Raskulls Review (Xbox360)

Imagine if Mario Kart was a side-scrolling platformer. That's the elevator pitch that Raskulls is bringing with it today, or at least it should do in any case. Taking control of comical boneheads, you and three friends blast around a 'track' full of bricks, power-ups and obstacles in the hope of reaching the finishing line in first place.

OK, so describing Raskulls solely in this way is completely missing the mark, as the single player campaign is easily one of the most varied gameplay experiences we've had all year. Yet while Raskulls perfectly achieves what it sets out to do, it also loses its appeal gradually, so that by the time we'd reached the final stages, it was all feeling like a bit of a slog. Raskulls is not a bad game in any respect - it's just not all that exciting.

I'm the king of the Raskulls and you're the dirty... oh wait

The story goes that an evil ratty race known as the Pirats has crash-landed on the planet of the Raskulls, and needs the Shiny Stones to get its ship up and running again. Over three worlds, players take control of three different Raskulls in an attempt to bag the Shiny Stones before the Pirats can get to them.

Raskulls is a side-scrolling platform game in which reaching the goal before your opponents is usually the key. Along the way, there are coloured blocks scattered about the place that will explode if you hit them with your block-breaking wand. The idea is to chose the most efficient route through the blocks, so that blocks from above fall down and land on your opponents behind you.

But wait - it's even more tactical than that! You see, if a coloured block falls and touches a block of the same colour on the way down, it will become attached and hover, making perhaps a neat set of steps for you to run up, or saving your ass from a crushing. There are also special darker blocks that are difficult to destroy, but will explode if four or more touch each other - hence, bringing those together is the best idea.

Let's bring that Mario Kart analogy out at this point, as it'll make or break whether you'll enjoy Raskulls or not. The key point to note here is that when we mentioned tactics above, we were smirking a fair bit. You know when you play Mario Kart, and sometimes a complete newbie to the game can beat someone who has been playing for years thanks to a spiny shell, or a Bullet Bill, or some other nuisance? Raskulls has very much this sort of flavour.

Take this example - a player storms ahead, smashing blocks and clearing a pathway. A second player follows closely behind, saving up their special speed power (activated via the trigger button). The first player uses their own speed boost, but the second player quickly catches up as, well, they don't have to bash many blocks as the first player already cleared the path! Eventually, as the finishing line appears, the second player uses the boost they saved, rushes past the first player, and wins the race.

Multiplayer is great fun, until everyone playing learns the 'dodgy tactics'

This became a recurring theme in Strategy Informer Towers, and rather quickly took the edge off the unique gameplay. Of course, as with Mario Kart, the seasoned player has a slight advantage in that they know which items to use, how to use them well, and where to take shortcuts. But when the items are as shoddy as those in Raskulls, and when 'taking a shortcut' actually means 'hammering the bash button as fast as possible', then there is little more for being skilful.

One last gripe with the multiplayer before we move on to the lighter notes - races can be played either split-screen locally, or via Xbox Live. Playing online, however, has one fatal flaw - if a player leaves partway through a race, they are not penalised, and you don't gain the experience points. Didn't someone fix this problem in the early 00's? We played around a dozen matches, and only one other player stuck around until the end of our race - and that's only because they won! It's a broken system that is in dire need of a fix.

Still, we'll stop with the whipping now, as we definitely had a better experience with the single-player campaign. Known as the 'Mega Quest', the story is made up of far more than simply racing, as you work your way through block-zapping puzzles, finish laps of a circuit, finish levels without running out of speed power, knock down tiny houses without smashing them... the list goes on. This is where Raskulls shines - in its creativity. There are so many clever ideas spawned from this single, block-bashing idea.

There's a charming level of humour throughout too, as the Raskulls converse through hilarious dialogue and simple yet wonderful cutscenes. The comic feel throughout matches the action perfectly, and really brings the Raskulls world to life. The overworld also looks great, with a very Super Mario World vibe going on. Completing levels unlocks coins that, in turn, can be used to open extra-difficult areas in each world.

The difficulty levels should definitely be mentioned. The game starts off easy, but quickly ramps up the pressure. There are undeniably balance issues, as the races against AI as easy as pie (in fact, we never lost a single one) while the puzzles and other assorted gameplay types will take a good few goes to complete. Even so, for the most part the level of head-scratchingness will keep you busy.

While the variation in play is definitely welcome, eventually it all starts to feel a little samey and not so exciting. Don't get us wrong - we were a good several hours into play by the time the first 'meh' left our lips - but really, it's not exactly the type of game you jump on the internet and start telling all your friends about. The concept is clever, but just doesn't have enough urgency or the hectic pace to render it electrifying.

Watch me make THIS disappear!

It's also very strange that, while certain levels have their own specific online leaderboards (and hence, add an extra element of play as you try to outwit and outrace your friends), not every level does. It doesn't seem to make any sense, as the majority of levels save high scores anyway - so why not put them online? We're genuinely intrigued as to the thoughts behind this absurd design decision.

Raskulls is cute, fun and clever, but it won't be for everyone. A more casual player will most likely get a big kick out of racing around bashing bricks, but the more hardcore Xbox owner will long for a more beefy experience. Throughout play, there was always a nagging feeling in the back of our minds that while the concept is spot-on, the execution could have been so much more.

Raskulls is available now from the Xbox Live Arcade.

Top Game Moment: Following the story is easily the most enjoyable part of the game.