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Review: BLACKHOLE Complete Edition

The cold, unforgiving vacuum of outer space shows no mercy to those that brave its depths. Along with its promises of infinite new worlds and untold wonders, there are bound to be more than a few cosmic horrors lurking around out there, just waiting to make our worst sci-fi nightmare a reality. Blackhole, in fact, is named after of the more terrifying phenomena out there in the inky blackness - gigantic, invisible eat-holes that can consume light. Now, while I don't know much about black holes, I do know a fair bit about platforming games, so let's dig in and see if this one bends expectations in its favour, or just plain sucks.

Title: BLACKHOLE Complete Edition
Developer: FiolaSoft Studio
Platform: PC/Mac/Linux
Release Date: June 16th, 2016
Players: 1
MSRP: USD$13.99
Disclosure: Review copy provided by publisher

Blackhole Complete Edition is a repackaging of the original 2015 puzzle-platforming game from Prague-based developer FiolaSoft Studio. Along with the original game, players will receive all previously released expansion DLC, a digital artbook and soundtrack, along with a handful of other goodies. The game itself follows the crew of the Endera, who have been tasked with the incredibly dangerous-sounding mission of sealing a series of black holes. The player character, somewhat fittingly, is the bloke who gets the coffee - in fact, the first tutorial has them delivering a cup of the black stuff to the captain. Not long after, though, the ship is pulled into a black hole, surprising absolutely nobody. After a less-than-perfect landing, the coffee rat emerges from the wreckage to find themselves stranded in a truly alien environment. With the help of the Endera's sassy A.I., they must traverse this strange and dangerous "Entity" in order to rescue the crew, repair the ship, and hopefully get back home.

Blackhole 1It doesn't take a big crew to close black holes, apparently.

Blackhole's gameplay starts off simple, but it quickly becomes apparent that this is not going to be a easy mission. The game is laid out as a series of hub worlds usually containing ten levels each, along with NPCs and a variety of collectibles such as audio logs. The levels themselves are where the meat of the game lies, as well as where the plot-advancing MacGuffins known as "Selfburns" lay hidden. To repair the Endera, the player will have to gather as many of these little glowing orbs as possible, and to do that they'll have to get their head around Blackhole's mind-bending gravity-switching gimmick.

Strategically placed throughout all the levels are glowing, pulsating patches of white energy. Upon making contact with these, the level rotates, meaning that particular surface is now the ground. It's a simple enough gimmick, but in tandem with precision platforming and a selection of hazards and objects unique to each world, the difficulty curve goes through the roof fairly quickly. In order to succeed, the player will need to be able to think outside the box and make sense of the multiple perspectives any one level will provide. Acquiring some of the Selfburns takes a lot of experimentation and foresight, as the answer isn't always as simple as flipping the level a certain way and jumping across a few pits. This isn't quite a masocore platformer in the vein of Super Meat Boy or Fenix Furia. Quick reflexes are certainly required, as is the case with most platformers, but Blackhole encourages players to get creative in their attempts rather than memorize a single, optimal route.

Blackhole 2Lasers are, surprisingly, some of the least annoying hazards.

Despite the game's unforgiving approach to difficulty, however, it is a fair and rewarding experience if approached with a keen eye and some patience. The levels are all self-contained, so players won't have to worry about finding a certain tool in one to unlock something in another. If a single level contains three Selfburns, it is possible to obtain all three before leaving the level. The game still introduces new mechanics with each world to keep things fresh, too. Players will have to deal with Blackhole's interesting take on fluid dynamics in one world, and figure out which generator to disable in order to turn off a series of deadly lasers in another. Frustration due to the game's high difficulty is very likely, but at no point in the reviewer's time with the game did it seem unfair. Getting one's head around the gravity switching is the first step, but good positioning and platforming skills are just as vital as in any challenging platformer.

Blackhole is a nice game to look at, featuring varied, well-drawn backgrounds that set the mood for each world perfectly. The design of the levels themselves is somewhat par for the course, with tiled textures and world-specific decorations doing most of the hard work. The game is easy on the eyes, and deaths to unseen hazards were uncommon in the reviewer's time with the game. Certain hiccups did arise, however, with the hitboxes of certain hazards, causing player death when clearly no contact had been made with the player's sprite. Certain objects, like sliding bulkheads in another level, also appeared to fling the player character around even though they were simply standing beside it. In certain areas, Selfburns can also be rather hard to spot, although the game does make a concession regarding this, allowing the player to bring up helpful indicator arrows at the touch of a button. While the game is certainly good-looking, then, there were times when deaths could have been avoided given a bit more clarity.

Blackhole 3The boss battles are a grand exercise in passive-aggression.

Blackhole is no slouch in the audio department either, with a fully-voiced script and weighty sound effects, all backed by a remarkably good synth-driven soundtrack. Each of the game's world has its own musical theme, and each track manages to stand out and provide a unique atmosphere. The soundtrack's many themes also come together as a whole, invoking the sense of wonder and uncertainty one would expect when exploring a world on the other end of a black hole. The dialogue is all well-performed, which is ideal given there is a quite lot of it. Characters are never short on things to say, and the game insists on the player hearing them out, with hub world objectives often direction them to the nearest NPC with a fresh batch of zingers.

This insistence, however, leads to this reviewer's only major concern Blackhole - the writing. While the voice acting is on point for the most part, the substance is a bit shaky. Granted, it's all very tongue-in-cheek and obviously played for laughs, but quite a bit of it reads as if it trying really, really hard to be funny, and it doesn't always hit the mark. The game is at its best when it keeps the humour low-key - a Prince of Persia reference here, or a nod to Tetris there, for example. Where it falls on its face, though, is that there's just too much talking by default. There's a bit too much reliance on over-the-top, "wacky" dialogue and odd, dated references - to put it simply, it's been about a decade since Chuck Norris jokes and Portal quotes were topical. Add to the equation that character keep up the inane chatter while you're in the middle of a tense platforming gauntlet, and the routine gets old fast. It should be noted, however, that the game does feature a "narrative switch" that allows players to cut out a great deal of the unnecessary dialogue, as well as an option to mute voices entirely. Small blessings, but there they are.

Blackhole 4Environments on the tail end of a black hole are surprisingly varied.

Script woes aside, Blackhole still remains a relatively charming, well-made puzzle-platformer. The clever level design centered around the gravity-switching mechanic carries the game well, as well as its efforts to keep things fresh with new gimmicks in every world. The game is challenging, but in a more cerebral way that your average indie platformer. With the developer claiming a good ten hours worth of gameplay in the base game alone, there's more than enough to keep one busy for the asking price. This reviewer will still insist that a fair few of the characters really need to put a sock in it, though.

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Audio engineer, sound designer, composer, writer. Hosts a burning passion for the games and audio circuitry of old. Die-hard shmup/STG addict.
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