Color me bad
I put a lot of value in elegance. Solving a math problem in an unconventional way using two steps is inherently cooler than doing it in twenty steps. A single shot from a sniper rifle taking down a faraway target is more impressive than spray-and-pray machine gun up close. Less is more, as they say.
Color Guardians sounds like it could be elegant. On paper, the gameplay tweaks to the standard runner formula could lead to smart, interesting levels. It takes too long to get to that point, but it eventually does. Then the final boss fight comes and sours the whole experience.
Color Guardians (Mac, PC, PlayStation 4 [reviewed], PlayStation Vita)
Developer: Fair Play Labs
Publisher: Niffler Ltd
Released: May 12, 2015
Color Guardians is a cutesy runner, but its manner of dealing with obstacles is what sets it apart from others in the genre. Each of the three playable Color Guardians can change color at will between blue, red, and yellow. Combined with the three lanes where the action takes place, players are basically choosing among nine different states to be in. Going from any one state to another takes only three button presses at most; often it is fewer than that.
The reason for switching between lanes is obvious; sometimes there is a rock in one lane that needs to be dodged. Changing color is necessary for nearly every other interaction. To start, the color orbs littering the environments can only be collected by a character of a matching color. Over the course of the game, new objects and obstacles are added, most of which require a certain color in order to function or bypass.
With that setup, one could imagine level design that requires finger gymnastics resembling the input of an old school cheat code, but it starts out more plainly. To ease players in, the first few levels don’t require fast color switches and they don’t even use yellow. It’s a decent primer for what to expect, but it takes too long to get to the good stuff.
To make up for that, some extra mechanics are thrown in so that the early levels aren’t totally mundane for those who catch on quickly. To get full credit for collecting a color orb, the Color Guardians not only have to be that color, but they also have to be spinning, achieved by pressing the button that corresponds to that color. Additionally, points are awarded for switching colors or lanes, on top of the base points for collecting orbs.
The theory behind these two mechanics is commendable. They allow for open-ended scoring. Even if one player spins into every orb perfectly, another can do that with an extraneous color change thrown in to score just a bit higher on the leaderboard. Risk switching to the wrong color before switching back, get rewarded with a better score. The high score on a given level is theoretically unlimited.
Though it sounds like it could be tackled with elegance, in actual play it just leads to a lot of button mashing. With a string of red orbs to collect, one could treat it like a dance, rhythmically alternating between red and blue. It turns out to be easier and more effective to continuously smash both buttons nearly simultaneously, with the button for red coming just after the button for blue. It’s not very satisfying.
Thankfully, this is alleviated in the later levels by virtue of difficulty. Once things really start moving and the levels require constant switching between lanes and colors, there is less room for high score chasing. There are some clever sections that subvert expectations, like where players want to switch to an off color in order to intentionally miss a jump. Color Guardians is at its best toward the late game when simply getting through is a challenge.
This is all brought to a grinding halt by one of the most poorly designed final boss fights I can remember. Throughout the regular levels, success can be found through training. The levels are designed, so tricky situations can be navigated by building muscle memory of the same button presses. Turning that design philosophy on its head, the last level is basically Random Number Generator: The Boss Fight.
Without going into too much detail about how the fight works, it puts players in a situation where even if they execute everything correctly, there is at best a 67% chance of landing a hit and at worst a 0% chance. Yes, not only is it governed by a random number generator, it also contains situations where landing a hit is literally impossible. To beat the boss, three sets of two hits need to land, where each set must be completed in quick succession.
I could write an essay on how this fight is so poorly designed. I might actually do that. For now, I’ll just say that the last fight alone took me around three hours to complete. The actual winning run was only about five minutes. It just took that long to finally roll all the right dice.
When it comes to art design, I normally applaud the use of color. Color Guardians takes it too far, with its ultra-saturated primary color palette. It’s almost nauseating. The uncanny perma-smiles on the protagonists faces don’t help much either.
I was prepared to give Color Guardians a solid “meh” at first. Its central concept is GOOD and it shines when it lets itself do that without any room for button mashing, but that only happens during the last third of it. Building up to that is a fairly dull experience, not without challenge but certainly without excitement. If it had ended just before the final boss, it would be a forgettable runner that underdelivers on a good idea. After that terrible fight, I actively disliked it. Play this if you like a challenge and have patience to get to the good stuff, but don’t even bother finishing it.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]