Aban Hawkins and the 1,001 Spikes from Nicalis is the latest specimen of a breed resurgent in the 21st century: the ultra-difficult 2D platformer. It is a game that is hard for the sake of being hard, and it wears this label proudly. It absolutely does not care if you can't keep up, how many times you die, how frustrated you get.
Unfortunately, difficulty alone does not a great experience make, even in such a brutal subgenre. There has to be a sense of gratification, of progress and reward; a dash of masochism to even out its sadistic torture of players. But 1,001 Spikes lacks self-awareness, and feels bogged down by unnecessary design.
Gallery: Able Hawkings and the 1,001 Spikes | 10 Photos
1,001 Spikes drops you into the thick of things very quickly. Once you're past the tutorial, expect to feel overwhelmed by spikes, poison arrows, lakes of fire, falling rocks and bottomless pits. Oh, and giant scorpions. Because why not? If 1,001 Spikes' difficulty curve were a rollercoaster, players would be flung from the cart and thrown into outer space somewhere around the eighth level – and there would still be plenty left to go.
The levels themselves, while maddeningly difficult, are nonetheless expertly designed. You'll come to hate them, but at the same time, admire them for their ingenuity. After all, you would've put a spike trap there too. It's the perfect spot; right where an intrepid explorer would think they have a moment to breathe. The fool!
You never feel lost or unsure of where to go, and levels are mixed so that where one might require you to hop across the temple's traps as fast as possible, another might necessitate a slower, more deliberate approach. 1,001 Spikes keeps you on your toes, and you never get comfortable or feel like you know what you're doing, at least not until you've had a few trial-and-error runs and memorized exactly where and when the various traps will try to end your life.
While running, jumping and skipping through a veritable temple of doom in 1,001 Spikes feels natural, there are some puzzling aspects that don't quite validate their existence. The game starts you off with 1,001 lives – get it? – but the counter may as well have been infinite. See, should you run out of lives, you ... get three more. You don't lose progress or have to start over, so why have 1,001 lives in the first place? Sure it matches the title, but otherwise this limitation feels arbitrary.
Another questionable inclusion is the option to skip a level. If you're having too much trouble with an area and want to move on, all you need do is skip it, and you'll be transported to the next area. Mind you, this feature is not an instant win. If you skip to the end of the game, you'll be greeted with a wall of text explaining that Aban was never heard from again instead of the real ending, and you won't unlock any of the game's extras.
This raises a question: Why even have the option at all? If it's meant to be a mercy to less-skilled players, it fails because levels that have been skipped must be re-visited and completed in order to properly beat the game. There's no immediate penalty such as expending lives, and even denying players an ending doesn't feel like much of a penalty considering the game's narrative is otherwise constrained to an opening cinematic.
The real crime of the level skip however is that it feels like the game cutting its legs out from under itself. The trade-off to 1,001 Spikes' difficulty should be the sense of reward players feel at completing it; the game even says as much in the tutorial area when a mouse tells Aban, "The harder the journey, the greater the joy of success." Yet, if players can skip a level at any time, the sense of accomplishment that comes from making it further in the game is diminished. Just knowing the option is there, even if you don't use it, kills 1,001 Spikes' pacing and turns levels into chores instead of challenges.
You can distract yourself from the Sisyphean nature of your plight with local multiplayer modes (except on the 3DS and Vita versions). The only one available from the start is reminiscent of the original Mario Bros, where players try to hold onto more coins than their fellow explorers, but these bouts are short-lived and not very exciting. The real draw is the single-player quest, which executes on its premise in a less-than-perfect way.
There is nothing merciful about 1,001 Spikes. Each level is a slow burn of agony and anticipation, as you're never more than a hop, jump and a skip away from death. There's a good, even-handed mix of levels that require careful timing and thoughtful strategy as well as levels that require split-second decisions and lightning-fast reflexes. 1,001 Spikes is superbly crafted, but unfortunately, this makes the lives system and level skip options – ways in which the game undermines itself – all the more disappointing.
Like a lost treasure hidden deep in an ancient temple, there's a great experience waiting to be found within 1,001 Spikes. Finding that nugget of enjoyable play, however, might just kill you. Or at least your patience.
This review is based on a pre-release Steam download of 1,001 Spikes, provided by Nicalis. Images: Nicalis.
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