Substance and style shake hands in Exit, an engaging new puzzler for the PSP where a striking visual dialect and outside-the-box-of-blocks puzzle design collude to create a spirited and oft-challenging experience. Name-checking puzzle classics like Lemmings and the original Prince of Persia make for convenient, fairly accurate shorthand when describing Exit, but they don't give the game due credit for the way it forges something fresh out of familiar elements.
Exit has less a story than it does a premise. You play as Mr. ESC, a professional "escapologist" with a serious caffeine addiction who lends his agile frame and sharp mental faculties to paying customers who need people extracted from dangerous situations. Over the course of the game's 10 stages, you'll puzzle your way out of a burning building, a flooded mall, a quake-rattled hospital, a blacked-out underground facility, a hotel that has been hit by an avalanche, and more. Though the types of hazards you'll have to surmount can range from bare electrical floor panels to flooded caverns, your goal is always the same: to find the survivors and get them to the exit.
Finding the survivors is usually pretty easy, since you can use the analog stick to scroll around the area near Mr. ESC. Hitting the select button will bring up a simple map that pinpoints the locations of the survivors and the exit. Mr. ESC is nimble and strong, but he's not superhuman. He can run and jump across small gaps, jump and pull himself up onto ledges, push boxes, crawl through low passages or under clouds of smoke, and swim underwater for less than a minute. However, contact with fire, electricity, or a fall from a great height will cripple Mr. ESC instantly and will end the mission.
The survivors you'll encounter often have even greater physical limitations, which will regularly mean that it's easy to get to them, but getting them out of the building is a trickier situation. There are four different types of survivors you'll encounter: young adults, grown adults, children, and the injured. Young adults are about as strong and spry as Mr. ESC, though they can't jump as far. Grown adults are stronger, which means they can move objects that Mr. ESC himself wouldn't be able to budge, but they also require assistance getting up and over higher ledges. Children, who can't jump far and need help getting both up to and down from higher ledges, can traipse across surfaces that would shatter under the weight of a larger person and crawl through passages that are too tight for Mr. ESC. The injured survivors are the biggest liability. They cannot move on their own, so either Mr. ESC or an adult survivor has to carry them, which severely slows them down, whether they're walking or using a rolling stretcher, which are hard to come by.
There are a few somewhat arbitrary limitations, like when survivors can get into elevators on their own but can't actually operate them. However, the abilities of your survivors are a major factor in figuring your way out of a building. You can use the analog stick and the triangle button to select any survivors you've made contact with and give them destinations and various tasks. Sometimes having a survivor helping you out just makes the work go faster, but in most levels, there are situations that require the talents of multiple people at once, making for some seriously devious puzzles.
When survivors are in "follow" mode, they're smart enough to not do anything life-threatening, though if you directly command them to walk into the middle of a blazing fire, they'll do it, no questions asked. They also seem to have trouble reconciling vertical and horizontal space at the same time, which means they'll sometimes get stuck when given the broad order to climb a flight of stairs. At worst, though, this just means they require a little extra babysitting.
Exit turns up the volume on the difficulty and complexity of the puzzles at a nice, steady pace, but it always requires you to be diligent and pretty methodical, since pushing a box too far or hitting a switch out of turn can leave you stuck, with no recourse but to retry the level. While precision is valuable, the game also injects the proceedings with a sense of urgency with a countdown clock that will end the level if you don't get everyone out before it reaches zero. Though we rarely found ourselves really racing the clock, the time it takes you to exit a level will affect your overall score for that level, which we often found to be inspiration enough to be as economical with our time as possible. On a few extremely rare occasions, the game will focus on action more than puzzles, which isn't Exit's strongest suit. The controls, while responsive enough for the puzzle-solving majority of the gameplay, are a little too slow and clunky to support pure action gameplay.
Including the first 10 levels, which amount to a surprisingly comprehensive tutorial, there are 100 individual levels in Exit, which will take even the most cunning of puzzle-solvers at least 10 hours to finish. Considering how the bulk of the game has you bossing other characters around, Exit could have benefited greatly from some kind of co-op play, but unfortunately, this is a single-player affair only. The game does feature an online mode, where you can download additional levels. There are 11 bonus stages that you can download, with each stage containing 10 levels--do the math, and that's 110 bonus levels, 10 more than what's originally included with the game. On top of that, almost all of the bonus-download levels are far more demanding and devious than the starting 100, which means that those bonus levels will last you a long, long time.
The puzzles themselves are definitely engrossing and challenging on their own, and the game's playful visuals help make things feel especially original. The characters are little more than wire-frame models with some minimalist unique traits. Mr. ESC himself is totally nondescript, save for his yellow hat and the red tie, which seems to always be blowing over his shoulder. Despite some lean designs, the people in Exit are imbued with a bit of humanity by way of smooth, realistic animations. The buildings themselves are caricatures of modern designs and are always rich with small background details and little bits of cartoony flair. With its penchant for primary colors it's hard to deny the comic book influence in Exit, but all of its pieces come together to create an incredibly unique look.
The soundtrack supports the game's urgent but good-humored nature with an upbeat fusion of break beats and jazzy melodies that occasionally have a "Secret Agent Man" vibe to them. The music stays thematically consistent, but it changes up often, staying fresh throughout. Sadly, the otherwise enjoyable sound in Exit is marred by grating, plaintive voice clips from both Mr. ESC and the survivors that repeat over and over again. Sometimes these voice clips are useful, as survivors will let you know when they're confronted with an obstacle they cannot get past. But constant chatter about how they're hungry and cold and want to go home doesn't help anyone.
Exit is inherently a very likable game. The premise and presentation are light and fun without being cute or cloying. The puzzles will put your logic to the test, but without being condescending or overly punishing. And, the puzzles stay varied and interesting, which make them a nice reprieve from the well-worn Tetris-derived puzzle games and the infuriatingly dense item-based puzzles common in adventure games. Puzzle fans will love Exit, and with its conventional side-scrolling platformer presentation, people who don't think they like puzzle games may find themselves enjoying a puzzle game without even knowing it.