An age-old formula gets a new angle
The concept behind Playbrains’ Sideway: New York is simple enough. At its roots, you’ll find all the trimmings you’d expect in an old-school 2D platformer: running, jumping, squashing things with your rear end, a host of upgradable moves, little tiny icons to collect, and a series of progressively difficult enemies that do their best to get in your way as you streak across town in a race to (what else?) save your love interest from an evil kidnapper bent on your destruction.
But the thing about Sideway is that this is where the similarities come to an abrupt halt. You see, S:NY is an old-school 2D platformer, true enough, but it’s one that’s played in a 3D space, taking the notion of a traditional butt-bouncing stage-squasher and essentially turning it on its ear…then its ankles, then its stomach, and so on and so forth, until it’s exhausted almost every angle imaginable in an effort to provide a dynamic, creative play-place in which to puzzle your brains out. And while it undoubtedly sounds like a gimmick that could easily go all sorts of wrong, the team at Playbrains f***ing kills it, resulting in one of my favorite platformers since the immortal Super Mario Bros.
Not that I’m saying it reaches that Miyamoto level of greatness, but platforming fans will want to take note of everything this game does right. For starters, the way the world of Sideway comes to life is a real sight to behold. Blending the visual flair of Jet Set Radio with levels that essentially function as 3D Rubik’s Cubes, the art and level-design folks take the spirit of tagging and do it a special brand of justice. Themed off the streets of New York, each zone has a distinct identity crafted after a major area of the city—like Chinatown and Times Square—and the way each area’s concocted as one big puzzle full of unlockables, alternate routes, and showcases for your platforming prowess is genuinely impressive.
The puzzle design itself offers shades of Braid, but with less controller-smashing rage than Jonathan Blow’s time-twerking platformer. Levels often require you to navigate multiple sides of a building from different angles to make your way through, but checkpoints are plentiful and well-placed, making death more of a learning experience than a systematic assault on enjoyable gameplay. Sure, I had a few stumbles here and there, but for the most part, I avoiding streamlining expletives and evil glares from the coworkers—typically a sign of a well-designed affair.
Equally thoughtful: the way new stages introduce enhanced powers for main character Nox, each providing an upgraded weapon, means of navigation, or combination of the two that’s then required by the carefully conceived levels to test your mettle. Whether it’s throwing paint globs or using a paint stream to slow your descent, each is a clever play on the idea behind the game—and, again, the sense of progression here is really solid.
What’s more, each area’s designed with replayabaility in mind, as the tags you collect throughout the game are often placed in locations requiring power-ups you’ll gain in later levels, meaning that perfectionists will always have a reason to go back—another hallmark of the game’s old-school sensibilities. If your experience is anything like mine, this’ll lead to some frustration on the first playthrough, but once you accept the conceit, it adds a good bit of value to the four to five hours it takes to make your way through.
And while these upgrades are nice for navigation, they also help deal with the prerequisite goon population of this spray-paint universe, as the design team did a solid job on enemy design, building on each of the core types with interesting variants that up the ante with each new level. The bosses are a bit of a mixed bag, as they tend to offer a narrow window for damage, but once you’ve got their patterns down, they’re extremely simple to beat. It’s a another throwback notion that I can’t help but tip my hat to, but I still found myself wishing there were more encounters like the final boss throughout the campaign.
The game’s 2-player co-op makes things a bit easier, but again, Playbrains’ good intentions here ended up biting them a bit, as the camera often has trouble keeping up with the action—a shame, considering how few true cooperative experiences are out there today.
Still, it’s clear that Sideway is a huge win for PS3 gamers and platforming fans alike. It offers tight mechanics, solid progression, and a sense of style that’s a rare gem in a sea of carbon-copy shovelware that seems incapable of exciting the market. I would’ve liked to have seen a longer adventure, but that’s largely due to the fact that I didn’t want this exuberant homage to come to a close. Considering the game’s replay value and its $9.99 price tag, I’m more than happy to hope that enough button-mashers will take a chance on this one to set a sequel in motion, as games this good don’t come by too often.
SUMMARY: A puzzling platformer with street style and amazing design sense, Sideway: New York is one of those games that keeps hope alive—for the genre, indie devs, and the idea that you can do something different and actually have it pay off. Bravo, gang.
- THE GOOD: Bang-on design, amazing visual style, refreshing take on platforming.
- THE BAD: Blah-blah bosses, co-op camera quirks, game length.
- THE UGLY: Seeing Skullcandy logos plastered throughout.