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Polar Panic
Graphics: 6
Gameplay: 6.8
Sound: 7.5
Control: 7
Replay Value: 6.6
Rating: 7.2

The PSN has been home to some of the most original and addictive puzzle games of the generation, which is why I dove into my review of Polar Panic with a great deal of gusto and expectation. I was one of many who were skeptical about downloadable titles but after enjoying everything from Wipeout HD and echochrome to Flower and Shatter, I’ve come ‘round. I’ve realized that I should frequently check the PSN to see what might be available; games that would help pass the time on rainy days and give me something entirely different to play. Thing is, these little titles are great for a significant change of pace. Go from Assassin’s Creed II to Polar Panic, and you’ll see exactly what I mean… The latest puzzle iteration is unsurprisingly solid, although I do have my issues with the Story Mode and would almost recommend the Puzzle Mode instead. All in all, this isn’t a bad little game; it’s just not as polished or captivating as others.

Usually, graphics matter little in puzzlers, primarily because you’re always focusing on the task at hand and searching for the solution. However, the visuals really are lacking here, especially in comparison to some of the more recent PSN entries that have proven to be impressive on a graphical level. It just seems as if the gameplay lacks a certain clarity; it always appears a little fuzzy, hazy, or out-of-focus, as bizarre as that may sound. This causes the overall presentation and detail to suffer and due to the fixed camera, you will soon get tired of the static, underwhelming visuals. Thing is, there are plenty of moving parts to these puzzles, including enemies, and in all honesty, they could’ve used some definite touching-up. But other than that, you really are focusing on the puzzle in front of you so this drawback isn’t necessarily a hindrance, unless you’re finding it difficult to spot metal boxes, switches, or other small aspects of the puzzle that don’t exactly leap off the screen.

The sound is pleasant and indeed, it’s perhaps the most appealing element of Polar Panic. As you’ll be operating in a winter wonderland (for the most part), you’ll hear the appropriate “tinkly” music that will make you think of snow, ice and everything that goes along with freezing weather. I’m not sure how many birds I’d be hearing in such an environment, but hey, it’s nice nonetheless. And the soundtrack does switch about a bit depending on the mode and the puzzle at hand, so I won’t get on Eiconic for a repetitive soundtrack. I know I do that a lot but when it’s painfully obvious, I’m forced to mention it. In this case, the music fits, the sound effects are crisp and clear, and there’s a nice balance between both aspects. Typically, I try to spot flaws that would annoy most gamers or potentially have a detrimental effect on the overall experience but here, I won’t issue any warnings. Again, it’s not as polished as I would’ve liked but the sound enhances the leisurely ambiance.

As is the case with most puzzle titles, the controls and concept are both relatively simple, but mastering the entire game will take a great deal of time and patience. The idea here is that you play as a polar bear (ironically named “Polar”) who must maneuver through a variety of tricky environments laden with traps, hunters, and moving pieces of the environment that threaten to squash our resolute hero. He can push or shatter blocks of ice, break blocks of snow, push metal blocks and even explosive crates in an effort to get the upper hand. He must not only create a path for himself and reach the exit within the time allotted, but he must also deal with all the aforementioned obstacles that continually threaten to end Polar’s existence. He may be a bear but getting hit only once will result in the loss of a life; the good news is that he has three lives available per puzzle. The bad news is that the balance between puzzle and frenetic action is a little iffy.

You are graded on the amount of time and the number of moves you require to finish any given puzzle but in the Story Mode, you almost always feel as if you need to move quickly rather than strategically. Obviously, the goal is to do both but that can be super tough as hunters, rolling barrels and other problems are constantly tossed in Polar’s path. You have to keep an eye on much of the screen, all the while trying to solve the problem that lies before you. The developers do try to give you a breather if you’re faced with a particularly tricky conundrum; i.e., if you’ve got one of those puzzles with lots of switches and many different blocks, they won’t bombard you with enemies. Even so, I always felt there were far too many enemies and I found myself rapidly breaking and pushing blocks all over the place to deal with that immediate threat (pushing a block of ice over a hunter is enough to eliminate him). This meant I wasn’t really concentrating on any “puzzle,” per se, and I started to get confused as what type of game I was actually playing.

This is why, as I hinted at earlier, I would recommend playing the Puzzle Mode over the Story Mode. The latter is certainly more frantic and there’s always a lot more stuff going on, but in my eyes, it doesn’t really gel and come together to present us with a seamless experience. In Puzzle Mode, you just have to reach the exit as quickly as possible, and with as few moves as possible. Not surprisingly, these are more like actual puzzles and they test your brain more than your reflexes. There’s also a Survival Mode but that’s on the opposite end of the spectrum, as you might expect. There are 50 puzzles to deal with in both the Puzzle and Story Modes so it’s not like you won’t get your money’s worth, but you may not be wholly satisfied with the strangely-paced Story Mode. I kept thinking enemies shouldn’t have long-range weapons or at the very least, they shouldn’t be just about everywhere in so many puzzles, and in the end, I admit to getting a little frustrated.

Polar Panic is one of those games that is unique but fails to make good on its promise of purely fun and original entertainment. The puzzle aspect might be top-notch if it weren’t for certain downfalls in the Story Mode and the visuals are oddly lacking. However, I will add this: for multiple players (up to four), this game gets a good deal better. It actually reminds me a little of Bomberman, only with a lot more environmental interaction. Therefore, that alone pushes this game above the “decent” mark; well, that, and the 50 challenging puzzles in the Puzzle Mode. Is it worth the ten bucks? Um…maybe? I know, a terrible way to end a review. Sorry. ;)

12/29/2009   Ben Dutka