In a game with one shining mechanic, the hardest work is often simply staying out-of-the-way of that mechanic. What can be even more difficult is to find balance between enhancing the game’s core features and watering them down with too much complexity. That’s why Santa Ragione have done something really special with FOTONICA: building an experience that falls between ease and frustration, while scaling its fun and complexity evenly.
FOTONICA is a one-button runner: holding a button increases speed, while letting go causes the player to jump. Holding a button in mid-air quickens the player’s descent while increasing their speed. These are the only abilities available to the player, so the bulk of the game’s fun relies largely on a few strong supporting elements. Firstly – and, I believe, most importantly – with such a small avenue of player input, the player needs to feel like they’re making their own way – doing things differently from other players. This is part of the brilliance of FOTONICA‘s level design; each level is essentially two or three levels, all with various entrances and exits linking them. One player might favor taking the highest and safest route possible, while another might find interesting connections between levels to maximize running time verses air time (and therefore increase overall speed), while another might look for routes that contain the most collectibles. Another huge benefit to this level format is that it intuitively adds a sort of “shield” mechanic to the game: successfully making jumps to higher platforms tends to protect the player from a few mistakes before falling from a lowermost platform does them in. I found myself enjoying each level’s intricacies, almost glad when a small slip-up meant a quick restart, because with each loss I felt more prepared for the next play-through until eventually gaining mastery over them.
The game also features several flavorful enhancements to the jumping system. Lifting off and falling onto platforms triggers a head bob that makes the runner’s actions feel more heavy, while also adding an interesting layer of challenge, as the player tries to keep track of upcoming platforms while their view undulates violently.
FOTONICA‘s sound design contributes to its sense of speed and rigor in a way that can’t be overstated – from the runner’s low, throbbing footsteps to his (or her) breathy grunts when jumping (and the fact that different sounds and frequencies play on a per-action and per-level basis respectively) to the booming arcade-style notifiers when the player picks up a collectible, or bashes against a platform, or – my favorite – avoids errors long enough to get a temporary boost that distorts the camera and makes everything glow bright-yellow. Alongside these powerful sounds is a soundtrack featuring multiple artists with unique styles of electronic music. The tracks go along with their levels – some are slow, passive, and comforting while others are punchy, percussive and exhilarating.
And on top of solid, engaging play, FOTONICA features most of what any speed-runner could ask for: achievements, personal metrics and online high scores, four-player local multiplayer, four difficulty settings, and even an endless mode where high scores can skyrocket. Even if you’re not a fan of its vector-style graphics, there’s a visual setting that applies flat shading to everything!
It isn’t perfect, though; while the eight levels provided for its retail value of $10 are certainly unique and take some time to master, a level editor could have made this game into something that people play consistently – or at least check back on from time to time to play new community levels. The information displayed at the bottom-right of the screen is virtually useless in-game because of its dotted font and skewed orientation. Lastly – an unfortunate side effect of skill-heavy games – multiplayer only reaches its full potential between players of similar skill levels. For players with a different level of experience with fast-paced games, or games in general, the utility of this mode effectively ends with the ability for multiple people to play at the same time.
In my opinion, FOTONICA is worth exactly the $10 for which it’s sold. While its scope and play time are modest, its execution is both beautiful and brutal.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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