Ms. Splosion Man' boasts superior level design, suffers second-half slump

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Despite “Ms. ‘Splosion Man’s” cartoon aesthetic, its steep difficulty curve will make most grown adults cry. (Image courtesy of Twisted Pixel)

Local game developer Twisted Pixel is a pretty big deal now. Big enough to double its office space, staff and number of projects since the release of “‘Splosion Man” two years ago.

Now, Twisted Pixel return to its flagship title — the one that defined the indie group’s juvenile attitude and aesthetic — with a sequel that embodies the growing pains of the studio itself. “Ms. ‘Splosion Man” is an ambitious, fun game that could benefit from a couple more months of maturation. Its shortcomings are all the more noticeable when paired so closely with platforming bliss.

That said, it’s the perfect game to recapture those lazy summers spent stuck on a “Super Mario World” level.

Much like “Portal 2”, “Ms. ‘Splosion Man” is a sequel improved by a focus on creative environments and challenges rather than complex mechanics. You “‘splode” or jump, run and grab ledges. While the beginning stages replicate the hectic final stages of the original, you’ll soon be jumping from zip line to zip line, solving puzzles and memorizing the twists-and-turns of labyrinthine obstacle courses made of trampolines, exploding barrels and imminent death.

“MsSM” is a much longer game than the original, perhaps to a fault. The first half of the game’s platform is polished to a perfection, which will either put a smile or grimace on your face based on your rate-of-success at such demanding challenges. Thankfully, Twisted Pixel stuck to its 16-bit roots by limiting the number of checkpoints on a stage. This is one of many things that differentiate it from “Super Meat Boy” and other contemporary, retro platformers.

Unfortunately, the second half of the game (and almost the entire third world) feign challenge through trial-and-error setups, convoluted puzzles and unpredictable death traps. All these things are fine in moderation — as displayed in the earlier stages — the problem is that they become the focus of the game rather than its strength: platforming.

Instead of carefully measuring your jumps and timing your ‘splosion to trigger a barrel explosion, you’ll be continually guessing where exactly a barrel drops from so you can hit it and continue on your merry way. You’ll want to cry by the end of each level; these aren’t tears of joy, either.

“MsSM’s” biggest upgrade is a visual one. The repetitive, dull labs of the original were it’s biggest fault, after all. The Beard engine continues to pump bright, beautiful colors into Twisted Pixel’s games, but the texture work, detailed backgrounds and varied world design breathes much life into this sequel.

It’s clear that the developer had a lot of fun designing these stages. The opening stage contains a handful of set-piece moments that conjure up “God of War’s” sense of scale and danger. Unfortunately, these are front-loaded and don’t come up later in the game. Although, there are a couple of surprises to keep the game’s final hour fresh.

Twisted Pixel continues its legacy of great soundtracks with goofy original songs, thanks to audio designer Matt “Chainsaw” Chaney. The tropical tunes that garner the second world are especially memorable, capturing the perfect summer mood to the perfect summer game.

Similar to the original, “MsSM” features a lengthy co-op campaign with its own story and set of levels. The challenge is placed more on puzzle-solving than tricky platforming, which makes it a bit more of a reasonable challenge than the co-op in the original. That’s not to say you will breeze through it.

Each successive level feels like an impossible challenge that requires endless practice and prayer to complete. Soon enough, the secrets to a challenge unveil themselves between many screw-ups and player accusations. Pro-tip: Don’t play with more than two players, unless you want a migraine. While you are at it, don’t play with a stranger. Much like “Portal 2,” you must choose your co-op partner wisely.

Developed between the shallow but very pretty “Comic Jumper” and upcoming Kinect title “The Gunstringer,” “MsSM” displays the studio’s vigorous unwillingness to stop for a break. The result is a sequel improved in many ways but ultimately falls short of its potential, if only due to having such grand ambitions to start with. The game feels overdeveloped in some places — the busy environments and visual effects get in the way of the player’s avatar — and unpolished in others.

Twisted Pixel have yet to develop its masterpiece, but the thought that the studio is capable of developing a game as rich, long and fun as “MsSM” is something that seemed unlikely two years ago. Like the 16-bit influences the game was built upon, “MsSM” will fill your summer days with memorable moments of joy and frustration.

Updated on 07/20/2011 at 2:16 p.m.: headline changed