Not since the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has pizza seen such love in a game. In Blacksmith Games‘ Plushed, pizza is practically a currency. It’s a frequent subject of conversation, you can use it to entice creatures to your aid and even wear it as perfume. Pizza power!!
Plushed is a pretty run-of-the-mill platformer set in a fairytale dreamscape. The story involves a little girl whose favorite things are her fairytale book and her bunny plushie. Following a snafu involving a magical mouse and a botched wish, the little girl is wisked away into her fairytale book. As her bunny plushie brought to life, you set out to find your little girl and bring her home.
Much ado has been made of Plushed’s hand-drawn artwork, and mostly for good reason. The character designs are adorable and charming. The backgrounds and many of the set pieces that comprise the various stages — trees, mushrooms, etc. — are lush and beautifully rendered. The stages are visually diverse and unique, each standing out from the others in appearance.
But, honestly, it’s a mixed bag. Not all of the artwork holds up to the quality of the rest. In Ancient Ruins, for example, the trees and columns in the foreground are gorgeous, while the pines in the background are fairly bland and lackluster. In Mountain Trail it’s the opposite; the background is lovely, while the cakes and candy in the foreground are just plain ugly. Many of the art assets are reused throughout the levels, stamped in place. So while the assets themselves are hand-drawn, the levels sometimes feel kind of cut’n'paste.
Plushed makes fair use of the iPhone’s interface. There are two control options for movement, touch and tilt, with touch being to better of the two. Tapping anywhere on the screen will cause your bunny to jump. Throughout the game, there are places where you can shake your device to interact with the environment, causing rocks to fall or pizza to drop from trees, and you need to shake off the pizza perfume when you’re finished wearing it. When you have pizza in your possession, you can also use your finger to drag it around the screen to feed creatures or lure them to a more useful location. You will also find mirrors that you can drag into the environment to reflect enemy magic back at them, which I thought was pretty clever.
Gameplay is otherwise what you’d expect of a platformer. You need negotiate levels, along the way dodging enemies, leaping pits, riding moving platforms and collecting pick-ups. Throughout the stages are a number of golden ladybugs to be collected; increasing your total unlocks mini-games accessible from the game’s main menu. Early on, you acquire a helmet and a talking sword; the sword becomes a traveling companion, but not a weapon, though, as it refused to be wielded by a plush bunny. Swords and their pride …
Artwork: Despite the artwork being a mixed bag, Plushed is a beautiful game overall. The characters are a delight to behold and the whole thing feels a bit like Alice in Wonderland, child-friendly but just a little … off. It’s an aesthetic that really works well in the context of the game, and allows the visuals to come off in a way that’s familiar, but not mundane or bland.
Story: The story of Plushed we’ve seen many times before: girl gets wisked away to an unusual and foreign land, from which the hero must save her. It’s a fairytale, and there’s nothing new to be had. But it’s here told with care and humor, and very nice pictures. The story stills are very well drawn, as are the character portraits during “talking head” sequences in-stage. Jokes are strewn throughout the dialogue and are genuinely funny; not snorting milk funny, but you’re sure to crack smiles as you play.
Bosses: I’ve not made my way through the entire game yet, but what I’ve seen so far of the boss battles has been impressive. This is not a case of having to jump on the boss’ head three times to defeat it, as often seen in nearly every platforming game since Super Mario Bros. Defeating bosses in Plushed often requires that you make use of the environment in clever ways to bring down your foes. I don’t want to spoil the battles by describing them, but it’s nice to see such refreshing encounters in a platforming title with such simple gameplay mechanics.
Animation: Plushed is a game that looks better in still shots than in motion. Throughout the title, animation is used with economy in mind. That is to say, there’s not much of it. Your bunny is a little stiff, but moves enough that it’s not worth complaining about. And it’s a good thing, being as you spend the entire game looking at him. Elsewhere, however, the same cannot be said. Most enemies and characters have a very limited set of frames for animation; some as little as two alternating states. In the Batcow Stables level, there are enemies that ride up and down on head-propellers; the enemies don’t move at all, except for two alternating frames to make the propeller look as if it were spinning.
Again in Batcow Stables, I found the farmer’s missing son, Wilbur. He then ran off to the right, disappearing off the screen. But if you’re quick enough, you can run after him before he disappears and you will discover another corner cut, or that Wilbur is a very magical boy, as gravity as no effect on him. He runs off the ledge and just keeps running in a straight line, on air.
Slowdown: Playing on an iPhone 3G, I occasionally experienced brief moments of slowdown, during which touch input would sometimes fail. Not usually a problem, though it sometimes resulted in a jump not being registered and I would then find myself hit by an enemy or plunged into a pit by mistake, dead. Probably not an issue for 3GS owners, and it’s not a complete game-breaker, but something to be aware of for those on older devices. It’s also a little baffling, as so little moves in this game that you’d think there would be plenty of system resources available to the game to prevent slowdown.
Glitches: In fighting the game’s first boss, not-so-Little Red Riding Hood the diabetic nightmare girl, I somehow vanished the pizza I was carrying by tapping on it. With Red laid out, me with no pizza and the pizza not respawning, I was left with no recourse other than to restart and replay the entire stage.
While playing in the Cursed Wood, slowdown was a constant issue. The game would just start chugging along, until finally it seized up completely and forced me to restart my phone.
There were also many times I would leap onto a floating platform, only to fall right through it, usually to my death. I wonder about this; several times, I would drop pizza around just for fun, and I found that it would usually pass through platforms as if they didn’t exist, coming to rest on the bottom-most ground in the stage. Was I getting the pizza treatment?
Controls: While the shaking, touch-and-dragging and tapping to jump all work just fine for me, I take some issue with the movement controls. The left and right buttons feel in need of further refinement and sensitivity adjustment. A larger touch area, better transition going from one direction to the other, and little more responsiveness and precision would be nice. Tip-toeing up to ledges for jumps most often results in falling off. The tilt controls are no better. Jumping has only one height, no matter whether you quickly tap or tap and hold; you will always jump the same. This makes some of the platforming difficult, such as when you’re trying to jump without hitting spikes overhead. Platforming requires precise control, and Plushed misses the mark. Many an unnecessary death have I died because of these controls.
In no way is Plushed a genre defining platforming title for the iPhone; that honor remains with Rolando 2. Plushed is somewhat bipolar: the boss encounters are well realized and refreshing, while the level-design only average at best. The artwork is (inconsistently) pretty nice, but the animation is (consistently) poor. The levels are visually diverse, but all play the same and ultimately begin to feel repetitive, with little or no ramping up in difficulty; you could swap out the tile sets and art assets, and the levels would be almost entirely interchangeable. Seemingly a lot of effort has gone into the writing of the story and the jokes, but not enough effort was made in the programming, as evidenced by the game’s numerous bugs. That the game also tasks you with collecting bugs almost seems a twisted joke; I seem to be collecting bugs on an entirely different kind.
Blacksmith Games made a number of clever moves in pre-marketing Plushed, spreading the artwork and pretty stills via their Flickr page and elsewhere on the web. They also ran a very successful Twitter campaign, decreasing the launch price of the game by an amount based upon the number of Twitter followers they managed to collect prior to launch, and building a large audience in the process. And finally, leading up to the game’s launch, they’ve been running the Appvent Calendar, giving away free games daily leading up to Christmas. Via the calendar, they are also currently running an enemy design competition, the winner of which will have their design added to the game in the next update.
Unfortunately, given the amount of build-up for Plushed, I can’t help but feel let down by the final product. The number of game-stopping glitches, the death-inducing controls, and the sparse amount of animation reveal the pretty stills to be rather hollow. The game makes up for its shortcomings some with its pretty art, good story and clever boss encounters, but is it enough? In the end, Plushed is a decent casual platforming game that probably is not going to appeal to hardcore gamers — the sort of gamers that follow the hype, the news updates, the competitions and the Twitter feeds; the sort of gamers Blacksmith has been reaching out to all this time. Rather, it’s a game more likely to appeal to casual gamers and young gamers. For the hardcore, there’s just not much here to hold interest for long.