I spent all afternoon and all evening yesterday playing Raskulls. I beat the game, tried my hand at the extra challenges, and even did some local multiplayer with my roommate. And yet I'm still not sure how to describe the damn thing. Let's start with the concrete stuff: Raskulls is a downloadable XBLA game created by Australian studio Halfbrick, best known as the developers of popular iPhone title Fruit Ninja. It'll run you 800 MS points on Xbox Live, or about $10.
That's about it. Beyond that, it gets considerably murkier. Raskulls has elements of a platformer: You make your way from Point A to Point B, making timed jumps and avoiding obstacles like lava pits. It also has bits pulled out of a racing game: You'll often contend with a timer and other individuals - whether computer-controlled or other human players - on your way to Point B, you have a "Frenzy meter" which makes you go super-fast, and you'll get powerups like energy blasts or things that let you steal other players' powerups.
But then it's a puzzle game, too. Between you and Point B, there are many multicolored blocks that must be zapped out of the way. Like Tetris, the blocks will fall with nothing to support them and meld with other blocks of the same color - and these simple, multicolored blocks are at the core of many of the game's most fiendish challenges. If your goal is at the top of a tower of blocks, do you try to destroy the blocks to bring it down to you? Do you carve a path to try and leap up to it? Be careful; the clock is ticking!
As your Raskull characters adventure through 50-some-odd levels in a quest to keep the valuable Shiny Stones out of the hands of the nefarious Pirats (no, that's not a typo), it becomes clear that Halfbrick has taken this jumble of genres - platformer, racer, puzzler - into something very smooth and surprisingly engaging. The puzzles are fun, whether you're trying to lower fragile objects to the ground without having them fall too far or trying to use one of your special energy blasts to sculpt bigger blocks into special shapes. They're also really, really hard - particularly when Raskulls decides to throw multiple victory conditions into a level. Have fun working against the time limit when you only have a limited number of block-destroying zaps, you dirty raskull!
But as frustrating as some of the challenges can be, I rarely found myself dispirited to the point of saying "okay, this isn't fun anymore." Raskulls' hardest bits are melded with entertaining and occasionally exciting level design with genuine moments of "Hey, that was pretty cool." It only has so many tricks up its sleeves, true, but the ~3-hour game ends just before it can cross the line of wearing out its welcome - or its quirky sense of humor that's admittedly funny, but not as funny as it thinks it is.
While there's simply not enough fresh material in Raskulls to justify a full-price boxed retail release, at $10 there really doesn't have to be. It's a perfect bite-sized game: It'll vexingly entertain you for a few hours and leave you feeling like you got your money's worth, and that's all it needs to do. It's cleverly designed, slick in its execution, and has a silly and adorable sense of charm around the whole package.
I just hope you aren't the controller-throwing type.
Bottom Line: Raskulls is cute, and it's funny - even if it tries a bit too hard sometimes. The puzzles are cleverly and fiendishly designed, and will test your reflexes and twitch control just as much as they will test your wits. There's only so much that Halfbrick can pull out of a relatively simple mashed-up concept before it starts wearing thin; luckily Raskulls ends right before it reaches that point.
Recommendation: At $10, Raskulls is well worth your time and your money.
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: December 29, 2010
Platform: Xbox 360 (XBLA)
Available from: Xbox Marketplace
Disclosure: The Escapist's own Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw was part of the focus testing for Raskulls, and it made a playable debut at the Mana Bar. He is listed in the game's credits.
Is John Funk the Raskull King behind the bars, or the one in front of them?