Review | 11/13/2012 at 1:00 PM

Pid Co-Op Review

The Dark Souls of platformers

I’ve been a huge proponent of Pid ever since first seeing it in action at E3. With classic 2D platforming gameplay mixed with a unique method of locomotion, stark and interesting artwork, a jazzy soundtrack, and not least of all: some of the developers of all-time favorite Bionic Commando: Rearmed behind it, Pid had every opportunity to win my undying devotion. How sad then, that it fails to capitalize on all that potential. Kung Fu Strike may be the worst game I’ve played this year, but Pid is undoubtedly the most disappointing.

One of the things Pid does pretty well is craft a unique story and atmosphere. Yes, the introduction and ending are told by small and relatively unimpressive still pictures, but you’ll meet a lot of NPCs over the course of the game whose text-based dialogue fleshes out the narrative. The game’s world is populated by living robots who are often quite endearing despite their relatively minimal dialogue.

When a space bus drops dozing young school kid Ness, I mean Kurt off on a mysterious planet, he immediately sets about looking for a way to get home. But the buses haven’t picked anyone up from the planet in 300 years, since the king and queen vanished without a trace. As Kurt searches for clues and a path off-world, a mysterious assailant stalks him from the shadows.

The setup had me intrigued the whole way through, but the payoff, while fairly unusual, didn’t quite live up to my own lofty hopes. The most disappointing aspect for me was the absence of animated cut scenes like the one we saw in the ‘Hold-up Hustle’ trailer a few months ago. Why create such a great vignette and leave it out of the game itself? Also, the English translation of the story is rough in several spots, with run-on sentences aplenty and even confusion between its and it’s on one occasion.

When you first start the game, Kurt can only run and jump like any other platformer character. Before long, he picks up a mysterious gem that allows him to throw beams of light horizontally or downward. After they strike a surface, these beams will carry Kurt along like a stream of air, allowing him to cross distances he could never jump on his own. Only two beams can be onscreen at a time; the newest one always replaces the oldest one, and they disappear after a few seconds anyway.

Using the beams to scale seemingly unclimbable walls or safely navigate a path laden with spikes can be satisfying, though often it’s just challenging. The level design generally leans towards cruel rather than fun. Jumps that require pixel perfection are particularly infuriating, though late-game traps involving lasers also do much to annoy. Luckily Kurt has unlimited lives, the only setback of death being a return to the previous checkpoint. Said checkpoints are actually very liberal, though occasionally you’ll have to clear more than a single room before reaching the next one.

Another part of the challenge stems from how Kurt must deal with enemies. Certain enemies are affected by his beams of light and can be pushed into spikes – an amusing but rare occurrence. Kurt does at least discover two kinds of bombs along his journey which can be used to defeat most any type of sentry robot. But bombs are limited use and you can’t count on finding more after depleting your supply, so in many situations you’ll just have to play it conservative and avoid enemies. To make things worse, several sections of the game have endlessly respawning flying enemies to deal with. In these parts it often feels like you’re being killed because the designers disliked you, not that you did anything wrong.

Somebody forgot to playtest the Crook boss fight, and we players suffer for it.

In keeping with the generally frustrating nature of the game, most of the boss fights are lengthy and infuriating ordeals. I knew something was wrong when I reached the second boss, the Crook. It’s ironic that might & Delight chose to highlight that battle with its own trailer, because the fight’s design is severely undercooked. To damage the Crook, you have to get him to suck up the golden bombs he occasionally drops, all while avoiding jumping enemies, other bombs’ explosions, and bullets. Once he sucks up a golden bomb, you’re supposed to use a super jump item to reach a spring pad, which then bounces you over his head, which serves as his weak spot.

In a properly designed game, the player would land on top of the head and get a few hits in before being thrown off. Instead, the springs bounce you clear past his head. As such, you’ll be lucky to get even one hit in after several attempts. It takes something like 8 hits to kill him, so the fight is a tedious process of reaching the point where the spring pads appear, missing, and trying again. It took me more than half an hour to clear, but I’ve heard some players struggle for over an hour.

As if all of Pid’s issues with enemies, bosses, and environmental traps didn’t raise enough ire on their own, the collectible/Achievement system is the worst in recent memory. Let’s face it, nobody even likes collectibles. The only reason we seek them out is for the Achievements or Trophies. They change the way you play the game, forcing you to either stick to a guide or spend way too much time exploring every nook and cranny instead of just enjoying the game. And if you don’t use a guide, you’ll probably just miss one or more of them anyway.

Pid has not one, not two, but three different kinds of collectibles to seek: souvenirs, hidden constellations, and secret areas. None would be particularly offensive, if not for the linear nature of the game. Pid may look like a Metroidvania game, but it’s actually completely linear. Once you reach a new checkpoint (which aren’t marked), there is usually no way to return to the previous area. Keep in mind that there’s also no way to know whether an area contains any of the three types of collectibles, other than relying on the online guides that are only just know nearing completion.

It’s entirely possible and likely that you’ll miss a collectible and have zero chance of going back to get it. The only solution would be to start a new game – and it takes eight or more hours just to finish the game. Why the developers forced linearity onto a design that doesn’t benefit from it, I’ll never know. Some of these same people worked on the disappointing retail Bionic Commando, a game that many also criticized for its missable collectibles. Might & Delight repeated an easily avoidable mistake.

Local 2-player mode starts out a bit confusingly, as when Kurt lands on the planet, the second person has no character to control. After a few moments, one of characters who would be an NPC in single-player introduces itself as Audrey and joins up with Kurt. Sadly, the second player cannot save his or her progress or earn Achievements. Co-op games are treated as a separate slot on the main player’s save file.

Co-op could have improved the game’s steep difficulty, if not for one inexplicable decision. In local 2-player games, each character can only throw one beam of light instead of two. Remember, the already cruel level designs often require the player to use both beams simultaneously. Well, with another person in the mix and only one beam each, navigating even relatively simple areas becomes incredibly unintuitive. Most of the time, you’re likely to kill each other by firing a new beam at the wrong moment, making your old one disappear. If either player dies, the remaining player only has one beam to work with. The deceased player will reappear at the next checkpoint.

These problems would have been solved by allowing both players to fire two beams each, just like in single-player. That would actually alleviate the difficulty of many platforming sections since you’d have four simultaneous beams to work with instead of two. Sadly, the existing implementation just makes a nut-kickingly tough game even harder. I’d be interested in seeing the metrics for completed co-op games. My guess is that the number of people to finish co-op will be virtually nonexistent. Had co-op been online, then at least difficulty hounds would have an easier time finding like-minded masochists to play with.

Pid should have been one of the best 2D platformers of the year. I love the game’s world, its inhabitants, and the beautiful art style. It’s even fun on occasion. But those moments are surrounded by such sheer unhappiness and frustration,souring a great deal of of the experience. The ill-conceived co-op mode doesn’t do it any favors either. There is a good game somewhere beneath Pid’s layers of obtuse game design, but you'll probably remember the pain it produces more than the pleasure.

Editor's note: The Co-Optimus review of Pid is based on the XBLA version of the game, which was provided by the publisher.