Review: N++

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Despite the enormous glut of platformers out there, you’ll find few as essential to the genre as the N series. Now over twelve years old, N boiled down the platformer genre to its barest essentials and then cranked up the difficulty that could be offered through those mechanics. We’re two generations removed from the original Flash release, and N++ contains all the content, concepts, and challenge you would expect from an evolution of the series. Assuming you can hang with the precipitous difficulty curve, there’s an absurd amount to discover about the game even for fans of N and N+.

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You’re a ninja, which is a pretty good plot hook in and of itself. There’s no story offered aside from you loving gold and you needing to escape… wherever the hell you are. This translates into single-screen levels with an exit door and a switch that opens said door. All you have to do is hit the switch and get out before time runs out, and collecting gold helps bump your timer back up. Complicating matters are a vast array of explosives, lasers, drones, clones, zappers, and other traps between you, the gold, and the exit. The further you get into the game the more you’ll need to cheat death as you sprint and wall-jump your way from one level to the next.

It’s a challenge platformer, one that prides itself on giving you simple, solid mechanics and pressing you to master them completely. You have no attacks or special moves, just a brisk run, a floaty jump, and the ability to cling to and leap from walls. Everything in your way kills you instantly with just a touch, even walls and ceilings if you get your momentum up high enough. The controls are impossibly tight so you have full command of your ninja in weaving through minefields and springing from narrow ledges, and they even hide a few clever mechanics like being able to reach high ascent speeds through quick wall jumps or getting extra air from leaping perpendicularly from inclines.

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There’s always going to be a frustration factor with instant death platformers but N++ handles this aspect with an expert level of wisdom. Respawns are near-instant, and with levels being only one screen large there’s a general limit on how long they can be. However, levels are grouped together in sets of five that must be beaten in a single sitting. You can always quit a level if it’s too hard and come back to it later but sets must be started from the beginning, so if you’re stuck on the last of the five there’s a very real pressure on you to power through it. Late in the game this subtle goading is used to great effect in sets that have multiple problem levels, keeping you chipping away at the latter ones just because the former ones were such a pain.

The levels themselves are exquisite works of minimalist art, living squarely in that space of clean lines and smooth animations that REZ, Lumines, and EDGE occupy. Most have some resemblance or pattern or meaning in their structure, supported by clever titles always shown in the lower right corner. You’ll also unlock color schemes as you play, allowing you to change the simple grays to vibrant mixes of every hue imaginable. Some even introduce their own challenges by making certain traps blend together, but can certainly be avoided in favor of more practical, high-contrast palettes.

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With such a simple gameplay concept it’s the traps that give this one life, and it’s also the traps that fans of N and N+ will be most concerned with. Most of the design is based around mines, explodey things that will kill you instantly. Levels often have these dotted along walls, laid in patches on floors, protruding from corners, and assembled into aesthetically-pleasing clusters all to threaten you with death if you flub a wall jump. N++ introduces a major new mechanic here with inactive mines that arm after touching them once. This allows for entirely new styles of levels where you have to choose your paths carefully lest you render them impossibly lethal for the return trip.

While mines will be your primary nemesis, there are plenty more ways to end your very swift and mobile life. Electrified drones and seekers will trace walls or home in on you to kill you with a touch. Turrets of all types, machine gun, laser, and the dreaded homing missile, will track you if you dare poke your head out of cover. Moving platforms, one-way floors, trap doors, and powerful springs can all help or hinder your progress depending on how they’re used. A few notable additions here include accelerators that boost your momentum when you pass them, used to launch you over gaps or crush you against walls. Then there are the clones, ominous swirls that form into copies of you that follow your moves exactly and kill you if they catch up to you. The new additions for this version in particular are used to set up some very clever and unique challenges, keeping the game fresh even for long-time veterans of the series.

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Rounding out this solid offering is the fact that it is absurdly huge in scope. There are, and I’m not making this up, over 1500 single-player levels to complete. Sets of levels are arranged in a huge grid with the top row unlocked, and beating one of those sets unlocks the set below it which gives some much-needed flexibility in level selection. Then if you beat a set of five sets it becomes unlocked in Hardcore mode, where your retries are limited and tied to your timer. You’ve also got hundreds of Co-op and Race levels for local multiplayer, and then the vast oceans of user-created levels to choose from. All this makes N++ not just the definitive entry in the N series but one of the definitive challenge platformers in the genre. Near-flawless mechanics, clever level design, and massive amounts of content make it a must-have for any fan of platformers.

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