Sideway: New York review: Urban blight

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Sideway: New York review: Urban blight
It had to happen sometime. With the veritable explosion of videogaming across all media, on all platforms and within all demographics, there simply had to come a game - at some point - to which one could un-ironically attach the label "urban." That time is now, and that game is Sideway: New York.

Sideway is a funky and hip (almost too hip) platformer in which you play as Nox, a young graffiti artist who enters the world of Sideway to rescue his girlfriend from the evil villain Spray. In so doing, he becomes a part of the gritty graffiti landscape of New York City, adventuring across the walls and rooftops of the urban jungle, collecting tags and eliminating the spray-painted obstacles in his way. It's a novel concept that's amazing to look at, and, unfortunately, that's just about where the praise ends.

The visual art and artistry of Sideway is a wonderful spectacle that, in keeping with games like Outland and Limbo, elevates the well-worn platform genre to something approaching art. The alternate world of Sideway exists only on the flat surfaces of the New York City landscape, and, as Nox, you must traverse that landscape using drainpipes, windows, doors and other solid objects as platforms, moving over and around them as if sprayed in motion by a graffiti artist. You can move from wall to wall and rooftop to rooftop, around corners generally from any surface to any other surface unless your way is blocked by solid obstacles or the few, but deadly, spray-painted impediments.

You will use Nox's unique abilities and the orientation of the various levels to traverse NYC's various neighborhoods, with your end goal being the gigantic skyscraper in Times Square where Spray is holding your sweetie. Nox can jump over obstacles and onto some enemies to vanquish them. He can punch, kick and perform a couple of airborne attacks. He can even use paint to grapple onto certain spray-painted tags, allowing you to swing through the air. You can also use certain other tags to jump very high, get shot across the levels as if from a cannon or be turned temporarily into a spraypaint mist. It's a dizzying mix of standard platform abilities and mechanics unique to the premise of being a boy made out of paint.

In keeping with the urban-ness of Sideway's graphical design and set-up, the game also features genuine Hip-Hop music from an authentic Hip-Hop artist, Mr. Lif, whose songs are so authentically Hip-Hop, you will hear some of his lyrics blanked out. "Shit," I think, was one of them, judging from the context. The "N-word" was not blanked out, which is kind of confusing. Mr. Lif also rhymes "shut up" with "word up," which is amazing, and you will have no chance at all to miss this feat of word boxing wizardry because there are only a handful of songs in the game and they repeat ad nauseum.

At first blush, Sideway: New York looks like an audacious experiment in game design, marrying high-concept design with street art. Unfortunately, the audacity of the design is exactly where the problems start. Nox feels ephemeral and completely unattached to the world in which he is adventuring. Although this is a justifiable artistic choice, it means that interacting with the world is a frustrating challenge.

Nox floats through each level as if he's on the moon, sliding across the solid-feeling landscape as if it were made of ice, or he of air. This is not helped by Sideway's unresponsive control handling. Manipulating Nox feels like trying to juggle a rattlesnake. Small twitches of the controls will send him careening into deadly obstacles and his combat animations will launch him into wild gyrations that carry him halfway across the screen, and usually to his death.

Combat in Sideway is sometimes avoidable, but the unique perpendicular perspectives and intricate platform puzzles call for a more precise measure of control than is on offer, meaning you will be sweating and swearing your way through each level, fighting the game itself as often as the challenges within the game. This becomes catastrophically unmanageable in the later levels as the challenges increase.

In Sideway, water is your enemy -- as are the various painted goons inhabiting the world, each requiring a specific attack or power to defeat, often in sequence, magnifying the faulty controls. Worse, Nox has an extremely limited health meter, meaning you will die a lot. Thankfully, there are a liberal number of checkpoints and certain challenges will occasionally adjust themselves, making it easier for you to get past them if you've died in the attempt. It's as if the game's designers knew they had created an unwieldy mess, yet were torn between wanting the game to be fun and wanting it to be punishing. The resulting compromise means it oscillates between both and neither. Although Nox gains some truly inventive abilities throughout the course of the 3-6 hour journey, the potential exhilaration of the experience is squandered, washed away by puzzles lacking any real depth and the inadequacy of the game's mechanical design.

Yet somehow, in spite of the flaws, Sideway: New York retains enough urban charm to make the experience worthwhile for the novelty alone. It seems to have been assembled as a labor of love by people who genuinely enjoy and appreciate the graffiti art culture, and it is imbued with enough of a flavor of that culture to please those who are familiar with it and delight those for whom it is an exotic mystery.

The cel-shaded graphical style and kid-friendly characters keep the game from delving into morbidity and the message, overall, is one of positivity and joy. Nox and his friends aren't hoodlums, they're just young artists caught up in a dangerous situation. It's just a shame the game's frustrating design makes it so hard for you to help them.

This review is based on a final review code of Sideway: New York, provided by Sony Online Entertainment.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.
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