Archer Maclean's Mercury Review
Wednesday, August 12, 2009 1:36 PM
A good little puzzle game until it tried to kill me and I had to set Arnold Schwarzenegger on it.
This is basically a retro review (something we should really do more of) as Mercury was first released over four years ago. However, it's now available for the PSP as a tidy disc-less download and the reasonable sum of £4.79, so now's a good time to look at the game again. This is an especially good idea as I, um, didn't actually look at it the first time anyway.
Puzzlers are notoriously hard to pull off these days without copying the best puzzle games of the past, and initially it seems like Mercury is going to do just that. At first play it seems to be an update/blatant rip-off of the classic Marble Madness (which also inspired Sega's Super Monkey Ball), with tight levels that you have to guide a metallic blob through by tilting the whole stage using the thumbstick.
Fortunately it quickly becomes apparent that there's a lot more to Mercury than that. Marble Madness itself was basically a video game version of the hair-tearing board game Labyrinth, with its solid ball. It wouldn't split apart at the slightest provocation, change colour, or get eaten by tiny little Pac-Men, for example.
There's a lot of variation here, and it certainly makes for a compelling game. There are three main types of level, titled Race (get to the end as quickly as possible and damn how much Mercury you have left), Percentage (more time but there has to be a certain amount of your blob left) and Task (mixes up these two with harder challenges and obstacles).
There are six themed Worlds, including the Tutorial, with 14 stages each. That doesn't sound like a lot, but you're judged on how quickly you finish the stage and how much percentage of mercury you have left, so there's a lot of replay value that you will want to take up.
The game has a habit of introducing new obstacles and tasks almost every level, and never explains what they do before you're thrown in to face them. Some are obvious, like floor panels with moving arrows on them, but some are just unfair; like reverse gravity or lasers that blast something off-screen. There's colour dye machines, colour-coded gates and switches, enemies like the aforementioned Pac-Men things that gobble up your mercury, fast-moving conveyor belts, hammers, mercury splitters.
You need a real steady hand if you're going to get through with your mercury intact, as it splits apart and drains off into the void far too easily. The physics and animation of the mercury is absolutely marvellous, very liquid-like, but it's a real pain in the arse to manage. I don't think I finished with 100 per cent mercury on any stage, including any of the tutorials.
In terms of difficulty, Mercury gets hard halfway through the Tutorial world and gets even harder from there on out. Come the ice-themed third world I was quite ready to eat my PSP in frustration. Think trying to keep your big blob intact is hard enough with all the pitfalls, jumps, moving platforms, mercury-devouring enemies etc to navigate or avoid? Well, try doing it with two! Two different coloured mercury blobs that you have to manage and guide to particular switches without mixing them together (turning them a new colour) or more likely falling off the stage. And there are Boss stages for each world too...
Okay, it's a really hard puzzle game. Being difficult doesn't make it a bad game, in fact quite the opposite, it is really
addictive as only the best puzzle games are. Too many times in my lunch break I thought "just one more stage" or "I'll try that one again, I know I can do better" until I found my furious boss standing behind me.
However, there's a big problem with the game beyond it being occasionally unfair, and that's the camera. It's awful. The controls for the game are incredibly simple - it's just the thumbstick, which tilts the whole level and moves your mercury blob/s. That's it, easy, brilliant, all you need.
The trouble is that the camera is controlled using every other button on the PSP. L and R zoom in and out, Cross and Triangle tilts the view angle, Circle and Square turn it 90 degrees, the arrow keys change what blob you look at if you get separated. and in the heat of the moment, during the most time-dependant parts of the game, or when you go underneath part of the stage: there's no way you're going to remember all of that! When just seeing the mercury is as hard as any obstacle in the stage, then something's very wrong.
For £4.79 I think Mercury is probably worth it as it's a very good and fairly unique puzzle game (which are always welcome purchases for handhelds), but it's also incredibly frustrating, and not always in the way the designers intended, since it's slightly spoiled by the complex camera controls.
Feel free to have a recommendation then, but don't cry to me when your parents/housemate/girlfriend finds what remains of your PSP embedded into the wall.