A Glance at the Past: Vexx (PS2)

It’s not uncommon for a long-time critic to develop a bias against the familiar. Repeatedly being asked to consume media and give their thoughts on it can build up a desire to see something new that shifts up the formula, making them immediately dock points to anything that feels too much like stuff they’ve reviewed in the past. While wanting to see new and unique things can drive a medium to push its boundaries and turn out interesting content, to say one game is worse than another because the other came first doesn’t feel like a fair evaluation of the game’s quality. Admittedly, I do use the term “standard” and “generic” in my reviews, but it’s usually more to give the reader a good idea of what is in the game, an indication it is at an acceptable level and isn’t really doing anything interesting with its parts. Despite this slant critics can fall into, video game fans have shown that sometimes they do just want a game that plays a lot like one they like, with games like A Hat in Time and Yooka-Laylee deliberately marketing themselves as being incredibly similar to Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie. And that’s where I feel Vexx comes in, a game that was criticized for how much it was like Super Mario 64, but at the same time, that’s what makes this game so fun!

 

Vexx is a 3D action platformer, a collectathon that feels heavily inspired by Super Mario 64 and, according to the developers, that was a deliberate design choice. Set across nine worlds that are accessed through a central hub, Vexx is all about collecting Shadowraith Hearts to help unlock new worlds as well as opening up the way to the final boss. Each of these worlds has multiple mission objectives for getting the wraith hearts, usually involving the navigation of some challenging platforming environments but also dipping into puzzles, minigames, boss fights, and combat challenges. Even when Vexx is asking you to do something similar between levels, the game does a pretty excellent job at making things feel different, such as mixing up the challenges in the minigames that are repeated and making sure that the platforming tests all have distinct set-ups so it doesn’t feel samey. There are three objectives though that you can find in most every level, two of them coming out pretty nicely but the third having a bit of an iffy design. Playing into the collectathon nature of the game, every world has tons of glowing orbs called shards for you to collect, giving you a heart when you’ve managed to get 100 of them. Super Mario 64 gave out stars for collecting 100 coins, but Vexx managed to do this objective a bit better I feel as shards are usually abundant enough that you aren’t scrounging for them but at the same time they are spread out enough that this heart isn’t just given to you. If you manage to collect six Soul Jars you can earn yourself another heart, but the Soul Jars are most often spaced out in a single area to serve as a different type of platforming challenge then going from start to finish. The last one, and the one that sort of wore out its welcome, was a sun dial based challenge where you have to set the time of day in a level using a sun dial and run off to enter a portal before it closed. The portals take you to some pretty good areas though, but opening up the portals felt unnecessary and seemed more about showing off that levels had a day/night cycle despite that not showing up visually in some worlds.

Besides the consistent heart challenges, finding out how to get hearts in a new world can take on a variety of forms. When entering the world you get to select which one you want to go for, although you are never limited to only going for that one as the world is always open to exploration. The missions are relayed to you through a little poem, and while it sometimes prioritizes rhyming over giving you information, there’s usually a few words that stick out enough to give you a good idea of what to do. Besides that, in some levels, arrow signs will appear to help you get going down the right path, never making it too easy as you still have to do the platforming to get there, but at least you won’t have to wander around lost if you don’t feel like combing the level for your objective. Wraith hearts also glow brightly so they can be spotted from far away and the controller will rumble more the closer you are to one. On paper this can certainly read as a lot of hand-holding, but there are plenty of hearts that require more than just looking the right way to pick up, with even the easiest hearts calling upon something other than just knowing where they are. Vexx’s skills for finding hearts are a bit simple, with a few varieties of jumps, climbing skills, and attacks to traverse the worlds and beat up baddies, but nothing that shifts gameplay up too much. Long jumps, high jumps, double jumps, jump stalling… all the tools you need for a good platforming experience are present and accounted for. There are a few power-ups that let Vexx fly, turn invulnerable, or fire blasts from his gauntlets, but the game design mostly just focuses on making the navigation of the worlds constantly engaging with new setpieces and designs. Many of the levels have a heavy focus on verticality, and since you exit the level the moment you collect a new heart, you will end up climbing a few areas on more than one occasion. The game does hold back at first, giving you the means to cushion your fall and making the vertical areas multi-tiered so you can stop yourself from falling back to the start, but after you’ve become comfortable with Vexx’s controls and learn the jumping mechanics, even going back to start won’t mean you’ll spend a long time climbing back to the top. That doesn’t mean that falls to your death aren’t present, sun dial areas and the final stage indulging in them the most, but falling doesn’t feel any worse than something like being set back to the start of a level in a sidescrolling platformer.

 

Despite what the box and some of the marketing might make you believe, Vexx does not really have a combat focus. Enemies are dispatched easily for the most part, with Vexx’s combat skills having a bit too much depth to them despite not needing it, and that depth not really adding much to the battles that matter. Bosses are present but they take on the form of learning their patterns and striking in the right way, making the combat feel like it was designed for something more than this. The game doesn’t ask you to get good at it though, meaning that it’s not a flawed feature, just something that received a bit more attention than needed. Seeing the needless depth in your battle skills also made the generous health system seem a bit odd. Besides the bosses, you probably won’t ever die in battle due to most enemies giving you health on death and your life meter letting you take a few hits anyway. There is a lives system, but besides falling to your death you won’t really feel it save when it gives you the almost meaningless Game Overs. All a Game Over does is boot you to the title screen, after which you reenter and get back to the world you were on, at most losing a checkpoint in the special side areas many levels have or losing your current shard count for the stage. The game really does have a good focus on learning the individual worlds to better traverse them, making it easier to get where you need to be and opening up the potential for collecting all the shards. Even if you had no interest in the poems or arrow signs, your goals are often given enough context in the world to be clear, although there is one exception. A heart in The Below requires you to read the manual for a treasure chest combination without really indicating this to you, but thankfully the codes for all three ports of Vexx are easy to find online. To beat the game you don’t even need every heart, the final boss opening after you get the 60th out of what I think is a total of 81. Getting 100% I believe only rewards you with a cheat menu, which is a shame as it was just so enjoyable to collect the hearts that I felt compelled to do so.

There has been something I’ve been avoiding mentioning about Vexx though, and I’m sure you’ve noticed it too. While the gameplay of Vexx is solid and contains many of the elements a wonderful 3D platformer and collectathon needs, the visual design and story of Vexx really dropped the ball. It’s more than a bit of a mess, with even Wikipedia just reporting the events rather than trying to make it make sense in summary. From what I gleaned, the Shadowraiths are exhausting worlds of their power, causing them to crumble apart to feed the growing power of their leader Dark Yabu. Vexx’s world is their current target, with his people enslaved and then eradicated, but Vexx finds a pair of powerful gauntlets and seeks to get revenge on the wraiths. Cutscenes are kept to a minimum thankfully, with some opening and closing the game but then one just cropping up in the middle of the game as well. Oddly, that middle scene doesn’t really change anything, as you get back to the standard gameplay despite the revelation in that scene. The scenes certainly aren’t helped by the fact that Vexx is utterly uncharismatic, simply growling and looking angrily at everyone during the scenes even when things seem deliberately set up for this discount Wolverine to say something. When the game tells parts of its story through something other than its scenes though, I feel it actually did a pretty good job. Environmental clues like how every world is a chunk floating in a destroyed space speaks of the effect the Shadowraiths have had on the place, some tapestries hanging in one area subtly show the fall of another species to the Shadowraiths, and you find the writings of a girl named Reia in each level which have the perspective of someone who survived a Shadowraith attack and are written with surprisingly grim and realistic tones. The story really seems to want to be taken serious even though it doesn’t really match the game world or the people in it at all. Characters and villains in this world are all cartoony and a bit unappealing visually, with some baffling designs on offer such as the cliche looking aliens you fight in every world, the human-shaped blobs of flesh and fat that make up some of the wraith guards, the poorly executed cat-like design of Vexx, and the pointless nipples on Reia’s clothing. Reia’s outfit was one area of needless maturity that certainly stood out as belonging in an entirely different kind of game.

 

If you can look past the story and character troubles, Vexx has very little else to complain about. The game worlds are all tightly designed and visually distinct, and while they won’t take your breath away, they do contain some nice visuals that sadly contrast with the ugly characters. The music is also surprisingly good, with orchestral atmospheric tunes that might not stick in your head but will help make the worlds feel more cohesive and rich. Vexx’s controls are for the most part perfect for the task, with jumps across small platforms and walks across thin bridges that would be nightmares in other games feeling absolutely fine here. However, swimming is a bit rigid, especially since the moment you break the surface Vexx will not want to move unless you dive or jump out, and Vexx has a few issues when he’s hanging by his claws from the very rare dangling climbs across ceilings. The camera is the biggest flaw with the gameplay side of things though, your vision often flipping around wildly or at bad times that you will have to learn to anticipate and work around if you want to avoid trouble. If the polish had been put here instead of giving the combat more moves than it knows what to do with, Vexx could have been one of the smoothest 3D platformers I’ve ever played.

THE VERDICT: If something attempts to imitate greatness, it stands to reason that it would likely be great as well. While Super Mario 64 does still feel superior to Vexx, that mostly comes down to having a more appealing world and better visual design. Vexx’s characters and story completely clash with what feels like an evolution of Super Mario 64’s gameplay. You’ve got the tight jumping controls and options that make 3D platformers feel satisfying as well as the variety of mission objectives and collectibles that make collectathons so appealing. Vexx can be challenging, but you’ve got the tools to handle it and you don’t so much learn the gameplay as gradually grow into an expert at it through experience.

 

And so, I give Vexx for the Playstation 2…

A GREAT rating. The worst thing about Vexx is Vexx. I believe that with more appealing characters and a more coherent story, Vexx would stand out as a classic, rubbing shoulders with at least the likes of Jak and Daxter. In fact, I feel like if this game had been reskinned as a Mario title or something similar, Vexx would be remembered far more fondly and many of its issues would have been overlooked. It certainly has flaws that could be buffed out and the game could be more tightly designed, but Vexx mostly suffered for banking on the wrong type of tale and coming out to a crowd that had already seen its gameplay style a few too many times before. Doing things well didn’t matter as much as doing things differently I guess.

 

Ever since starting The Game Hoard I’ve been hoping to find a hidden gem. I’ve certainly found games that were better than expected, but I feel like I finally found a true one with Vexx. If you need to scratch your collectathon itch with something like Super Mario 64, as long as you can look beyond the hideous characters and plot, Vexx will fit the bill well.

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