it with an audio equivalent (Melbourne funk band The Bamboos return to provide the soundtrack for the sequel).
One of the most significant changes we saw was made to the game's control scheme, which has been given a thorough makeover. Blue Tongue was the first to admit it had received an endless list of messages from disgruntled gamers about Blob's jumping action in the first game, which involved a flick motion with the Wii controller. Frustration aside, this wasn't a very accurate way of moving from platform to platform, which is why this action has now been remapped to the A button. We felt the difference immediately when we were able to get on top of buildings with speed and accuracy and thus complete the level in a shorter amount of time. The new moves proved pretty handy in combat, too, which has become a lot tougher since the first game. We saw a new Inky with a spike gun, which we could only defeat with a charge attack by locking on with the Z button and pressing B (since jumping on him would have resulted in death), as well as a swarm of Blanks who tried to bleed us dry on contact (we had to jump on them from afar and turn them into bright, happy Raydians). We discovered that Blob can also use paintbots as weapons this time around, targeting them and shooting them at packs of Inkies. Although we didn’t get to fight any bosses in our demo, we did get a sneak peek at what’s in store--one boss we saw was cleverly modelled on the nameless monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
We also had the chance to use some of Blob's new power-ups, including a shield (a single-use pick-up); a graviton ball of energy, which Blob can use to suck in enemies around him like a vortex; a regeneration power-up; and a supercharge power-up. After painting most of the level, we completed a landmark challenge where we had to transform one of Comrade Black's strongholds. Immediately after this, we were able to go inside the landmark and finally check out the 2D side-scrolling component of the gameplay. The point of these 100-plus underground levels is to expand the world and give players a bit of variety. You'll still have to paint the environment, but the focus is much more on combat. In our demo, we entered a sewerlike environment with pipes and platforms where we bulldozed our way through a line of Blanks while splashing everything with colour. We’re also told there are lots of secret environments to explore in these levels, indicated by things like broken walls and shady-looking Blanks. Back above ground, we found our way to a "transform all" point, which has now also become a save point.
At the end of the demo, we were treated to some cutscenes to get a feel for the game's tone and its new environments. We saw an ice station, a bio-dome, and a beverage factory, as well as a glimpse of some of Blob's other abilities that will come into play later in the game (like the one where he can crawl on walls and ceilings). The humour also stood out and was reminiscent of Pixar's animated shorts (silent, slapstick). We picked out references to George Orwell, National Lampoon, and China’s take on political freedom (or lack thereof).
Although we didn't get to see any multiplayer, we know the game will allow players to opt in and out with a two-to-four-player split-screen mode and take control of Pinky to help Blob in combat. We also know the Wii, PS3, and Xbox 360 versions of the game will be the same, with the DS version slightly tweaked to expand on Pinky's background. De Blob: The Underground is shaping up to be a very clever game that has lost none of the charm of its predecessor, and we look forward to seeing more of the game at the 2010 Electronic Entertainment Expo.