Thursday, 20 March 2014

Review - TxK (PS Vita)

Tunnel Vision

TxK is another entry in a long running series of psychedelic shooters from British developer, Jeff Minter. Ever since the days of the Commodore 64, when he unleashed his Mutant Camels onto the world, Jeff has had a borderline obsession with LSD-infused visual madness and farmyard animals - sheep, yaks, camels, llamas, you name it (though I guess it has to be a fairly exotic farmyard to host all of those animals). His most famous creation thus far has to be Tempest 2000, a reboot of Atari's classic 1981 arcade shoot-em-up created for their Jaguar console. It is widely considered to be the best game on the system, and deservedly so, despite there being little in the way of competition. It stuck closely to the formula set by the arcade original, only this time with Minter's unhinged acid-trip take on proceedings. Cue, fireworks, explosions of neon light, wobbling nonsensical text, speak-and-spell speech, sheep noises and a fantastic rave soundtrack. 

Now, after several modified ports of Tempest 2000 on various consoles and 2007's similar Space Giraffe, Jeff now unleashes his latest take on the 32 year old tunnel shooter format. Anyone who has played either Atari's original, or any of Jeff's revamps will feel instantly at home with the familiar mechanics. The aim, as always, is to navigate your yellow, claw-like, ship around the outer edges of the level - each one a different geometric shape made up of various lanes - firing at a multitude of enemies and projectiles that travel up towards you. Enemies who reach your plane of movement will latch onto you and pull you down, losing you a life in the process. This is classic 80's arcade simplicity through and through, and just as addictive. 

The first thing that strikes you are the intensely vibrant visuals. The Vita's wonderful OLED screen really brings the neon psychedelia to life, with sharp and richly coloured backgrounds awash with sparkly lights and garishly bright objects. Everything moves in a smooth, hypnotic way that appears almost organic in nature - even your claw-like vessel moves around the perimeter like a hyperactive arachnid limb. The visuals really come into their own when the action heats up, with explosions of multicoloured light, glowing projectiles and electric death-beams illuminating the world, while the whole screen squirms and judders with your movements and destructive antics. When you complete a stage and you cascade downwards towards the abyss while the world around you fizzles and burns in an electric glow, you really feel as though you have been plugged into a higher state of consciousness. 

Of equal importance to this extreme sensory experience is the truly excellent soundtrack. Harking back to the 90's rave music days of Tempest 2000TxK features some 'bangin' tunes' that wouldn't seem out of place in a nightclub in either the 90's or today. Alongside the more 'glow-sticks, white gloves and whistles' offerings are some more laid back techno tracks that infuse elements of electro, trance, 80's synth-pop, acid house and chiptunes to great effect. Every single track is a winner, not only matching the visuals perfectly, but enhancing the experience immeasurable. With the lights off and your headphones on, TxK is catnip for your senses, almost feeling like an out-of-body experience. It's, honesty, the closest a videogame has ever come to replicating the feeling of being on illicit substances in a nightclub at 5am.

TxK re-uses most of the gameplay elements from the 20 year old Tempest 2000, including the collection of power-ups released by obliterated foes. These swirling pickups grant useful abilities and upgrades such as rapid fire, the ability to jump, and a helpful AI droid who assists you in shooting at the approaching threats. Jumping is especially useful as it allows you to bounce upwards, towards the screen and away from the grid, raining fire down on anything hostile that has made its way to the edge you inhabit. New additions to your arsenal include a single-use smartbomb and the ability to lean on the grid. The former can be unleashed at any time, granting a double score bonus as every enemy is vapourised, and is best saved for when you have just been grabbed, while the latter is a handy tool for avoiding danger. Holding down the lean button will lock your ship in position and you can then 'peak' left and right, firing into the lane adjacent to you in order to avoid enemy bullets or death beams. There are also short bonus stages in which you can earn extra points. One, which appears after ever stage, involves keeping a blue light in the middle of the screen while whizzing through space, and another tasks you with flying through sets of green rings - Pilotwings style. These aren't particularly exciting, but work as a nice breather between bouts of energetic tunnel blasting action.

While initially quite straightforward and, dare I say it, easy, TxK soon ramps up the difficulty considerably, and by level 30 (of 100) you will really be put through your paces. Despite its simplistic nature, Txk is a hardcore twitch-shooter for people with cat-like reflexes. There are, thankfully, some nods to accessibility, which make it a far less daunting (read, impossible) task. Each time you reach a new stage your progress is saved, including the amount of lives you had when you reached it. If you perform poorly on one level, then restart from a previous level when you had more lives at your disposal and try to do better. For those of you who scoff at such things, you'll be happy to know that a hardcore 'survival' mode exists, which flips you the bird, takes away the many extra lives awarded during play on regular 'pure mode' and demands you beat all 100 levels in one go. Good luck with that!

The combination of the truly mesmerising visuals, pounding rave soundtrack and intense twitch gameplay creates a sensory experience like no other. To a casual onlooker it may appear you are manipulating some kind of interactive visualisation plugin for your music player, but you will be so immersed in the hypnotic aesthetics and gameplay that you won't notice them, or anything else going on outside of the world TxK presents to you. It plays wonderfully, offers a stiff challenge, and makes fantastic use of the Vita's controls and screen. It's a game you will pick up to play for a few minutes, but will end up playing for an hour or more. Sure, it can be disorientating at times - especially when stages become more complex and move around as you play - but you always feel as though you can master it with a little more practice. Besides, you won't mind replaying older levels in order to beat them with more lives intact as the simple act of playing it is so damn enjoyable.

TxK is a fantastic update of an update, and is easily the best work Jeff Minter has produced. It's perfectly suited to the wonderful Vita, and can be enjoyed in short bursts or extended periods of play. Sure, it won't be for everyone but if you yearn for the pure arcade thrills of 1980's shoot-em-ups mixed with incredibly fresh aesthetics, then you really need to get on over to the PSN store and pick up a copy. 

Title : TxK
Developer : Llamasoft
Publisher : Llamasoft
Year : 2014
System : PS Vita
Price : £5.49
Genre : Shmup, Arcade

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