Swing into Action
These days, modern day and retro-styled platformers have seen quite a bit of a comeback. In between modern remakes and reimaginings of established franchises, indie titles that have made a serious impression on me (looking at you Cuphead), and new titles that feel comfortable in their own skin, I was feeling pretty good about the direction this genre is going.
So when I took a quick peek at the trailer of Whipseey and the Lost Atlas, I was intrigued to find a concept that clicked with me. Our main character has a Kirby-esque appearance, and sports a whip that takes a couple cues from old school Castlevania titles.
Developed by Daniel A. Ramirez and published by Blowfish Studios, Whipseey released on August 22, 2019 on Xbox One, PS4, Switch, and PC via Steam at a price point of $5.99. The Switch version was played for this review.
You. Are Going. To Die.
If you’re used to complicated plots, you’re not going to find it here. You’re a boy named Alex who comes upon a magical book that transports him into an unknown magical world and transforms him into the titular character. You’re handed a whip by a princess and told to go do the platforming thing. There’s really not much else to the plot aside basically just escaping the realm and becoming Alex again. This game is obviously not the first title to employ a paper-thin plot to justify its existence, but it’s something worth noticing.
The aesthetics of Whipseey are fine enough for the most part, but I honestly can’t say the same for the level design. It somehow pulls off the feat of being simultaneously bland and lacking in creativity while also being frustrating and difficult in a way that discourages repeat attempts. Mind you, I’ve played and cleared my fair share of Mega Man games and also (slowly) bested Cuphead. With most of those titles, the level design gives you the freedom to learn as you go and also learn from your mistakes and change up your strategy to ultimately succeed. More often than not, many of those deaths could have been attributed to the player’s error.
This honestly isn’t the case with Whipseey. You’ll find yourself trying to make swift and precise actions with little margin for error, more often than not by either getting (frequently) knocked back into a bottomless pit or a bed of instant death spikes. The game is basically a giant warehouse of these things, and the fact that you’re frequently getting knocked into them is just hair-pullingly frustrating when you also factor in the inconsistent hit detection.
Not only that, but you’re given a set of five lives that will drain quickly in these trouble spots. Sure, you’ll be able to get more by picking up money from whipping/head-bopping fallen enemies. But that’s usually a slow process, and there’s no other way to accelerate that process by way of 1-Ups or anything like that. Once you drain all of your lives, you’re kicked back out to the map screen. It doesn’t matter if you had one hit to go on the somewhat creative/repetitive bosses, missed a swinging grapple point by a hair, couldn’t hover out of danger in time, or just plain couldn’t dodge projectiles. If you’re out of lives, you’re back out at the map screen to start anew again and again.
It’s the kind of frustration that made me switch over to Mario Maker 2 to cleanse my platforming palate with some of the more creative offerings that game’s userbase offers. Sure, there are troll levels in that game, but you can swap over to something way better just as quickly. When you make a mistake in Whipseey, it feels like more of an undeserved punishment than a well-taught lesson in how to strategize. Even with the controls being relatively tight and responsive, it doesn’t detract from the shoddy design.
What makes this all the more depressing is that this game is surprisingly short. There’s five somewhat long levels, and that’s basically it. Sure, you can level the same criticism at Sakurai’s Kirby’s Dream Land due to its short length, but in his defense, that game was developed and released in a much different and earlier era of video games where portable games were short by nature. Whipseey’s low price point does help soften this blow a little bit, but that doesn’t give it much room for leeway given the era its released in and the type of game that it’s trying to evoke.
Graphically speaking, the best descriptor that I have is that it looks very similar to a Kirby game on the Game Boy Advance. Though don’t blame yourself for mistaking Whipseey for Kirby, and a couple enemies as Waddle Dees, because I ended up doing that double-take a couple times myself. You’ll run into the standard level environments such as forest, ice, desert, and so on. Considering artist Roy Nathan de Groot’s prior work on Super Crate Box and Luftrausers, it all looks quite nice and definitely looks the part. Honestly, though, it’s nothing that we haven’t really seen before. I will say that it does take some liberties with some of the character/enemy designs a little bit, but it ultimately isn’t that distracting.
Though despite being a retro 2D platformer that invokes that GBA style, you would think that it would be able to run smoothly on a portable like the Switch. Sadly, it has a pretty low framerate, but not 15 FPS bad. I know I might be expecting a bit much from a six dollar game in terms of performance here, but if smartphones can run games with similar graphical styles smoothly on a wide range of phones with cheaper prices (never mind the microtransactions on some of them), then there’s not much of an excuse here for a dockable gaming tablet that can and does handle 2D games with ease.
Thankfully, there seems to have been a little more effort put into the sound design here. Sound effects are the cutesey-sounding fare you’ve come to expect from similar titles, and it isn’t all that annoying for the most part. Usually I hone in on soundtracks and do my best to sing its praises by highlighting the musician’s skill in either keeping the mood fitting or showing impressive skill with the theme. This soundtrack isn’t amazing or awful, but the best I can say is that it’s appropriate to the theming of each level and has the right amount of whimsy and cuteness to it. It’s by no means memorable, but it’s easily the best thing about this game.
Can’t Wake Up
There’s a thin line between giving loving nods to established franchises, and just straight up trying to be somewhat of a knockoff of one. Whipseey does try to establish itself as its own thing, but each time I booted this game up, I wanted to play literally any other platformer with a little more care and love put into the design. Other difficult platformers have succeeded in making games where they can let the player show of their skill while also not holding their hand either.
The biggest sin that this game commits is that it is bland in nearly every aspect of the word. It’s like Kirby but “totally not Kirby guys,” takes game mechanics from older titles and doesn’t do anything creative with them, and just doesn’t leave any sort of lasting impression in any way. If you want to play a cutesy platformer, there’s plenty of them that nail it better than Whipseey. If you want a classic game to play on the go, SEGA has you covered with its Genesis Classics compilation and AGES series while Nintendo is also no stranger for having its back catalog available in some form or fashion. There are better ways to spend six bones, and this isn’t one of them.
Review copy provided by Blowfish Studios for Switch. Screenshots provided by publisher.