With his adorable peanut-shaped body and wacky tube-man appendages, it’s easy to imagine a plushy of Warp’s alien protagonist sitting atop your desk at work or on a small child’s bookshelf. The only question is whether you’d go for the clean plushy or the one that is drenched in the dried blood of whomever recently got in its way. Just like the movies constantly remind us, aliens are deadly, so it’s best not to provoke them by strapping them to operating slabs and performing experiments on them. Oops. Silly humans.
Warp flips the typical alien story around and has you playing as an alien who must escape from an underwater research facility. That’s easier said than done because the station is the size of the Mall of America and employs more generic henchmen than Cobra. It rests on a lot of the clichés of the stealth genre such as guards that walk in predictable patterns and turrets with laser siting. You do have a bit of help thanks to a fellow imprisoned alien who is psychically linked to you and an increasing set of powers that allow you to work through the game’s increasingly complex puzzles. Although the initial premise of hopping through walls and into objects is novel, developer Trapdoor doesn’t rest on this one trick and continually introduces new abilities and puzzles that prevent Warp from stagnating.
In the humans’ defense, they probably weren’t aware that the innocuous extraterrestrial had the ability to teleport like Nightcrawler when they decided to start prodding him. Unlike the blue mutant in the original Genesis X-Men game, our little alien’s warping power feels completely natural, and a tiny yellow dot indicates exactly where it will wind up. As if just teleporting wasn’t enough, the bugger can also warp into objects that are of similar mass. This means that it can warp into a barrel to hide from patrolling guards or even into the guards themselves. As with the best stealth games, it’s invigorating to patiently wait in a hiding spot and sneak past a guard when his back is turned. I felt like Solid Snake, but with antennae.
Just like Snake, the yellow alien will have to get its hands dirty at times, or perhaps more appropriately, get its whole body dirty. One of its abilities is to warp inside objects and vibrate until it explodes out of them catastrophically. This is quite handy for destroying energy barrels that open doors, but quite messy when implemented from inside a human. Bursting out of guards and scientists in a brutal eruption of blood and body parts is empowering and sadistically addictive. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt the first few times I made a harmless scientist explode like he swallowed a grenade, but after recalling their plans to carve me open, I took pleasure in taking revenge on the quivering scientists as they cowered in corners. The only problem is that you pull off the move by swirling the thumbstick around wildly, which can’t possibly be good for those fragile controllers.
Warp is a mostly linear experience, but there are plenty of hidden rooms that will require you to fully utilize the little critter’s powers. Most of the hidden rooms are home to grubs, which are pinkish organic structures that allow you upgrade your powers. In the game’s delightfully grotesque fashion, it consumes grubs by ramming them into its head. It’s the perfect breed of exploration where you never have to stray too far from the path, you’re never are unsure of where you should be headed, but you’re always rewarded for being attentive and utilizing all your abilities. Although there is a counter that lets you know how many grubs you’ve found in each area, I was annoyed that I couldn’t return to levels to clean up the remaining grubs after completing the game.
Those new abilities are what set Warp apart from other stealth games: right as the sneaking begins to feel trite, the game ramps up the puzzle elements to keep the game feeling fresh. The alien gains the ability to create a holographic duplicate, swap its position with objects, and fire the object it’s inhabiting like a cannon. It’s a good thing it veers away from stealth because every human in the game acts like they have Play-Doh for brains and exploiting their simpleton minds can only remain interesting for so long. Even with the knowledge that an escaped alien has murdered more than a hundred of their colleagues, unarmed scientists still feel “I need a closer look” when they hear a strange sound emanating from the shadows. Guards are no better and shoot first, second, and third, and then ask questions to the bloody pile of whatever is left. Unfortunately for them, that’s often one of their comrades as it’s joyously amusing to trick the guards into shooting each other with the hologram. Also, where are the women? Is this some kind of all-male, sexy scientist party?
The game creates a fantastic atmosphere, and the zoomed-out camera makes you always aware that the lab is submerged deep in the ocean. Schools of fish swim by, jellyfish float peacefully along, and starfish are smushed against the glass walls of the man-sized vivarium. But who created this enormous underwater lab? The only other actual character is a cigar-munching hunk of walking testosterone who chases the alien through the complex, and it’s disappointing that there is no actual characterization or story other than the simple escape. Your alien is an empty shell who gleefully prances around the complex covered in blood, but you have no idea what is going on inside its mind. It emotes with clicks and beeps that sound like a cross between R2-D2 and some kind of rodent, but they don’t convey much.
The game’s constant changes and new challenges help it remain interesting for much of the ride, but by the last half hour it starts runs out of gas. Some of the final puzzles are well designed, but quite frustrating. I often knew exactly what I needed to do, but I just didn’t have enough time or quite the precision needed in order to execute my strategy. This is especially apparent during the final boss, an encounter with the cigar-munching man that is incredibly tedious and doesn’t even make much sense in the context of the limited narrative.
Warp is an innovative twist on the stealth genre, and outside of a handful of moments and a frustrating final boss, it maintains its pacing and never grows tiresome. It sits right behind Braid and Limbo as one of the most original experiences on XBLA, and it requires you to use an equal combination of your brain and reflexes. Snake may have his gadgets and guns, but this pudgy alien proves that there’s more than one way to outmaneuver henchmen.
This review is based on the XBLA version of Warp, which was provided for review by EA. The game is available for $10 on the Xbox Live Marketplace. A free demo is available.