Contrary to popular belief, Vikings were not always the seafaring, pillaging folk they're often portrayed as. When they weren't downing ale and ransacking towns, you could find them soaring majestically through the clouds as they collected shiny gems. The contrast of a surly, bad-tempered warrior inserted into an enchanting world miles above the earth's surface has potential, but Rotastic implements this idea into a game that isn't much fun to play. Loose controls capture the uninhibited feeling of flight and showcase the freeing grace you would expect from those who can effortlessly fling themselves through the air. But once the training wheels come off and precise movement is required, it's apparent that the mechanics aren't refined enough to support the treacherous level design. Shallow, tedious, and consistently frustrating, Rotastic transforms a visit to Valhalla into an unwanted Viking funeral.
Vikings are not the only individuals who crave a life spent gliding through the sky. A ragtag group comprising an elf, boar, and reanimated skeleton join the party, though the only difference between these cartoon characters is their appearance. No matter which you choose, your goal is the same: swing from suspended points in the sky collecting gems, destroying barriers, and performing other odd jobs. Each level takes place on a single screen, and you have to complete your objective against the clock to move on to the next level with as high of a score as possible. Based on how effective you were in completing your task, you're given bronze, silver, gold, or platinum helmets, and when you unlock enough, you open up harder levels. It's an elegant system that is hounded by problems; chief among them is inconsistent controls that make unlocking the later levels a grueling, arduous plight that usually ends in aggravation.
Rotastic uses just two buttons. By holding A, you grab on to hook points, and you continually swing around them in a circle until you let go. If you want to change direction, just tap a bumper button. Grapple points dot the sky at strategic places, and you have to swing from one to another and then back again to collect gems hovering around you. For the first few levels, things run smoothly, and the easy-to-grasp control scheme makes it possible to forget what your hands are doing as you leap impressively from one hook to another without a care in the world. Bonus points are given if you pull off a trick--such as forming a figure 8 or other specific shapes--and there's simple pleasure to be found in the balletic manner you move. Without obstacles to get in your way or intense objectives forcing you to move in specific ways, the tutorial portion exhibits the surreal freedom of flight.
However, everything comes crashing down once the difficulty ramps up. The controls perform admirably when neither time nor precision are working against you, but this only lasts for so long. Once you have to hit switches, avoid buzzsaw blades, and break blocks, it's apparent that you don't have the proper tools to progress. The trick to successfully moving from one place to another comes from mastering your trajectory. By figuring out where you're going to land based on your angle of movement and speed, you can fling from one point to the next without many problems. But this is much easier said than done. There's no margin of error in Rotastic, so if you aren't a master of geometry, prepare to be frustrated frequently. In instances where you just have to land on a flat plane, it can take two or three attempts before you release at the right point. And even after getting where you want, you're liable to bounce right past your objective or miss it by the slimmest of margins. In later levels, you have to get past buzzsaw blades moving in asynchronous patterns or rush through closing gates against a timer, and there's little fun in repeatedly trying these grueling challenges only to come up short.
Every difficult level has the same problems because the controls are not up to the task. Levels require ultraspecific movement, and it's incredibly difficult to consistently pull off these exacting requests. Because of this, you often complete a stage by the skin of your teeth, which means you earn a mere bronze helmet. Without getting a high enough score for silver or gold, you can't unlock the later levels, so you're left replaying earlier stages with the desperate hope that you luck into a better ranking. And success does feel like luck in Rotastic. To get a high score, you have to pull off a string of almost-perfect moves in quick succession, and admittedly, it is a rush when you nail everything just as you should. But it's a rare moment when everything comes together, and you can only marvel at the implausibility of your landings. Did you really bounce off of two adjacent walls to nab that purple gem? How did you find room to squeak past that spiked log to hit the switch? The answers always come up the same: dumb luck. You never feel like a superstar because replicating these feats of brilliance is nearly impossible.
The roughly 70 single-player levels should keep dedicated players busy for a few hours, and if you crave more swinging action once you've gone through the gauntlet, there's a four-player, offline-only multiplayer mode as well. There are two different ways to play. Deathmatch involves slamming into your friends or trying to cut their rope so they fall into a bottomless void. Collect is the same thing, except the winner is determined by how many gems you nab, though it's still more entertaining to send your friends plummeting. Multiplayer is more fun than the single-player counterparts because everyone is plagued by the same handicap: imprecise controls. Because of this, slinging yourself willy-nilly through the world is goofy fun, given that there's no real punishment for failure. Sure, you may fall into a pit or miss out on collecting coins, but who cares? You're just challenging friends in some good-natured competition. Still, there isn't a draw to hook you long term. After playing two or three matches, the shallowness of the experience is overwhelming, so even if you enjoy multiplayer, you'll be hard pressed to find someone to join you.
Rotastic ultimately feels like it could have been released on a mobile device for one-tenth of the price. It doesn't take advantage of any of the Xbox 360's technical wizardry, and the simple control scheme combined with the shallow gameplay would be ideal in five-minute bursts while waiting for your train to arrive. Sadly, Rotastic exists only on a console that's tethered to a television, and it's hard to justify shelling out 800 Microsoft points ($10) for this forgettable experience. With better level design and controls that allowed you to move with precision, Rotastic could have offered a quiet respite from the spectacle of most big-budget retail releases. But there are too many frustrations for it to slide into that role. Rotastic briefly soars through the air, but it quickly plummets back to the earth with a dull thud.