Blinx: The Time Sweeper Review

  • First Released Oct 7, 2002
  • XBOX

Blinx has some good ideas, and you won't finish it in a sitting, but that's not much consolation from a game that's a lot more frustrating than fun.

Blinx: The Time Sweeper is one of Microsoft's most touted games of the season, a 3D platformer exclusively for the Xbox that's intended to give the system a mascot much like Nintendo had in Mario, Sega had in Sonic, and Sony had in Crash. The game stars Blinx, who looks like a futuristic Cheshire cat and is armed with what's basically a vacuum cleaner. So you could say Blinx sucks. And unfortunately, so do many aspects of the game itself. Though it sports a superficially interesting time-travel gimmick and some impressive graphics, it's also chock-full of the sorts of problems that have bogged down countless other 3D platformers over the years. Blinx has some good ideas, and you won't finish it in a sitting, but that's not much consolation from a game that's a lot more frustrating than fun.

 Though each stage is a race against time, Blinx doesn't seem to be in much of a hurry.
Though each stage is a race against time, Blinx doesn't seem to be in much of a hurry.

Platformers need great gameplay more than anything, but some personality certainly doesn't hurt. In fact, a decent back story and a well-developed main character are just the ticket for games like this to be immediately engaging. But Blinx shows its seams right from the get-go by failing to provide much context for any of the proceedings. A prerendered cutscene quickly reveals that there's a place called the Time Factory, run by cats that walk upright. Apparently, this place literally makes time, but occasionally glitches occur, and these glitches turn into crystals, and then the crystals turn into monsters. Don't ask. Blinx, basically a custodial engineer at the Time Factory, is one of many cats charged with sweeping up crystals before they turn into monsters. Suddenly, there's a report that the wicked Tom-Tom Gang has taken over world B1Q64 and that monsters are running rampant. The gang's even holding a girl hostage. Blinx thinks she's hot, and that's all the motivation he needs to set off to save the day. And it's all the excuse the game needs to ask you to guide Blinx through 40 different levels across 10 different environments. There isn't much story to begin with, and there's none at all during the actual game, where you'll simply move on from one level to the next.

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The actual gameplay of Blinx is simple, but it isn't easy to explain. Basically, every level gives you 10 minutes during which you need to defeat a given number of enemies (or a boss monster) and then reach the goal. Along the way, you'll get past various hazards, pick up some gold you can later use to buy some stuff, find a few secret tokens for unlocking hidden extras, and collect and use time crystals that represent Blinx's time-shifting special abilities. You defeat foes by using your time sweeper--a space-age vacuum cleaner--first to suck up garbage and then to spit it back out. That's right: Your vacuum is a garbage gun. You can fill it up with everything from rusty cans and old gears to broken-down cars and logs and then shoot this stuff at enemies. That's your only means of attack, too. Cats are predatory by nature, but Blinx is a short, squat, slow creature that gets conked out by his enemies if he so much as brushes up against them. Besides using his vacuum, Blinx can also jump or double-jump.

Finally, he can pick up and use time crystals. By collecting these, Blinx can gain five single-use special powers, which correspond to the basic functions of a VCR: rewind, fast-forward, slow, pause, and record. That sounds weird, but it's actually straightforward: For example, pause causes everything besides Blinx to stop dead in its tracks for a short period, slow causes everything besides Blinx to slow down, and fast-forward causes everything to speed up but makes Blinx invincible. These three are useful to make beating groups of bad guys easier or for getting past traps. The other two are used for solving puzzles so simple that they're more like obstacles. Record lets you create a duplicate image of Blinx for a little while so that you can do things like push two buttons simultaneously, which might open a door you need to get through. Rewind makes broken stuff in the environment form back together and is used in instances such as when the ground underneath your feet suddenly decides to collapse. A sixth time trick, the retry, simply serves as an extra life. Though Blinx gets flattened from just a single hit, if you have any retries in stock, the action will rewind itself to just before he gets hurt, letting you correct your mistake. Gameplay freezes whenever you bring up the menu to select a time trick and freezes again after the time trick's effects have worn off, which hampers the game's pacing.

A gaggle of bland enemies stands between you and your goal.
A gaggle of bland enemies stands between you and your goal.

Collecting time crystals is easier said than done. You collect them in groups of four, but if at least three out of four are not of an identical type, they give you nothing. Three out of four bags you one use of a particular time trick, and four out of four gives you two. So, for instance, you can collect four purple crystals in a row to get two rewinds, or you can collect a blue crystal, a red, and then two more blues to get a pause. But if you collect two reds and two yellows, or something, then you've just wasted all those crystals, and you can't discard crystals you've picked up. You pick up crystals automatically just by getting near them, and you'll often find crystals lying about in very close proximity, which means you'll often find yourself accidentally picking up crystals you didn't intend to.

There are only a limited number of crystals in each level--some are just lying around and others pop out of the limited number of foes you'll encounter. So if you mess up your crystal combinations more than a couple of times in each level, chances are you won't have a required type of time power at a given occasion, and you'll have to start the level over and make sure you don't make the same mistake next time. It's punishing. The time-crystal system does lend a bit of strategy to Blinx, especially since you can only have a limited total number of time tricks in stock. But you'll frequently be disappointed to find yourself short of exactly the type of time trick you need for the situation you're in.

Blinx is a hard game, but there's nothing inherently difficult about it. All the puzzles are obvious, the platform-jumping sequences aren't that tough, and all the enemies follow simple, predictable patterns. Taking them out merely requires pointing in their general direction and letting loose with some trash, though at times the auto-aim won't work like you expect it to. Your foes will sometimes hit you back, not because they're fast or aggressive, but because the game's often-bad camera angles can make it impossible to see where they are. You can adjust the camera using the right analog stick, but in closed environments (which are common), you'll experience many problems trying to get a good view of what's going on.

Your various time tricks can get you out of a pinch.
Your various time tricks can get you out of a pinch.

Nevertheless, the first several "rounds" in the game--each round comprises three stages and a forgettable boss battle--are easy. But right around round four, Blinx becomes an often-frustrating exercise in trial and error. While you do know, going into each stage, exactly how many enemies you'll be up against, you of course won't know where they are or what kind of obstacles you'll need to overcome before you can get at them. So you'll often find yourself getting jumped by enemies, short of time tricks, running out of retries, and running out of time on the clock--remember, you've got just 10 minutes to slowly waddle your way through the level. For better or worse, levels play out exactly the same way whenever you reattempt them, so whenever you get stuck at a point, the next time you'll probably have an idea of what you need to do to get through it. Still, you'll end up spending 30 minutes to an hour on many of the later levels in the game, retrying them until you get them right. You'll be relieved, more than anything, when you finally finish one.

That's why you'll be dismayed to find that Blinx all but forces you to reattempt levels you've already completed. You'll need to do so to find all the pointless secrets in the game (a number of hidden medallions can be found in most levels), but mostly just to get all the money you'll need. In between levels, you can visit a shop where you can buy additional retries, items that boost your maximum number of retries, time tricks, or trash storage, as well as higher-powered vacuums and useless, outrageously overpriced alternate outfits. You'll need better vacuums to suck up larger objects that can cause a lot more damage to foes or that are blocking the way to secret areas or shortcuts. Some vacuums are also particularly suited to defeating certain types of enemies. The problem is you can have only one vacuum at a time, and buying one means discarding the one you currently have. So if you get rid of your vacuum that works well against fire-based foes in favor of another model, but later realize you want the fire vacuum again, you'll have to buy back the fire vacuum, then later buy back the other.

The real issue is that most items in Blinx are really expensive. You'll make a few hundred gold in a given level, but a good vacuum costs thousands. And you can't just jump into a level, grab some loot, and exit--you make money from a level only if you finish it properly, which means defeating the same old enemies and getting to the goal within 10 minutes. Many levels in Blinx aren't even that great the first time through, and as noted, you'll need to replay them many times before you can finish them even once. The notion of going through them again therefore isn't very appealing.

At least Blinx looks good, though it doesn't look great. The enemy blobs and floating things you'll be taking on in every level are completely uninspired. On the other hand, the sparkling time crystals and gold tokens in each level are so shiny you'll instinctively want to grab them. The game's water and fire effects are very convincing, textures in each environment are clear and crisp, and the game is generally colorful. But the frame rate is never quite smooth, and at times it bogs down. Additionally, the fact that most of the creatures in the game, including Blinx himself, have a glossy sheen to them makes the visuals appear as much like claymation as computer animation--it's an off-putting effect.

It's 40 levels chock-full of frustrating trial-and-error gameplay.
It's 40 levels chock-full of frustrating trial-and-error gameplay.

The audio certainly isn't great, either, though some of it is all right. Each four-level round in the game has its own musical theme, but these grating, tinny, hyper tracks are short and loop endlessly, and the fast tempo of the music coupled with Blinx's slow running speed will surely get on your nerves. Blinx occasionally utters some whiny-sounding gibberish that's neither cute nor quirky. The sound effects themselves get the job done, however. Each enemy makes its own distinctive noise, both when it's milling about and also when it's about to attack, so even when you can't see your foes (thanks again, lousy camera), you'll often still be able to hear them.

You'll be hearing and seeing a lot of the same thing over and over in Blinx, a game that's inherently about repetition. What's the point of all the instant replay gimmicks if you have to play through each level multiple times anyway? And the time tricks really are mere gimmicks. They aren't used to create inventive or challenging scenarios, but rather are included as simple power-ups or "keys" to get past "doors." And despite having dozens of levels, Blinx never really strays from its basic, simple formula, and as you play it, you'll never really get past all its problems. The first line of dialogue in the game's intro cinematic goes, "Time is like a treasure." That being the case, you should carefully consider spending your time on something other than Blinx.

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